Beer Colonialism

Though it seems frequently debated which country possessed the worst colonial policy—it appears that Portugal is currently the frontrunner—less common are inquiries into which had the best colonial policy. As such, I nominate the German Empire. A late starter to the colonial game, recently united Germany was hungering for international prestige and respect, which at the time was most easily acquired via the possession of overseas colonies. Private colonization efforts from the middle of the nineteenth century were eclipsed by state-supported efforts under Chancellor Otto von Bismarck in the 1880s. In this “scramble” for territory, Germany acquired colonies in Africa (all or part of modern-day Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, Togo, Ghana, Cameroon, Nigeria, and Namibia) and in the Pacific (all or part of modern-day Papua New Guinea, Palau, Nauru, the Marshall, Solomon, Caroline, Mariana Islands, and Western Samoa) and even a region in China, Kiaochow. Under German rule, cities mimicking those in Central Europe were built, infrastructure—especially rail—was rapidly constructed throughout each colony, and modern German-style school systems were established to educate the natives. Even some colonies, such as Samoa and Togoland, quickly became self-sustaining and prosperous.* One might say, “Sure, but didn’t the British do this as well?” Indeed, but the United Kingdom was missing one colonial policy priority of the German Empire: the establishment of breweries to supply the colonies with good German-style beer.

Qingdao, called Tsingtau by the Germans, was the administrative capital of a concession the Germans managed to wrest from the Chinese on the Shandong Peninsula. Acquired by them only in 1898, German authorities set out to build a modern European-style city from which they would manage trade with the Orient. Churches, offices, and an impressive governor’s mansion copied from a German palace were all built and remain to this day on Jiangsu Lu. Most lasting however, was to be a brewery established in 1903. Originally named Germania-Brauerei (Germania Brewery), it was the second brewery set up in China (after Harbin Brewery, in Manchuria), and supplied all of Kiaochow with German lager made according to the Reinheitsgebot (Purity Law) of 1516. German-control—of its colony and its brewery—was not to last, however, as World War I brought an opportunistic Japanese invasion and occupation of Kiaochow. Another war, World War II, would lead to Chinese ownership of the brewery. Renamed Tsingtao, the brewery was nationalized under the Chinese Communists and remained a state-owned enterprise until 1990, when it was privatized. Most startlingly, the beer there was always brewed under the Reinheitsgebot while a state-run enterprise; it was private control and not the Cultural Revolution, that would lead to its abandonment. Today, Tsingtao Brewery controls a large share of both domestic and international beer consumption, including being the most popular Chinese beer in the U.S. An amazing saga, and one that would not be possible without the brief German colonial control of Qingdao.

But China is not the only nation to benefit from the building of breweries by German imperialists. German Southwest Africa, today known as Namibia, was also to become a major producer of German-style lager. In 1904, four small breweries had been established—Kronen Brauerei, Omaruru Brauerei, Kleine Windhoek Brauerei, and Felsenkeller Brauerei—in the administrative center of Windhoek and the port of Swakopmund. Though conquest in World War I by South African forces ended German control of South-West Africa, thousands of German settlers remained, and two of them, Carl List and Hermann Ohlthaver, purchased and consolidated the breweries into South West Breweries. This firm in turn merged with Hansa Brauerei in 1967 to make South West Breweries the sole local beer producer. Full Namibian independence in 1990 brought a corresponding name change to Namibia Breweries Limited. Today the firm produces three beer brands that follow the Reinheitsgebot—Windhoek, Hansa, and Tafel—and even brews an Urbock beer, something that was not easy to get in the U.S. until fairly recently. Windhoek—the best African beer I personally have ever tasted—is distributed worldwide today, and looks to have a bright future in further expansion. All of this was, of course, enabled by the original German colonization.

So, remember, next time you drink a Tsingtao or a Windhoek—be it in a bar or just at home making some funny sketches—be sure to raise a toast to Kaiser Wilhelm I and Otto von Bismarck, the pioneers of beer colonialism!

*And yes, rebellions in the colonies were crushed with extraordinary brutality; though this should be recognized and condemned, this fact has little use to the volid thesis of this article.

1 comment:

  1. But forget not the cruel Dutch colonial expedition who enslaved the native English and Irish population of Mt Elbert, CO under the leadership of Grand Duke Coors III...