History for Fantasy Worlds: Nuremberg Beer Cellars

Nuremberg Underground
Nuremberg Underground: a model for a massive fantasy dungeon (Photo credit: Zlatko Unger)

What does a beer cellar have to do with Fantasy literature? These Nuremberg cellars speak directly to one of the greatest fantasy tropes of all time: the massive, underground dungeon. How can a cellar compare to Moria or the thousands of extensive dungeons of D&D and MMO fame? Consider that these cellars extend for approximately 200,000 square feet and include miles of water tunnels. They may have been created for no other purpose than  storing beer and diverting water but, aside from proving just how seriously Germans take their beer, they also show just how extensive and stable underground excavations can be given the right circumstances. In this case, the circumstances were the need for a secure water supply plus the need for a cool place to make and store beer coupled with Triassic sandstone, a relatively quarryable, yet strong rock. Add World War II, during which a number of independent cellars were linked by passages to form a huge air raid shelter, and you get huge DUNGEONS!

There isn’t a lot on the cellars that I can find in English so most of this is from my recollection of the tour of the cellars I took in 2011. What little there is can be found at the site for Historical group that runs tours (some in English although I glommed onto a German language only tour and did fine- there are plenty of excellent signs and displays within).

Bottle of Diebels Alt (German beer)
All good things come from beer, like Dungeons! Bottle of Diebels Alt (German beer) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Cellars

The Nuremberg excavations had two main purposes. One was to provide a secure water supply, the other was for brewing and storage of the beer. The beer cellars were first refered to in the late 1300s but grew over the centuries to encompass up to four underground levels linked by stairs and shafts (the shafts being used for ventilation as well as hoisting heavy barrels and supplies.) While caves and cellars tend to stay cool, they do vary in temperature plus brewing creates heat so the brewers used natural cooling to maintain more steady temperatures as well as sometimes bringing in snow and ice. For the natural cooling, they created shafts that exited through the south-side walls of the above-ground houses. The sun heated the house wall shared by the cellar vent which caused a draft to help draw warm air from the cellars.

The beer cellars have many arrangements but typically consist of very wide isles (10 feet or more) with large vaults off one or both sides. During World War II, under threat of allied air attack, the independent cellar complexes were linked by narrow, low passages. I’m about average in size and fit well but my 6′ 4″ companion had to duck in many places.

In addition to the beer cellars, there were water tunnels many kilometers long. I believe some of these were open channel for water but much of it was piped in. In the present cellars there are remnants of the pipes and illustrations on how they were made: tree trunks were bored out to an inner diameter of about 6 to 8 inches using an iron borer driven by water power. The trunks were fitted together with flanges and these pipes were run for vast distances. Apparently, during the middle ages, the entire water system, including the spring sources and the tunnel network, were well-guarded city secrets. The purpose, of course, was to secure a water supply to help withstand a siege.

Basilica  Cistern
Basilica Cistern (Photo credit: St Stev)

I must confess that until I experienced these cellars, I always assumed real world dungeons were small, cramped and well, boring. How wrong I was: while these aren’t exactly the mines of Moria, they are huge. They also consist of both very long passages (for the water supply) and massive sets of rooms on many levels (for the beer). While they were created over hundreds of years, they were excavated with basic tools and not terribly unusual rock. While you couldn’t do the same in granite (it could be quarried but much more laboriously), here basic iron picks could do the trick. I’ve never personally seen them but there are even easier rocks to carve where there are extensive excavations such as under Dover castle and its chalk.

Another impressive water-related underground are the cisterns under Constantinople.

The Dover Castle
The Dover Castle has extensive underground passages. (Photo credit: Random_fotos)

So certainly, the Nuremberg cellars are a real world example of both large excavations and two good reasons for doing so: water and beer. The Dover underground adds more military reasons. And, of course, there’s the simple pursuit of earth’s treasures: mines.

The Fantasy World

What does this mean for your fantasy world? It says pre-industrial technology could create vast underground complexes when the situation was right. Now one of the dangers of finding historical analogues is that in your fantasy novel you can’t actually go and say, “hey, this makes sense because it’s actually smaller than the Nuremberg cellars.” That is, just because you can find a real-world example doesn’t mean your readers will think it makes sense. Still, you are on solid ground with anything like these excavations especially if you link them to water supplies or industries that require cool temperatures.Carlsbad Caverns

One thing to consider: all these massive examples are in rock that is not terribly hard to quarry. Limestone can get hard once exposed to air but when freshly exposed is fairly soft. Chalk, of course, is a very soft type of limestone. Sandstone isn’t so hard to quarry either. Granite, marble and other stones can be cut but much more slowly. Ancient Egyptians could cut granite statuary with wooden mallets and bronze(?) but in the end, they only cut so much of it. Before dynamite, hard rock mining involved lighting a fire to heat the rock then throwing water on it so that the thermal compression fractured the rock. Good for 1-2 feet at a go, I think, so a very slow way to excavate.

However, add magic, and things could be different. Older versions of D&D used to have a rock-to-mud spell at level 4 which was high-ish level but not terrible powerful magic. It could turn large quantities of rock to mud which would make for very fast mining. Of course, that spell caused endless arguments about use against castles, non-military uses (my wizard retires and makes millions mining), etc. But in a fantasy world, one could certainly imagine magic or creatures that could soften or otherwise quarry rock- just keep in mind that such magic would be immensely valuable in under-mining castles and destroying walls, so much so that it might make stone fortifications in your world not worth building (more on that in a later post on castles).

In summary, there are Earth analogues for very large underground chambers, natural and man-made. Throw in magic and you can imagine a Moria. If you do go the magic route, keep in mind what such magic might mean if you also want castles and stone walls: there may need to be counter measures that prevent a big stone wall from being destroyed by a little ol’ 4th level magic user spell.


As a side note, Nuremberg is a wonderful place to visit. Even if you don’t speak any German it’s super easy to get around. The town was sadly destroyed during World War II with at least 6000 civilian casualties in bombing raids alone. But it was rebuilt after the war. Lots more to see than just the cellars. Be sure to check it out if you are in the area.

Nuremberg Christmas Market
Nuremberg Christmas Market (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: Defensive Wall, Nuremberg (Germany), ...
English: Defensive Wall, Nuremberg (Germany), north part, burggarten bastion from west (Photo credit: Wikipedia)