Skip to comments.The Other Reformation: How Martin Luther Changed Our Beer, Too
Posted on 11/01/2017 5:58:23 AM PDT by SJackson
On this day 500 years ago, an obscure Saxon monk launched a protest movement against the Catholic Church that would transform Europe. Martin Luther's Protestant Reformation changed not just the way Europeans lived, fought, worshipped, worked and created art but also how they ate and drank. For among the things it impacted was a drink beloved throughout the world and especially in Luther's native Germany: beer.
The change in beer production was wrought by the pale green conical flower of a wildly prolific plant hops.
Every hip craft brewery today peddling expensive hoppy beers owes a debt of gratitude to Luther and his followers for promoting the use of hops as an act of rebellion against the Catholic Church. But why did Protestants decide to embrace this pretty flower, and what did it have to do with religious rebellion?
Therein foams a bitter pint of history.
In the 16th century, the Catholic Church had a stranglehold on beer production, since it held the monopoly on gruit the mixture of herbs and botanicals (sweet gale, mug wort, yarrow, ground ivy, heather, rosemary, juniper berries, ginger, cinnamon) used to flavor and preserve beer. Hops, however, were not taxed. Considered undesirable weeds, they grew plentifully and vigorously their invasive nature captured by their melodic Latin name, Humulus lupulus (which the music-loving Luther would have loved), which means "climbing wolf."
"The church didn't like hops," says William Bostwick, the beer critic for The Wall Street Journal and author of The Brewer's Tale: A History of the World According to Beer. "One reason was that the 12th century German mystic and abbess Hildegard had pronounced that hops were not very good for you, because they 'make the soul of a man sad and weigh down his inner organs.' So, if you were a Protestant brewer and wanted to thumb your nose at Catholicism, you used hops instead of herbs."
Even before the Reformation, German princes had been moving toward hops in 1516, for instance, a Bavarian law mandated that beer could be made only with hops, water and barley. But Luther's revolt gave the weed a significant boost. The fact that hops were tax-free constituted only part of the draw. Hops had other qualities that appealed to the new movement; chiefly, their excellent preservative qualities. "All herbs and spices have preservative qualities, but with hops, beer could travel really well, so it became a unit of international trade that symbolized the growing business class, which was tangentially connected with the Protestant work ethic and capitalism," says Bostwick.
Another virtue in hops' favor was their sedative properties. The mystic Hildegard was right in saying hops weighed down one's innards. "I sleep six or seven hours running, and afterwards two or three. I am sure it is owing to the beer," wrote Luther to his wife, Katharina, from the town of Torgau, renowned for its beer. The soporific, mellowing effect of hops might seem like a drawback, but in fact it offered a welcome alternative to many of the spices and herbs used by the church that had hallucinogenic and aphrodisiacal properties. "Fueled by these potent concoctions, church ales could be as boisterous as the Germanic drinking bouts church elders once frowned on," writes Bostwick. "And so, to distance themselves further from papal excesses, when Protestants drank beer they preferred it hopped."
If the Catholic Church lost control over the printed word with the invention of the printing press the technological weapon that ensured Luther's success it lost control over beer with the rise of hops. "The head went flat on monastic beer," says Bostwick. "Did Protestantism explicitly promote hops? I don't think so. But did it encourage the use of hops? I would say, yes, probably."
Luther would have relished his role in promoting hops. If anyone loved and appreciated good beer, it was this stout, sensual and gregarious monk. His letters often mentioned beer, whether it was the delicious Torgau beer that he extolled as finer than wine or the "nasty" Dessau beer that made him long for Katharina's homebrew. "I keep thinking what good wine and beer I have at home, as well as a beautiful wife," he wrote. "You would do well to send me over my whole cellar of wine and a bottle of thy beer." Days before he died, in February 1546, in one of his last letters to his wife, he praised Naumburg beer for its laxative properties. Luther suffered excruciating agonies from constipation, and it was therefore with immense satisfaction that he announced his "three bowel movements" that morning.
In an age where the water was unsafe, beer was drunk by everyone and was the nutritional and social fuel of Germany. "It was a really natural and very common part of every household pantry," says Bostwick. "I compare it these days to a pot of coffee always simmering on your countertop. Back then it was a kettle of beer. Beer was brewed less for pure enjoyment than for medicinal reasons (it incorporated herbs and spices) and for pure sustenance. Beers then were richer and heartier than today. They were a source of calories for the lower classes who did not have access to rich foods."
The Reformation, 500 Years Later
The Reformation, 500 Years Later
Not surprisingly, beer pops up at pivotal moments in Luther's life. Most notably, after taking on the formidable might of the Catholic Church, an unruffled Luther famously declared that God and the Word did everything, "while I drank beer with my [friends] Philipp and Amsdorf." Luther's teachings were mocked as "sour beer," and one of his critics disparaged him as a heretic from the filthy market town of Wittenberg, populated by "a barbarous people who make their living from breweries and saloons." But as he gained fame and became a popular hero, a range of Lutheran merchandise was launched, including beer mugs featuring the pope as the Antichrist.
When the excommunicated Luther married the runaway nun Katharina von Bora, the town council gave the couple a barrel of excellent Einbeck beer. It was a fitting gift. Beer was soon to assume an even more central role in Luther's life, thanks to his wife. The intelligent, talented and exceptionally competent Katharina not only bore six children and managed the Luthers' large household with its endless stream of guests but also planted a vegetable garden and fruit trees, raised cows and pigs, had a fish pond, drove a wagon, and to her husband's undying delight opened a brewery that produced thousands of pints of beer each year. Her initial shaky attempts produced a thin, weak brew, but she soon got the hang of it and learned exactly how much malt to add to suit her husband's taste. Luther was ecstatic Lord Katie, as he affectionately called her, had assured him a steady supply even when Wittenberg's breweries ran dry.
Luther's favorite spot to hold forth on theology, philosophy and life in general was not the tavern but the table. The long refectory table in the cavernous Luther home seated up to 50 people. "This was Luther's especial domain," writes Andrew Pettegree in his elegant biography Brand Luther: How an Unheralded Monk Turned History. "The day's labors past, he would sit with his friends and talk. Fueled by his wife's excellent beer, conversation would become general, discursive, and sometimes unbuttoned."
Unbuttoned is an understatement. Voluble, energetic and beery, Luther's conversation zigged and zagged between the sublime and the scatological, to the amazement of his students, who hung on his every word. The church was called a brothel and the pope the Antichrist. Former popes "farted like the devil" and were sodomites and transvestites. His students collected these jewels into a book called Table Talk. When it was published, it went viral.
But though he clearly loved his tankard, there is no record of Luther being a lush. In fact, he could be quite a scold when it came to drunken behavior. He lamented the German addiction to beer, saying, "such an eternal thirst, I am afraid, will remain as Germany's plague until the Last Day." And he once declared, "I wish brewing had never been invented, for a great deal of grain is consumed to make it, and nothing good is brewed."
This was no doubt a spot of grandstanding. For all his protestations, Luther's beer stein was always full. He loved local beer, boasted of his wife's brewing skills, and launched a movement that helped promote hops. Does that make him a patron saint of the craft brewery?
"Luther might blanch a bit as a good Protestant at being called a saint," points out Bostwick, "and there's already a brewery saint called St. Arnold, who saved his congregation from the plague by making them drink beer. In the interests of Protestantism, I wouldn't call him a saint, but he was certainly a beer enthusiast, and many a beer bar and brewery today has a picture of Martin Luther on their wall. So let's say that while we certainly don't genuflect to him, he's known and appreciated."
Hoppy Quincentennial, Martin Luther!
I believe I’ll have a beer....
IPA , aka India Pale Ale, so named because the Brits could ship beer back to India by adding hops post production to preserve it...
Preferably, HopSlam, Bro Benjamin, Etc.!
Yes...and like most American replications of European things, it’s WAY overdone.
Not sure how I feel about this, I hate hoppy beer.
A lot of that depends on your perspective. I dont care for super hoppy ones either, but some are quite good. Esp in the summer...
I belong to a Home Brew society, someone dug up Washington’s recipe for Stout and brewed exactly as he described... in short, it was literally undrinkable...
But when thats all you could get back then, thats what you got...
IPAs are my favorite beer now! My older son used to work at a place called MacGregors, a veritable beer lover's paradise where I was introduced to IPAs and never looked back! :-)
I’ll drink to that!..........................
I like beers that are both very hoppy and not very hoppy.
I’m hoppy, hoppy, hoppy.........................
Back when i started out, I drank BMC like everyone else... now since i started brewing and realized how much more was out there, I havent touched one since... its not terrible... but there is SO many more worthy products out there...
In Christo Rege!
Same here. Seeing my hometown is Rochester, NY, I also drank Genny Cream Ale, especially in my teens. Also, there was the "mythical" Coors beer, that hadn't yet crossed the Mississippi. Nowadays, I enjoy the fruits of the Craft Brewing Revolution and imbibe in IPAs, Scotch Ales and Ambers.
“India Pale Ale”
Anyone remember Olde Frothingslosh, “the Pale Stale Ale with the foam on the bottom”?
Sours are the only thing I really dont care for. Now thats its fall, I brewed a nice Bourbon Vanilla Porter... perfect for fall weather.
I usually brew a rotating selection, but nearly always have some kind of IPA on it... or a good Vienna Lager
I still enjoy a Genny Cream Ale with dinner.
My old man was from upstate NY and my Uncle Bill, when he would visit us in NJ, would get hold of some Genny Cream Ale as a treat. I told my wife about the stuff and when we took a trip last year to upstate NY she decided she had to try it. So a can was bought and it turned out she loved it. Next a case was bought and transported home with us where she enthusiastically shared it with friends and family. It was funny watching them try to not hurt her feelings but it was pretty clear that good 'ol Genny Cream Ale wasnt going to win them over. But at least there is ONE fan of it in southern New Jersey!
I grew up with Genny Cream Ale and was my beer of choice when I was in my teens. I bring some to my older brother who now lives in Virginia as he loves it too!
Dough, the stuff that buys me beer,
Ray, the guy who sells me beer,
Me, the guy that drinks the beer,
Fa, the distance from my beer,
So I think I’ll have a beer,
La, la la la la la beer,
Tea, no thanks I’m drinkin’ beer!
That will bring us back to dough!
I think that I shall never hear
a poem lovelier than beer,
the brew that Joe’s Bar has on tap
with golden base and snowy cap,
the foamy stuff I drink all day
until my mem’ry melts away.
Poems are made by fools I fear,
but only Schlitz* can make a beer!
Stolen by memorizing from Mad magazine about 60 years ago.
*It may have been Piels or another single syllable domestic brew.
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