Monday, March 15, 2010
The Beers of Martin Luther
Because he traveled, Luther could have had many of favorite 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 fond of."
Also, Michael Jackson, in his New World 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 another question."
Einbeck beer was known as early as 1325 and 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.
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 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."
-Luther on Homebrew
Luther much preferred homebrew. 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 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 [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."
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."
-Luther 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 [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."
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.