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Der Sternewirth: A German Tradition.|
In keeping with true German gemutlickheit, the typical brewmaster of the 19th century welcomed visitors into his brewery with open arms. He was, after all, proud of his establishment, and loved nothing more than to give the grand tour. That being the case, virtually every American brewery of the 1800s was equipped with what came to be known as Der Sternewirth, a sort of hospitality center where the beer flowed freely.
In compiling a general description of typical brewery architecture, the authors of 100 Years of Brewing (1903) concluded by writing, "Lastly in the neighborhood of the racking room, or in the wash-house, the visitor to the brewery finds the place where he can refresh himself with a drink of the product the manufacture of which has now been followed from beginning to end, a place found in every American brewery, and called Der Sternewirth."
Indeed, many beermakers considered Der Sternewirth to be one of the most important aspects of the brewery. For example, New York City's Hell Gate Brewery (owned by George Ehret -- for many years the nation's largest brewer) offered its guests an especially elborate Sternewirth, or Bierstube, as it was also known. After touring Ehret's Hell Gate Brewery in 1891, one visitor recorded his observations as follows:
"From the second floor of this building a spacious corridor leads to what visitors and guests are apt to consider the most interesting part of the brewery, namely, the Bierstube, or literally translated, beer-room. Hospitality is a virtue which every brewer seems to practice as if it were a duty from which no departure can be tolerated. The custom of entertaining all visitors, though they may be entire strangers, and that other good usage of furnishing free beer to brewery employees appear to have been introduced by the brewing monks of the middle-ages, when nearly every monastery was a hospitium, a place of entertainment for the hospes (strangers), from which Latin word our term hospitality is derived. At all events, whatever their origin, these customs are to this day scrupulously observed in every American brewery, and if there is not in every one of them a Bierstube, separately fitted up for guests, there surely is in all of them a Sternewirth, where beer is served to employees and visitors.
"The Bierstube in Hell Gate Brewery is what Frenchmen would style a bijou; a very large square room decorated and furnished in genuine old German fashion, filled with quaint cabinets, high-backed chairs and solid oaken tables, crudely carved and ornamented with antique drinking vessels, and many rare objects of great interest, for which an antiquarian might envy their possessor. The walls are covered with suggestive paintings, on which falls a warm light, softened by multi-colored panes of glass in the roof and walls. Many verses apostrophizing the drinker, or relating to beer, beer-making, malt, hops, drinking-customs and the like, are distributed all over the room, usually on scrolls underneath pictures, or placed so as to fill up artistically the interstices between the mural decorations. Everything tends to render the visitor reluctant to leave the place, and this evidently is the impression which the host intends to make upon his visitor; in fact, a verse on one of the walls says as much."*
As Ehret's visitor notes, the typical Sternewirth was not exclusively a place for visitors, but was also very heavily frequented by the brewery's workers. Free beer on the job was, after all, a time-honored institution not only in breweries, but in many 19th century factories where German immigrants constituted a large percentage of the work force.
*Quote from Twenty-Five Years of Brewing by George Ehret, 1891.