Luther’s Reformation of Beer

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Not only did Martin Luther reform the church.  He also reformed beer too.  Specifically, the Reformation gave us beer brewed with hops.

So says Nina Martyris, who takes the prize for an influence-of-the-Reformation-on-its-500th-anniversary story with The Other Reformation: How Martin Luther Changed Our Beer, Too : The Salt : NPRShe is drawing on a book by William Bostwick, the beer critic for TheWall Street Journal:  The Brewer’s Tale: A History of the World According to Beer. 

So how did Luther give us hoppy beer?

The story begins with another prominent figure in religious history:  St. Hildegard of Bingen.  Recently canonized by Pope Benedict XVI and made a “doctor of the church,” this 12th century abbess was a talented musical composer, an innovative playwright, a mystic, a theologian, and an influential herbalist.  She taught against the use of hops, saying they “make the soul of a man sad and weigh down his inner organs.”

So the church said that beer should no longer be made with hops.  More to the point, the church established a  monopoly on gruit — as Bostwick explains it, “the mixture of herbs and botanicals (sweet gale, mug wort, yarrow, ground ivy, heather, rosemary, juniper berries, ginger, cinnamon)” that took the place of hops.  Beer made with this gruit was also subject to a heavy church tax.

But with the Reformation, brewers celebrated their freedom from the tyranny of the pope by renouncing gruit!  Instead, they turned to hops!  Just as Luther recovered the Gospel, as taught in the New Testament church, after it was covered over by accretions of human teaching, the Lutheran brewers recovered beer with hops, as brewed in older days, despite the accretions of human innovations such as mug wort, heather, and ivy!  (My analogy.)

There were other financial advantages to making beer with hops.  The flower was plentiful.  And beer made with that ingredient was not taxed at all.  Furthermore, says Bostwick, hops are a preservative, making it possible for beer to be a trading commodity.  The making and selling of beer thus became part of the new commercial growth that accompanied the Reformation, fueled mainly by the “work ethic” associated with the doctrine of vocation.

Furthermore, Reformation beer had different effects than Catholic beer.  I’ll let Nina Martyris, via William Bostwick, explain it:

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.”

Can we still see this, sort of, in obnoxious beer drunks who get loud, start fights, and “make poor sexual choices”?  Are they not always drinking tasteless mass-produced beer with few hops?  Whereas those who drink hoppy beers in brewpubs find themselves relaxing, becoming calm, and engaging in good conversations?  Or not?

At any rate, the article goes on to go into more detail about Luther’s affinity for beer.

The reporter asks Bostwick if the Reformer could be considered the patron saint of beer:

“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.”

Well, Luther’s kind of Protestants still have the category of “saint,” though I’m not sure about “patron saint.”  (Can anyone address that?)  All Christians, he said, by virtue of their salvation by Christ, are simultaneously sinners and saints.

But remember Luther and the Gospel the next time you taste hops in your beer.

Photo of Luther-Bier [a German brand] by Runner1928 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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