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The Störtebeker Saga

A résumé of a legendary figure from German folklore and the brewery that bears his name, set against the backdrop of the Hanseatic League.

One of my all-time favourite brews is, without a doubt, Störtebeker’s Atlantik-Ale. I first had the pleasure of sampling this delightfully fresh, yet decisively dry, free interpretation of an English pale ale several years ago in Berlin, on the evening after a memorable day that has been previously chronicled. As it is not readily available at supermarkets and liquor stores here in the Netherlands, I have only been granted the joy of indulging in the “incredible interplay of lemon, grapefruit, and melon tastes with a hint of bitterness” that is the Atlantik-Ale ˗ in the words of the brewers themselves ˗ on two separate occasions since.

The first time round was some six months after that weekend in Berlin, when a former colleague and fellow wayfarer on said trip notified me that he had made a beer run across the border to Germany right before the world went into lock-down. I could not believe my luck when I saw the crates containing half litre bottles of Störtebeker Bernstein-Weizen and Hanse-Porter stacked up inside his miniscule garage! Apparently his father-in-law is a big fan too.

My friend, he himself having fallen under the spell of the Atlantik-Ale years before, regretfully informed me that there had been no crates of the crowning achievement available but that he had seized as many loose half litre bottles as he could instead. Fully aware that this was no chance to be missed, especially considering the state of the world at the time, I filled up my bike bags with Atlantik-Ales and Hanse-Porters and, balancing a full crate of Bernstein-Weizens on the back rack, laboriously proceeded on home. Despite the best of intentions to savour my stash, it would be depleted within two months.

Crate of Störtebeker Bernstein-Weizen

Although I regard the fruity and sparkling Bernstein-Weizen as one of the most outstanding wheat beers I have tried to this day, and I do appreciate the malty, sweet sensations embodied in the deep mahogany pour of the Hanse-Porter as well, neither of them get my mouth watering like the Atlantik-Ale does. It was not until this past winter, almost a year and a half after my all too fleeting flow of Störtebeker had run dry, that I was reacquainted with the company flagship.

My dear friend Tobias ˗ who is slowly but surely becoming a regular fixture in these chronicles and was also present when I had my very first Atlantik-Ale ˗ had been considerate enough to pick up four half litre bottles of the good stuff whilst on an errand somewhere beyond the eastern frontier. We shared one in a successful attempt to brighten up an otherwise dreary November evening, the others were saved for the forthcoming festive season.

Considering its origins, it is both telling and reassuring that Störtebeker is so easily obtainable as soon as one enters Germany’s western fringes. Brewed in the north-eastern city of Stralsund, once one of the most prosperous members of the medieval Hanseatic League, its range of fourteen beers represents the essence of a hinterland located closer to the Polish border than to Berlin or Hamburg (not to mention Cologne or Düsseldorf, two major cities situated roughly 50 km from the Dutch border and some 700 km from the Störtebeker brewery).

Störtebeker hails from a land under constant duress of northern winds coming in from the Baltic Sea, where Slavic as well as Scandinavian influences start becoming more prominent, and the mystic, melancholic melodies of Christian Löffler were forged. A land of despondency, where the average person is arguably worse off than they were before the German reunification in 1990. But that is now, and it hasn’t always been that way.

Germany’s first great beer boom took place in its Hanseatic bastions along the Baltic coast during the 13th century. Largely initiated and controlled by a series of North German towns ˗ most notably Lübeck and Hamburg ˗ and German merchant communities abroad that held central positions in the trade between the Baltic and north-western Europe, the Hanseatic League strove to protect mutual trading interests in an era of lawlessness.

The foundations of a formal alliance securing common action against robbers and pirates were agreed upon by Lübeck and Hamburg as early as 1210, setting a precedent for other such agreements with the likes of Rostock, Wismar, and Stralsund. In the meantime, German merchants had helped establish trading and transshipment centres further to the east in places such as Visby, Danzig (Gdansk), Riga, and Reval (Tallinn). Countless brewhouses were concurrently initiated up and down the Baltic shoreline during this period, with over 220 brewing rights being issued in Stralsund alone!

This was, of course, an era in which drinking water was generally unfit for consumption and beer was considered to be a basic foodstuff. The brewing process had long been a part of everyday life, commonly carried out by women within the confines of their homes. With the rise of the Hanseatic League, beer became a much sought-after trading good and brewing activities gradually took on a more professional dimension.

The critical factor in this development was the application of a raw ingredient deemed essential in contemporary times: Hops. While the inhabitants of the Lower Rhine, Westphalia, and Eastphalia regions had taken to using a potentially toxic blend of herbs containing thorn apple or similar ingredients for the sake of brewing so-called Grutbier, the northerners had drawn upon Slavic traditions to concoct their own hopped variant.

Aside from generating a typically bitter aroma, the use of hops also provided a pivotal benefit in terms of quality. Due to the anti-bacterial properties of lupulin, a naturally occurring substance in hops, North German beers allowed for longer storage and thus remained fresh on voyages lasting up to several weeks. Hence, beer exports to Denmark and Norway played a key role in Stralsund’s success; records show that ships from its port even sailed as far as England packed with barrels and malt.

The quality of a batch was primarily judged by its strength, i.e. the amount of malt it contained. As beer was still regarded, above all, a basic foodstuff, it was common practice to re-use the mash several times. The first volume – so-called Starkbier (strong beer) – was intended for export, the second output for daily consumption by local men, while the thin liquid that was left after a third running was consumed as beer soup or as breakfast with a slice of bread. The bitter pilseners and ales of today draw on this tradition, and the age-old German saying “the further north you travel, the more bitter the beer becomes” still holds true.

By 1265 all towns adhering to the “law of Lübeck” had agreed on common legislation concerning the protection of merchants and their wares. These strongholds of the Baltic trade soon forced their way westwards, entering areas where Rhineland merchants had long been dominant and quickly securing the commercial privileges formerly reserved to their predecessors. The Rhinelanders eventually joined their rivals in the creation of a common Hanse (medieval German word for guild, or association) in London as well as Bruges.

This allowed the main currents of northern trade to run smoothly between the economically advanced and populous West ˗ with its large markets for raw materials, capacity to produce manufactured goods, and access to the products of the Mediterranean and Asia ˗ and the vast outback of modern-day Russia and Poland, where there was grain, timber, tar, charcoal, and wax, among others, to be procured. Furthermore, Swedish copper and iron ore became an accessible commodity, herring was traded as far south as the Alps, and the Norwegian production of whale oil and cod was monopolised from a Kontore (commercial enclave) in Bergen.

At the close of the 13th century the vast majority of north German towns, trading associations, and bases for foreign commerce were bound to a single league that encompassed nearly every port from Bremen to Reval. During its apotheosis, the total number of participating towns surpassed 100. The need to defend existing ventures against growing competition began to outweigh the desire to organise entry into new and expanding markets from the middle of the 14th century onward, and the combined efforts of the league were focused on the organisation of economic, political, and military resistance against all opposition to the existing Hanseatic dominance. Methods included bribery of local officials, threats of blockades and economic embargoes and, in extreme cases, organised warfare. It was also at the height of the league’s supremacy that the beginnings of the Störtebeker saga came to unfold.

Klaus Störtebeker, also known as Nikolaus Storzenbecher, is arguably Germany’s most famous pirate. Born in the Hanseatic town of Wismar in 1360, supposedly, the man’s life is shrouded in myth and legend. As the reputed leader of a group of privateers known as die Vitalienbrüder (Victual Brothers), his men were originally commissioned in 1392 by supporters of the Swedish crown to fight the Danish ˗ who enjoyed the backing of Lübeck in this particular conflict ˗ and break through their naval blockades in order to supply the besieged city of Stockholm with food and other provisions. As most other Hanseatic towns had no desire for a Danish victory, the Victual Brothers were able to retreat to a number of safe harbours if and when necessary, including Stralsund.

When the war between Denmark and Sweden had come to an end, the Victual Brothers renamed themselves Likedeelers (literal translation: equal sharers) and continued to capture merchant vessels for their own account. Whether the name refers to the equal division of raiding booty among themselves or, in contrast to the Victual Brothers, their tendency to share that booty with the poorest of the coastal populations is anyone’s guess. It was at this stage of his life that Störtebeker acquired his own colourful nom de guerre. Meaning “empty the mug in one gulp” in Low German, the moniker refers to his alleged ability to down a four litre tankard of beer in one go.

Despite clearly being a man of considerable talent, it is not until 1398 or thereabouts that Störtebeker truly entered public consciousness. After being expelled from a stronghold on the island of Gotland, the Likedeelers ramped up their operations to a whole new level. The marauding spree would continue until a Hamburgian fleet caught up with Störtebeker and his crew near Heligoland in 1401.

According to some stories, his ship had been disabled by a traitor who had cast molten lead into the links of the chain that controlled the vessel’s rudder. Having finally capitulated after a battle that some say lasted a full three days, Störtebeker and his squad were brought to Hamburg and tried for piracy. It is said that he offered a chain of gold long enough to enclose the entire city in exchange for his life and freedom. This attempt proved unfruitful, and all 74 men were sentenced to death.

The most popular of the Störtebeker sagas relates to the execution itself. At this spectacle attended by a huge crowd of onlookers, the man, the myth, the legend, is claimed to have wrested a promise from the mayor to pardon those of his crew whom he could walk past without a head atop his body. Following his subsequent beheading, Störtebeker’s body arose and strode past eleven of his men before being tripped by the outstretched foot of the executioner. The eleven were executed along with the rest anyway.

When asked if he was not worn out by his efforts, the executioner purportedly replied that he could easily execute the whole of the senate as well. For this innocent attempt at wit, the brute was sentenced to death himself and executed by the youngest member of the senate. Seemingly undeterred by the loss of their leader, the surviving crews of Likedeelers expanded their range to include the North Sea as well as the Atlantic coastline, striking as far south as Spain, and continued wreaking havoc on the open seas until circa 1440.

But the legend does not stop there. The masts of Störtebeker’s ship are rumoured to have contained cores of gold, silver, and copper, that were supposedly used to create the tip of St. Catherine’s Church in Hamburg. His famous drinking mug was stored in the city’s town hall for over four hundred years until it was destroyed in the great fire of 1842. A memorial was even erected in his honour in Hamburg’s HafenCity (Harbour City) in 1982, complete with an inscription that reads: “God’s friend, the world’s enemy!”. These efforts to keep the sagas intact certainly raise questions about Störtebeker’s legacy; it’s not every day that a city dedicates a testimonial to a sworn enemy and executed criminal, after all.

Meanwhile, back in Stralsund, a slow decline in the Hanseatic League’s power between the 15th and 17th century may have seen the city’s regional influence diminish but its penchant for breeding skilful brewers did not. Die Stralsundische Vereinsbrauerei, or Stralsund Cooperative Brewery, took the reins in ensuring local brewers did not sit idle during much of the 19th and 20th centuries.

In order to meet the ever-growing demand for good beer, the cooperation purchased a plot of land on which an imposing brewery was built in 1899 that shapes the Stralsund cityscape to this day. The building has since survived two world wars and the subsequent allied bombings, its facilities have been disassembled for reparations payments, and for decades its brewers were condemned to exercising their craft in a socialist planned economy. Old recipes from the glory days of the Hanseatic League proved impossible to emulate and the overall quality of the Stralsund brews deteriorated considerably as a result.

It was only post-reunification that the brewers of Stralsund were able to return to the formulas and artisan brewing traditions of old. The brewery was renamed Störtebeker Braumanufaktur (Craft Brewery) in 2011 and is currently the only production facility of its kind in the area. The collection of historic recipes from the days of the Hanseatic League is extensive so it will be interesting to see which of these brews are freshly interpreted by the Stralsund masters moving forward.

Not that the existing collection isn’t intriguing enough as it is. Baltik-Lager? Nordik-Porter? Scotch-Ale? Yes, please! I have made it my mission to try each and every one of the brews in Störtebeker’s expansive assortment, preferably on location at one of the brewery’s tasting sessions, sommelier evenings, or on one of their replica ship tours out to the Baltic Sea. There I will venture to drink at least four litres (though not in one gulp…) and hopefully I too will lose my head and still be able to walk at the end of it.

By Christopher Andel

Born in Bangkok to a Dutch father and German mother, Christopher has spent much of his life pedalling back and forth between Europe and South East Asia. A true ‘Jack of all trades’, he has worked as an environmental consultant, language tutor, and roadie for the Chippendales, just to name a few. He currently resides in the Netherlands and is patiently plotting a return to greener pastures.

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