When Germany enacted its Reinheitsgebot beer purity law—a decree that instructed brewers to only use water, barley and hops in beer production—in 1516, it’s unlikely that anyone imagined it would spur an enduring beer festival tradition: pretzel necklaces. By that time, German bakers had been making pretzels for centuries.
“As beer became more and more popular, bakers started to realize they had all the ingredients to make beer as well as bread,” says Mark Stratton, U.S. consultant for German brewery Veltins. “So, bakers in Germany, especially in Bavaria, started making beer alongside pretzels. That’s where the marriage of the two things came together.”
Those three ingredients became known among brewing monks as the “holy trinity” of beer. They saw the trinity in pretzels, where each hole represented one ingredient and one aspect of the its famed religious counterpart. To keep that sacred trinity at heart, 16th-century brewer-monks strung pretzels and wore them around their necks.
Pretzel necklaces have come a long way. As far back as Stratton remembers, pretzel necklaces were on the scene at Oktoberfest in Germany. They’re a common sight at U.S. beer events like the Great American Beer Festival, Great Lakes Brew Fest and Great Taste of the Midwest. There, pretzels don’t represent worship, but palate cleansers.
“At a beer festival, you get in line for the beer you want first,” says Meg Schultz, organizer of Vermont’s SIPtemberfest. “You could have this big chocolate oatmeal stout, and then you want to go over and try a delicate Pilsner. Well, you’re going to need something in between so you can taste [each of] them.”
Early necklaces were plain, mass-produced pretzels on a string. Now, festival goers try and top other necklaces with ever more creative statement pieces.
“Beer is part of the food arts world,” says Julia Herz, the former craft beer program director at the Brewers Association, which runs the Great American Beer Festival. “Food is art itself in many forms, and the pretzel necklace is a great convergence of art and food in a very fun form.”
Pretzel necklace aficionados sit in three distinct social camps. The first are expressive people who look for a good time. They tend to have a veritable grocery store around their necks—artfully arranged pretzels alongside cheese, sausage, pizza slices or even entire Lunchables. The bigger and more elaborate the necklace, to them, the more you love both beer and a party.
It can even turn into a unique mating ritual, where people may try to attract a partner with ever-more-flamboyant necklaces.
Schultz calls the next group “the serious beer-mission folks.” They arrive with a list of beers to taste at the festival and a strict plan. “They’re here for the beer, and the necklace is just a means to an end at that point,” she says.
Some of these attendees, Stratton says, are part of beer guilds and groups. They use medallions that represent their organization to separate pretzels on their necklaces.
And the third group? People who don’t wear pretzel necklaces at all. In fact, they actively hate them. In a 2014 article in First We Feast, writer Aaron Goldfarb says pretzel necklaces are a way to “ID all the bozos.” Graham Averill agreed at Paste, as he compared the wearers to “four-year-old girls with those candy bracelets and lollipop rings.”
Schultz’s opinion? The haters are secretly jealous because they’re too afraid to wear a necklace of their own.
But regardless of whether they’re used as a drinking aid, fashion accessory or source of identity, the necklaces remain a surprisingly functional part of beer festival culture.
“Moderating sips between bites is a good way to practice responsible and enjoyable appreciation,” says Herz. “And any time you see someone wearing a pretzel necklace, they’re probably in a damn good mood.”