Thursday, November 02, 2017

Hops. Martin Luther's 96th Thesis?

In as much that notions of historical causality can be stretched thin, it's still fun to conjecture about the effect of any one man or woman upon history's arc. And beer's history.

Martin Luther's 95 Theses of 1517 sparked the partial dissolution of the Catholic Church in Europe. That schism, it could be argued, freed brewers in proto-Protestant Europe to use additives other than those Church-decreed. One of those, the herb, hops, went on to displace the Church's spice mixture —gruit— in brewers' beers. That switch may have happened without Luther, but what came of his hammering in the Wittenberg church door, the Reformation, nurtured it.

Thus, the other Reformation! How Martin Luther, five hundred years ago this week, helped to change our beer.
[On 31 October 1517], 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. [...]

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, mugwort, 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." [...]

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. [...]

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 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.'] '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.'
Read the rest of the story —here— written by freelance journalist Nina Martyris, for The Salt, the food 'page' of National Public Radio.

Finally, it bears reiteration that Martin Luther himself was a regular drinker of beer and its hearty espouser. Katharina von Bora, his wife, was an accomplished brewster. Then and five hundred years later: thank you and amen!
I opposed indulgences and all the papists, but never with force. I simply taught, preached and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip [Melanchthon] and [Nicholas] Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything.


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