Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation changed not just the way Europeans lived, fought, worshiped, worked and created art, but also how they ate and drank. Among the things it greatly impacted was a special drink, beloved throughout the world, and especially in Luther’s native Germany: beer.
Katerina von Bora: Brew Master…If ever there were a power behind the throne, none was stronger than Katerina von Bora — or “Dear Kate,” as Luther described his beloved wife. Her story is full of drama: Born of a noble, but poor family, Katerina was only three when she was sent away to school and eventually took vows to become a nun. In April 1523, with the Reformation well under way, Katerina and 11 of her fellow nuns hid in a wagon and escaped from their Cistercian convent.
Eventually Katerina von Bora and Martin Luther were joined in holy matrimony, on June 13, 1525, and by all accounts, it was a happy and affectionate marriage. Luther wrote that he loved waking up to see pigtails on the pillow next to him.
The intelligent, talented and exceptionally competent Katerina not only bore six children and managed the Luther’s large household, with its endless stream of guests, but she also planted a vegetable garden and fruit trees, raised cows and pigs, had a fish pond, drove a wagon, and — to her husband’s undying delight — opened a brewery that produced thousands of pints of beer each year. Katerina’s initial attempts produced a thin, weak brew, but she soon got the hang of it and learned exactly how much malt to add to suit her husband’s taste. Luther was ecstatic — “Dear Kate” had assured him a steady supply of beer, even when Wittenberg’s breweries ran dry.
In an age where the water was unsafe to drink, beer was drunk by everyone and, in many ways, it was the nutritional and social fuel of Germany. Beer was brewed less for pure enjoyment than for medicinal reasons (it incorporated herbs and spices) and for pure sustenance. Beer back then was richer and heartier than today’s brews. Beer was a source of calories, especially for the lower classes who did not have access to rich foods.
If anyone loved and appreciated good beer, it was the stout, sensual and gregarious monk Luther. His letters often mentioned beer, whether it was the delicious Torgau beer that he extolled as finer than wine, or the “nasty” Dessau beer that made him long for Katerina’s homebrew.
“I keep thinking what good wine and beer I have at home, as well as a beautiful wife,” he wrote. “You would do well to send me over my whole cellar of wine and a bottle of thy beer.”