The Beers of Martin Luther

The agricultural revolution and the domestication of cereal grains occurred around 6000 BC. Between 3000 and 2000 BC in Mesopotamia, malting and fermentation were understood and practiced. Barley and wheat were common, and 40% of all cereal grain was used for brewing. Knowledge of brewing spread to Babylon and Egypt, and by a northward route to Europe, not via the Romans or Greeks, who didn’t care all that much about beer.

From written history, we know that Germanic tribes were brewing in the first century BC. And that brewing went from the home, to the monastery, and then to commercial breweries, which started out as ale houses and grew into large-scale operations with guilds, a system of apprenticeship and knowledge held in secret.

:: Germany in the Middle Ages ::

In Germany during the Middle Ages, barley, wheat and oats were all used to make malt, although in some cities, Munich and Nürnberg for example, the authorities decreed that only barley malt, hops and water could be used by commercial brewers. Depending upon which history you read, this purity edict was to maintain the quality of the beer, keep the people from starving lest they use all their grain for beer, protect the people from poisoning by hop-substitutes, and/or to protect royal monopolies on the production of wheat beer. But I digress.

Whatever the grain, once malted it might be dried in the sunlight (producing a pale malt and light-colored beer), or dried on cloth covered wicker beds placed near a kiln (as at the monastery of St. Gall), or on a grate covered with a hair cloth overlaying a hearth, or over a wood fire, producing a darker malt, with the hazard of a smoky taste in the malt, and subsequently in the beer.

The German beers of the Middle Ages could be roughly divided into brownbiers and weissbiers. The longer the kilning of the malt and the longer the boil of the wort, the darker the beers would have been, hence brown in color. The greater the proportion of wheat malt, the lighter the kilning of the malt, and the shorter the boil, the lighter the beers would be, hence ‘white’ or gold beers.

By Martin Luther’s era, circa 1500, hops were common in brewing, displacing the ‘gruit’ of earlier years, usually a combination of yarrow, bog myrtle, tree bark, etc. Hence the beers of Luther’s time would have been hoppy, especially those prepared for export. And in the northern part of Germany, the exporting of beer was a very important part of the economy.

The yeasts of the era were of the top-fermenting variety, therefore the beers were ales. (Although some bottom fermenting beers were made in Germany as early as 1420, this was primarily in the south, in Bavarian monasteries. The lager revolution had yet to take place.) Thus the beers of the time would have had fruity, ale-like characteristics. And because the technology for producing single strains of yeast was centuries away, every batch of yeast, taken from the previous brew, would have several strains, and hence impart several different flavors to every brew. The beers would thus have been complex, rather than simple and ‘clean.’

Without temperature control, the fermentation temperatures would have varied with the yeast strains and the weather (temperature), and the flavors would have varied accordingly. Given the lack of hygiene, the presence of lactic bacteria, in addition to the yeast, must have been common, so the element of sourness must often have been present in the flavor profile. Without modern filtration, or the use of adjuncts such as corn, the beers may have been cloudy with residual yeast and/or protein haze.

Thus, the beers of Luther’s era would have been complex, highly flavored, possibly a tad sour and/or cloudy, and would have varied in color, flavor, strength and quality.

The primary source of beer during Luther’s era was domestic brewing — home brewing — done primarily by women, a practice as common as cooking and baking are today. The beer would have varied based on the economic situation of the household, and the skill of the brewster. But Luther no doubt drank beer in his monastery, and beer from commercial brewers as well.

:: Abbey Ales ::

To understand Abbey Ales, and how religion and brewing came to exist in such an unexpected and beneficial harmony, one has to journey back to the fourth century, when monastic orders sprang up around the Mediterranean. In Italy, St. Benedict laid down the first rules of monastic life, declaring that each monastery would have an abbot as its leader — and hence be known as an abbey — and that manual labor would be as much a part of the day as prayer. He required that the monks grow and make everything they need within the abbey walls, and thus be safe from the outside world with its snares and temptations.

During the Middle Ages, hundreds of these self-sufficient communities thrived as places of holiness and learning. The monks grew their own crops, and prepared their own food and wine. And as they ventured north to establish monasteries in cooler climes, they began to make their own beer. In the early Middle Ages, there were 400-500 monasteries brewing in Germany alone.

Beer and wine were staples for good reason. In the ages before modern sanitation, water was a dangerous beverage, sometimes even fatal. There was no coffee, tea or soda. Milk, because of infection, could be dangerous as well. But wine, by virtue of its alcoholic content, and beer, because the water had been boiled in the brewing process, did not carry disease. Thus they were the safe and common beverages of the day.

A brewery was as common a feature in an abbey as a bakery, kitchen or garden. But the monks not only participated in brewing, they also studied it, recorded their observations and passed on their knowledge. Even when royal and city breweries began to flourish in the tenth and eleventh centuries, the best beer was still made in monasteries.

The ninth century Abbey of St. Gallen, not far from present-day Zurich, had three breweries, as well as a malt house, milling room, kiln and storage cellars. Each brewery brewed a different beer: a prima melior for distinguished visitors and for the fathers themselves, a secunda for lay brothers and other employees, and a tertia for the many pilgrims who came seeking bed and board. The best beer, prima melior, might be brewed to be even more sustaining during Lent, when it served as “liquid bread” for the brothers. The current Belgian Abbey Ales are perhaps the closest thing to these beers.

As for the use of beer as an aid to Lenten discipline, Luther noted, “Under the papacy everything was pleasant and without annoyances. Fasting then was easier than eating is to us now. To every day of fasting belonged three days of gorging. For a collation one got two pots of good beer, one small jug of wine, and some ginger cake or salted bread to stimulate the thirst. The poor brothers then left like fiery angels, so red were they in the face.”

Throughout the centuries, monastic brewing traditions were interrupted repeatedly as the abbeys were sacked and destroyed by Vandals, Visigoths and Vikings, rebuilt to be sacked again during the French Revolution and two World Wars. The Belgian monastery at Orval, for example, was founded in 1130, but has been destroyed and rebuilt at least four times.

Today, Orval is one of five Trappist monasteries in Belgium and the Netherlands that brews Trappist ale. The others are Chimay, Rochefort, Westmalle and Westvleteren. The broader title of “abbey ale” goes to any beer that is brewed for an abbey, or in tribute to an abbey, by a commercial brewery. A single abbey might have two or three beers, and it is estimated that there are between 75 and 150 abbey ales brewed in Belgium today. (One of Orval’s ales serves as the inspiration for Blue Moon’s Abbey Ale, a serious attempt to recreate the Abbey style in a commercially bottled version.)

Because one of the main characteristics of an abbey ale is its individuality, abbey ale is not so much a beer style as it is a family of beers whose aroma and palate make clear the source of their inspiration. They are top fermented, highly distinctive, fruity and aromatic.

:: Commercial Brewing ::

In the Middle Ages, brewing as a business began in ale houses (evolving from inns for wayfarers) and came into its own in 14th to 16th centuries. While some claim the beer was not as good as the monastic product, it was good enough to be commercially successful, in both Germany and in the nations served by Germany’s growing group of exporting brewers. And every city had its own specialty. In Luther’s time, the breweries of northern Germany were the best known and most successful, and beer was one of the three main exports of the Hanseatic League, the other two being wine and linen.

In 1575, author Heinrich Knaust described the famed beers of the day: “There was a Lubeck Israel, an old Klaus (Brandenburg), a Goslauer Gose, a Hanover Braehan, a Soltzman at Saltzwedel, a Rastrun at Leipsic, beer of Corvey, beer of Harlem, Dantzic brew, Eimbecker (Einbecker) brew, and many others… The most celebrated of all was the Braunschweig Mumme, named for its discoverer, Christian Mumme (1492).”

In 1588, Jacob Theodor von Bergzabern’s Herbal discussed brewing in Germany and listed Danzig beer , also known as Joppenbier, with a fine brown-red color and as thick as syrup. “There is more strength and nourishment in a little mug of this than a whole measure of other beers.” He also noted that Hamburg beer was a pale beer made with wheat malt and was preferred among German pale beers, and Lübeck beer was a ‘strong but unfriendly beer’ that made one stupid even if drunk in small quantities.

:: Einbecker, Luther’s Favorite ::

Because he traveled, Martin Luther could have had many of these beers, but there is only one with claims to be his favorite. Frederick Salem, in his Beer, Its History and Its Economic Value as a National Beverage (1880) noted, “Luther’s fondness for beer is well known, and on the evening of that eventful day at Worms, April 18, 1521, the Duke Erich von Braunschweig sent him a pot of Eimbecker (Einbecker) beer, to which he was specially addicted.”

Also, Michael Jackson, in his New World Guide to Beer (1988), noted that Luther received a gift of Einbeck beer on the occasion of his wedding. Luther scholar Luther Peterson recalls a visit to a restaurant in Einbeck where he found a beer coaster with portraits of Martin and Katie on one side and a tale about their receiving a barrel of Einbeck beer as a wedding present. Although he adds, “How authoritative a beer coaster can be is another question.”

Einbeck beer was known as early as 1325 and in One Hundred Years of Brewing (1903) was said to be the most famous beer of the Middle Ages, available everywhere in Germany and shipped as far as Jerusalem. It began with two thirds barley malt, one third wheat malt. Kiln-dried malt was not used as the beer was to be “yellow in color and clear.” It was a top fermentation beer. The author noted that it was vastly different from the present (i.e. 1903) top fermentation beers, nor to be compared to either the normal beer (probably lager), or the weiss beer, or the double-brew (probably doppelbock) beer. It was brewed only in winter, from about St. Martin’s day at the end of September until the first of May. As the beer kept its quality very long, enabling it to be shipped far away, it stands to reason that it was not only rich in malt, hence in alcohol, but also strongly hopped.

Von Bergzabern’s Herbal, the 1613 edition, is also quoted in One Hundred Years of Brewing, and describes Einbeck beer as “thin, subtle, clear, of bitter taste, has a pleasant acidity on the tongue, and many other good qualities.”

Einbecker evolved into the Bock style that flourishes to this day — an extra strong beer, malty with a smooth hop finish. We can be sure, however, that the Einbecker beers enjoyed by Martin Luther tasted nothing like the Einbecker Ur-Bocks of today. In Luther’s day, Einbecker was a top-fermented beer made with a large portion of wheat and fermented with multiple yeast strains, each vying to impart its own flavor to the beer. The thin, acidic quality noted in 1613 was probably a product of bacterial infection at the start and the multiple yeast strains, plus wild yeast from the air, all working together to ferment every last bit of sugar.

With today’s pure yeast cultures, only 75% or so of the sugars are consumed in fermentation, leaving some sweetness and body. And because today’s Bocks are bottom-fermented with a single yeast strain, they are far cleaner and simpler in taste. In spite of the evolution from Einbecker to Bock beer, the Luther identification has remained strong. In the 20th century, an Einbeck brewery even used a portrait of Luther on its label when its beer was first imported into the U.S.

If you do wish to drink beers similar to the beers Luther drank, the closest you will come are probably today’s Belgian Abbey Ales. Their top fermentation, complex flavors, full attenuation, and highly individual character are all in keeping with the beers of the monasteries that Luther knew as a young man, and with many more of the beers of Luther’s time.

:: Luther on Commercial Brewers ::

As much as Martin Luther loved beer, he did not love commercial brewers. One evening over dinner he noted, “Whoever it was who invented the brewing of beer has been a curse for Germany… Horses devour the greatest part of the grain, for we grow more oats than rye. The good peasants and the townspeople drink up almost as much of the grain in the form of beer.”

And on another occasion at the table, he said, “No doubt (Adam) was a very sensible man and well practiced in a variety of trials. He lived most temperately and drank neither wine nor beer. I wish brewing had never been invented, for a great deal of grain is consumed to make it, and nothing good is brewed.”

:: Brewed at Home, Consumed at Home ::

Luther much preferred home-brew. After Luther married, his wife Katie brewed beer as the lay brothers had brewed it in days gone by. Luther Peterson notes that Martin often began his written invitations to friends with the note that Katie had made him another barrel of beer. Once in 1535, while away from home, he wrote to her about some bad beer he had drunk “which did not agree with me… I said to myself what good wine and beer I have at home, and also what a pretty lady, or lord.” There’s an endorsement of home-brew, and very diplomatically put as well.

We know that Luther drank at home. One biographer notes, “The German prophet became a patriarch, and the living room was dominated by his presence. He enjoyed his beer and had a great mug with three rings on it, one ‘the Ten Commandments’, the next ‘the Creed’ and third ‘the Lord’s Prayer’. He boasted that he could encompass all three with ease.”

Luther also drank the local beer with friends, noting in one sermon delivered at Wittenberg in 1522, “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 (an allusion to Mark 4:27), or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it.”

Beer had other virtues for Luther. All his life, he was troubled with constipation and insomnia, but in a letter to Katie while he was traveling, he mentioned the excellent local beer with its laxative qualities, “three bowel movements in three hours.” On another occasion, he wrote to say how well he was sleeping because of the local beer, but that he was as “sober as in Wittenberg.”

:: On Moderation ::

Above all, Luther was a champion of moderation. In his Sermon on Soberness and Moderation, delivered on May 18, 1539, he noted:

“It is possible to tolerate a little elevation, when a man takes a drink or two too much after working hard and when he is feeling low. This must be called a frolic. But to sit day and night, pouring it in and pouring it out again, is piggish… all food is a matter of freedom, even a modest drink for one’s pleasure. If you do not wish to conduct yourself this way, if you are going to go beyond this and be a born pig and guzzle beer and wine, then, if this cannot be stopped by the rulers, you must know that you cannot be saved. For God will not admit such piggish drinkers into the kingdom of heaven (an allusion to Galatians 5:21)… If you are tired and downhearted, take a drink; but this does not mean being a pig and doing nothing but gorging and swilling… You should be moderate and sober; this means that we should not be drunken, though we may be exhilarated.”

And so we have Martin Luther’s permission to enjoy a light buzz, especially at home with family and friends, but his stern admonition to refrain from piggishness.

* * *

These notes were written for a speech on “The Beers of Luther’s Germany,” given to the Men’s Breakfast at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Fayetteville, New York, in April 1997. Keith Villa, of Blue Moon Brewing, was very helpful in describing how the beers of Martin Luther’s era would have looked and tasted. My thanks to the Rev. James Bresnahan and Michael Lagerman for their assistance.

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  1. [...] morning men’s group at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church who sat spellbound while I spoke about “The Beers of Martin Luther.” Because of all this, I was aware of a modest amount of name recognition among a very small group, [...]

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