Politics, immigration, international affairs and plenty of beer flowed at Hoppy Brewing Company last Friday night, the 30th anniversary of Sacramento’s Stammtisch, a German tradition dating back to the Middle Ages.
Stammtisch, roughly translated as “regulars’ table,” is a spirited discourse among friends that plays out weekly in bars and pubs throughout Germany. It has given members of America’s largest reported ethnic group a relaxed and frothy forum for just about any topic, said Ulrich Luenemann, a German expat and international communications professor at Sacramento State who runs the Stammtisch show at Hoppy.
“Our Sacramento Stammtisch has been taking place every Friday, rain or shine, holidays or not, and is open-ended,” Luenemann explained. “Anyone who has something to say can interrupt and say, ‘That’s boring, let’s talk about women, politics, the weather,’ nothing is taboo. We have a fruitful mix of Republicans and Democrats.”
Two California governors and four German chancellors have sent personal letters and signed pictures to the Sacramento club, including Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose prominent place on the world stage has fueled many a Stammtisch discussion.
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“This makes us the most unique German Stammtisch worldwide, since to get an endorsement from just one chancellor is very rare,” Luenemann said.
Last Friday, more than a dozen regulars, 19 German exchange students at Sacramento State and Torsten Bugner, a professor of AKAD University in Stuttgart, sat around a long horseshoe-shaped table configuration that became a game of musical chairs.
“When someone gets up to go to the bathroom, you can slide into their seat and mingle with somebody new,” Luenemann said. The conversation was well-lubricated by pitchers of ale that go for $14 during Stammtisch Happy Hour, which runs from 5 to about 9 p.m. Fridays, Luenemann said. “I personally have at least one pitcher.”
When that happens and he starts stammering at the Stammtisch, he gets his wife Lydia to drive him home, especially when Luenemann and his mates chase the beers with whiskey.
About 50 million Americans report German ancestry, making them the largest ethnic group nationwide. The same holds true in California, home to 3 million German Americans, about 8 percent of the population. German roots are even stronger in the Sacramento region, where 270,000 residents, or 12 percent, report some German ancestry, according to census data.
“I tasted my first beer at four,” said Luenemann, an immigrant from Dortmund, Germany. “Beer in Germany is liquid food.”
He added that the Stammtisch tradition is said to have begun when some Germans found a thick tree stump, cut a big round slab and made a table. Stammtisch comes from the German words “stamm,” meaning tree trunk or family tree, and “tisch,” meaning table.
Luenemann, a lithe 72, is far from the oldest member of the Sacramento group. Cal Crawford, 96, was a bomber pilot for the U.S. in World War II who went back to Germany after the war and flew with the German air force, He and his wife Betty, who served in WAVE (Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service), were married for 70 years, and attended every Stammtisch together until she passed away in 2015.
Crawford, who voted for Franklin Delano Roosevelt when he was 18, said he was a Democrat but switched during the administration of President Lyndon Johnson because of the deepening U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. Crawford doesn’t like Merkel’s policy of accepting refugees from Muslim countries, and he voted for Donald Trump.
No matter what the debate, he said, “Everybody has a really good time. You sit down with a table of strangers and when you get up you have a table of friends.”
The German students said they were delighted at the candor around the table at Hoppy. “The beer here is good and you can get to talk to everybody,” said Leon Gregori of Frankfurt, who was celebrating his 24th birthday. “In Germany it’s more formal.”
His friend, Lasse Seidel, 29, of Hamburg, said he plays cards at the BWC Pub, where his Stammtisch meets. “This is very nice, uncomplicated,” he said. “Talking to people is more complicated in Germany, even if the beer is stronger.”
In Germany, “every pub in every village has a Stammtisch table with anywhere from six to 12 people, usually associated with a sports club,” said Bugner. The tradition is so popular that each Stammtisch gets a two-hour slot at the table, only to be replaced by the next group.
Membership at the Sacramento Stammtisch is by invitation only, though it’s not hard to wangle one out of Luenemann, whose group includes Americans of Greek, Swiss, English and Brazilian descent along with Rhinelanders. There are several female members, including Luenemann’s wife, who joins him most Fridays.
“Uli likes holding court,” she said as he offered a bawdy toast in German that translates as, “Hail to the prostate, long live the uterus!”
Luenemann likes to quote what he said are the words of author John Dornberg: “The most common Stammtisch activity is talking, and the best qualification for membership is an ability to expound incessantly, with an air of authority, on just about any theme.”