For millennia, we were primarily an agricultural people. The ebb and flow of the seasons determined much of the rhythm of human culture. In our developed world, agriculture still occupies a lot of land, but the space it occupies in our collective psyche has shrunk almost to nothing.
Technology had yet to triumph over nature, and brewers were forced to adapt their beers and brewing practices to suit the season at hand.
In the urban world, it’s easy to forget that agriculture is a dicey, exhausting and often tedious business. Success is never assured, and no matter what the effort, disaster always looms. Getting the last kernel of grain into the barn is the triumphal culmination of a whole year’s worth of worry and sweat. Such a supremely elating moment deserves celebration, and what could be better than a well-brewed beer to preside over the harvest festivities. As one old poem goes: “And free beer clearly/ like no other removes the thirst.”
Originally, all beer was seasonal. Technology had yet to triumph over nature, and brewers were forced to adapt their beers and brewing practices to suit the season at hand. In many times and places, the load of bacteria in the warm air prohibited brewing in summer. This meant that the autumn’s beer must be brewed in the spring and stored until needed. Fortuitously, brewers found they could use the remainder of last year’s malt and hops to make their beer beefy enough to stand up to a summer’s worth of aging.
In the fall, a number of factors come into play: the well-earned need to celebrate the harvest; the crisp, cool days; and a general feeling of plenty, so well symbolized by the cornucopia. A harvest beer filled the bill, as well as the mug. Such beers were iconic and much beloved, as evidenced in an East Prussian poem by Ernst Gardey:
O wonderful harvest beer,
You full celebration of freedom and desire!
Because of your beer tap, humans
Are weaned as babies from the breast!
Today, we are all familiar with Oktoberfest, or märzen beer, brewed in March for celebratory consumption in the fall. There is, however, another brewing tradition that has now all but faded—Erntebier, which translates simply as “harvest beer.” This is undoubtedly a very old and highly localized product, with brewers each producing their own variant.
By the end of the 19th century in northern Germany, erntebier had a somewhat cohesive stylistic identity, at least in Lower Saxony. Max Delbrück, in his 1910 Illustriertes Brauerei-Lexicon, describes erntebier as being a top-fermenting beer of 1049 to 1057 original gravity (12 to 14 degrees Plato), “very dark” in color, highly hopped, and lagered for several months at cool temperatures.
This sounds a lot like Düsseldorf altbier or the famous seasonal specialty, Sticke. The latter is simply a stronger version of regular altbier, brewed and served twice a year as a thank you to the breweries’ regular customers.
It is possible that erntebier is similarly just a dolled-up version of the regular small beer. We may never know for sure, but references to erntebier invariably describe it as “strong,” even at the gravities shown above, so that seems like a reasonable possibility. Geographically, Lower Saxony is just to the north of the North Rhine-Westphalia state where Düsseldorf is situated, so it would not be surprising to find similarities between alt and erntebier.
However beloved this beer was at one time, a German book on top-fermenting beers (Schönfeld) in 1938 makes no mention of erntebier, so we can assume it had pretty much vanished by that time. Or at least the name had.
Modern-day interpretations of erntebier have popped up in several places in Germany, but interesting as this trend is, the beers have little to do with the historical style described by Professor Delbrück. In Franconia, northern Bavaria, Braugasthof Grosch brews a light version at 3.3 percent alcohol by volume. The Alte Klosterbrauerei of Vierzehnheilegen (also in Franconia) makes a “three-grain” pale lager of similar weight; Schlössbrauerei Maxlrainer in southeast Bavaria brews an even lighter one at 2.3 percent ABV. Surely these weak beers are nobody’s muse. Vogel, in Karlsruhe, in Baden-Württemberg brews a 5.3 percent golden lager under the erntebier name.
So, with no help from the modern erntebier brewers, we’re left with having to make an informed guess as far as a 19th century recipe goes. In general, dark beers of old tended to use a larger amount of colored malt rather than all pale (or pils) malt, tinted by a small amount of very dark malt.
Personally, I find that the old way gives a fuller, more complex flavor and aroma, so we’ll be using a good deal of Munich malt. We will also be using a small amount of German röstmalz, a very smooth type of chocolate malt, just to give it a slight roasty kick. Hops in the 19th century would have been the traditional sort, so let’s employ the soft, smooth bitterness of Hallertau Hersbrucker hops.