By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, December 2, 2007
WEIMAR, Germany -- It's the German version of the chicken-or-the-egg conundrum: Which was regulated first, beer or bratwurst?
For centuries, brewers seemed to have history on their side. As evidence, they cited the world-renowned Reinheitsgebot, the Bavarian beer purity law of 1516, which stipulated barley, hops and water as the only permissible ingredients in the German national drink.
But thanks to Hubert Erzmann, a 75-year-old amateur historian, sausage lovers are crowing these days. Digging in the Weimar city archives, Erzmann unearthed a yellowed, handwritten parchment from 1432 that laid down the law regarding the production of Thuringian Rostbratwurst, perhaps the most popular variety of sausage in a country where wurst is worshiped as sacred grub.
The official document decreed that bratwurst from this corner of Thuringia, today a central German state, be made only from "pure, fresh" pork. Forbidden were beef, internal organs, parasites and anything rancid.
Although the regulations might not sound revolutionary, wurst aficionados have described the bratwurst purity law as a holy find, almost as significant to German culture as a Gutenberg Bible.
"As soon as I found it, I ran to the director of the archive and said, 'Look! Look what I found!' " recalled Erzmann, who has haunted the archives for years in hopes of making such a discovery.
Food purity laws hold a revered place in the German soul. When the modern German nation was formed in 1871, Bavaria joined on condition that its beer purity rules be applied to the entire country. Even today, spoiled meat outbreaks are a national scandal and consumer protection is considered among the most important functions of government.
"The medieval regulations in Germany were incredibly modern," said Michael Kirchschlager, an author who writes about Thuringian culture. "When you think of the Middle Ages, you think the food wasn't necessarily that safe. But the hygiene in many ways was better than today."
A replica of the bratwurst purity law soon will be enshrined at the German Bratwurst Museum ( http://www.bratwurstmuseum.net), located 24 miles away in Holzhausen, a village whose main intersection is marked by a giant sausage-and-bun sculpture.
The museum, run by an organization called Friends of Thuringian Bratwurst, opened last year and is packed with exhibits describing the social and political history of the famous wurst.
Visitors learn that a man named Hans Stromer ate 28,000 bratwursts during a long stint in jail in the 16th century. There's also a corner dedicated to Karl Sterzing, a Fleischermeister, or butcher, from the village of Grossbreitenbach, who grilled an estimated 2 million bratwursts at his home between 1945 and 1985.
In Thuringia, each man, woman and child consumes an average of 60 bratwursts a year, according to statistics compiled by the museum. The bratwurst industry in the state employs about 18,000 people. And the public hospital in the town of Bad Berka mandates that all patients and staff be served bratwurst for breakfast every Monday morning.
"The first question most visitors always ask about our museum is 'Why?' " said Uwe Keith, president of the museum's board. "It's just that Thuringian Rostbratwurst is such a part of life here."
For the uninitiated, Thuringian bratwurst is distinguished from the other 41 varieties of German bratwurst mainly by its distinctive spices (marjoram, garlic, sometimes a bit of lemon) and its fat content (only 25 percent, compared with up to 60 percent for greasier cousins). It's also supposed to be cooked and eaten within 24 hours after it is stuffed in the casing.
The sausage is generally between six to seven inches long and served on a very small crusty bread roll, the main purpose of which is to keep your fingers off the meat.
It is traditionally served with mustard, though barbarians sometimes top it with ketchup. Thuringian bratwurst must be roasted or grilled. To fry it is a sin.
Traditionally, entire Thuringian villages would gather to slaughter hogs and make wurst as a communal activity, said Thomas Maeuer, a member of the museum's board.
Getting drunk on schnapps or beer was all part of the fun. "Eating bratwurst was even a bigger family festivity than having the Sunday roast," he said.
Erzmann, the historian, said he discovered the bratwurst purity document in 2000. But its existence was kept largely under wraps until this fall, when it was publicized in a book and by the bratwurst museum.
The original decree will remain in a bound set of documents in the Weimar city archives. Erzmann guessed that no one had cracked the book in at least a century. "I would have missed it, too, had I not gone through it line by line to translate into modern German," he said.
Around the same time, Erzmann unearthed another document that threatens to roil the beer vs. bratwurst debate even further. It is a beer purity law from the city of Weissensee, and while it's not entirely clear when it was written, he said it dates to 1434 -- just two years after the Weimar bratwurst regulations.
Although Erzmann maintains his scholarly objectivity, he gave a hint about his personal feelings on which came first.
"We have an old saying in Thuringia," he said. "Rain or shine, we stuff our faces with bratwurst."