The Beers of Martin Luther
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.
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, systems of apprenticeship and knowledge held in
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
been complex, highly flavored, possibly a tad sour and/or cloudy, and
would have varied in color, flavor, strength and quality.
beer during Luther’s era was domestic 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.)
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.
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 others being wine and linen.
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)."
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
have had many of these beers, but there is only one with claims to the
effect that it was his favorite. Frederick Salem, in his Beer, Its
History and Its Economic Value as a National Beverage
(1880) notes, "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."
Guide to Beer (1988), notes 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
in One Hundred Years of Brewing (1903) is 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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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."
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
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.’ Here’s an endorsement of homebrew, and very diplomatically put
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."
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 [cf. Mark 4:26-29], 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."
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
moderation. In his Sermon on Soberness and Moderation, delivered on May
18, 1539, he noted:
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 [cf. Gal.
5:19-21]… 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."
to enjoy a warm glow, especially at home with family and friends, but
his stern admonition to refrain from piggishness.
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 the Rev. Michael
Lagerman for their assistance.