October 31st marked the 500th year anniversary of Martin Luther beginning his famous protest against the Catholic Church. The Protestant Reformation changed the lives of millions of people in Europe. How they lived, how they worked, what art they created, and even what they and drank. The change was so impactful it even affected the favorite beverage of Luthers native Germany, beer.
For more lessons in beer history kindly check our The History of Beer brewing in 10 Fun Facts.
Monopoly and hops
In the 16th century, the Catholic Church held a controlled monopoly over most beer production in Europe. And they accomplished this through a monopoly of gruit production. Gruit was a mixture of herbs and spices. that mixture was used to preserve and flavor beer. Th the time gruit was the main flavoring agent in beer.
If you asked the brewer in the Middle Ages what ingredients he needed to brew they would have told you water, gruit malts, and some yeast. In the 16th century, hops were considered undesirable and were generally viewed as a weed to be ignored. They actually grew pretty plentifully throughout Europe. They were generally thought of as an invasive species. thus using this plant for anything was untaxed.
Taxes and using hops in beer
Unlike gruit, the brewers had to purchase from church hops were free. Even a little before Luther started his famous protest some Bavarian princes were already trying to push for hopped beers. In 1516 for instance a Baravarian 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 brand new movement. Mainly that it was really good at preserving beer. At the time most herbs and spices used for brewing had preservative qualities. But with hops, beer could travel really well. Which lead to it being put in every beer that was going to be shipped somewhere.
So it became the unit of international trade that symbolized the growing business class in Europe. Which was connected withthe Protestant work ethic and new capitalist ideas.
Another great reason brewers wanted to use hops is that they had sedative properties. Some gruits contained herbs and spices that were hallucinogenic or aphrodisiacs. The Catholic Church lost control over the printed word with the invention of the printing press. It definitely lost control of beer with the rise in the use of hops. In an age where water was unsafe beer was drunk by everyone and was nutritional and social fuel. It was a natural and very common part of every household. Beer was brewed less for pure enjoyment than for medicinal reasons and for pure sustenance.