NINA MARTYRIS Reports for NPR:
“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.
. . . .
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!“
Read the full story at the link.
Not surprisingly, many German Lutherans who immigrated to America settled in Wisconsin, where their steins remained full of well-hopped brew!