How did the Reformation Make Your Beer Bitter? And Better?

Based on NPR article by William Bostwick, author of The Brewer’s Tale.

Luther’s Reformation not only transformed the church it promoted a new ingredient which changed the way beer is made; and the labels today look pretty close to the images on the mugs in Luther’s day. Great beer has always had great labels.

“Whoever drinks beer, he is quick to sleep; whoever sleeps long, does not sin; whoever does not sin, enters Heaven! Thus, let us drink beer!” — Martin Luther

Martin Luther did more than call for the transformation of the Church when he nailed his ninety-five theses on the church door in Wittenberg five hundred years ago. The discontent he aroused against the Roman Catholic Church doctrines and absolutism during the Reformation played a part in redefining beer production in Germany.

Beer was an important part of feudal German life; not only did it lubricate social settings, it provided important nutrition at a time when beer was far safer than water to drink. Luther was a true beer enthusiast. He pined for his wife’s homemade beer when traveling and he often debated church doctrine with friends and followers over a table full of local brews.

In Luther’s time the Catholic Church’s regulated many facets of European life including beer production. As centers of learning, monasteries preserved and controlled many of the production methods including gruit—the church prescribed mixture of herbs and botanicals—that provided flavor and acted to preserve the beer when there was no pasteurization or refrigeration. The sale of gruit was also an important revenue source for the church.

Though the church promoted and controlled the production and sale of gruit, Germans had used hops in beer centuries before the Reformation. After Luther posted his debating points, protests against the absolute control of the Roman Catholic Church gathered steam and Germanic princes widely changed local beer formulations replacing gruit with an abundant, low-cost substitute, bitter hops, which changed the taste, preserved the beer better, and reduced the tax burden on the princes.

So, the next time you bottle your hoppy IPA, raise one to the beer drinking Luther, his 95 Theses, and his followers whose switch to hops reformed the church and brought us closer to the beer we know today and their labels.

We might even think that the labels of today have come full circle. Luther did not like the pope and his contempt was evident in the book his students put together listing all of the slurs and insults he leveled at the pope called Table Talk. As Martin Luther became more famous or infamous Lutheran merchandise was produced including mugs featuring the pope as the Antichrist.

So as NPR puts it… “If you were a Protestant brewer and wanted to thumb your nose at Catholicism, you used hops instead of herbs”… and a great label.