Germans Used to Drink an Astounding Amount of Beer

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It was not uncommon to drink the equivalent of *50* cans in a day. And yet society rolled along.

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Our august publication has long had the propensity to print notes from lands far from Boston (or D.C.) that enumerate the particularities and peccadilloes of another locale. These dispatches take many forms, but I like the town visit the best. Looking for stories on the election of 1864, I came across a bubbly article filed from Munich in August of that year, "Head-Quarters of Beer Drinking." It tabulates the region's beer production and concludes that every man, woman, and child could have had a quart of beer a day. Some had far, far, far more: 

But some drink none, others little; a man is scarcely reckoned with real beer-drinkers until he drinks six masses, twenty-four of our common tumblers; ten masses are not uncommon; twenty to thirty masses -- eighty to one hundred and twenty of our dinner-glasses -- are drunk by some, and on a wager even much more.

To translate this into numbers that you might be familiar with, here's a concordance: 

  • 6 masses = 16 cans of beer
  • 10 masses = 27 cans
  • 20 masses = 53 cans
  • 30 masses = 80 cans

These numbers put any Raiders game or Princeton reunion to shame. Not even the most dedicated beer pong playing frat boy could drink 50 beers. Most people in the town, from the highest to the lowest classes, were drunk. 

And yet, Munich society seemed to function quite well, despite what must have been the most unbelievable hangovers known to man. Our correspondent concludes that really, German drunknenness isn't half as bad as the American variety, mostly on account of the weakness of the beer relative to spirits: 

I should, indeed, fear fatal effects from drinking half the quantity of water which some of them take of beer. The drunkenness produced by beer is at least a very different thing from that produced by distilled spirits. The one may be a stupor, the other is a brief and sudden insanity. Beer holds no one captive by such spell as that which seizes some natures on the first taste of ardent spirits, throwing them beyond their own control until their week's frolic is ended. The cases are rare, if they ever occur, in which the beer-drinker is enticed from the prosecution of his business, if he has one, and beer furnishes the main substitute for business to those who have no other employment. If it causes men to pursue their avocations lazily or stupidly, it does not cause the irregularities and neglects of American inebriation. Cases of pawning clothes and impoverishing families from the appetite for beer may occur, just as from laziness, but not as from the bewitching appetite for ardent spirits.

In any case, it's kind of nuts that the people who brought you on-time trains also managed to crack 30 beers a night. 

Update: I had a couple questions about the strength of the German beer at the time. I can't say precisely what the average ABV of a German beer was in 1864, but several texts, like this one from 1909, seem to indicate it was pretty much what you'd expect: somewhere around 4 percent, or between a light and regular Bud. And even if the beers were "light" at say 2.5 percent alcohol, that'd still be a hell of a lot of beer.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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