The list of ingredients required to brew beer is not a drawn-out thing. At only four items long, it is the brewer’s holy quaternity: water, barley, hops, and yeast. It is a simple list. And one that has brought immeasurable joy to humankind.
But it wasn’t always such a normalized drink. In fact, beer used to be brewed with a staggering variety of ingredients, from pagan herbs and spices, to psychedelic mushrooms.
So, what happened? When did beer become so standardized? Who decided it should only contain water, hops, barley and yeast? And, perhaps most curiously, why?
Inevitably, it began in Germany — as these things tend to — exactly 502 years ago, with a mandate known as Reinheitsgebot.
Part food safety policy, part religious suppression, and part marketing scheme, Reinheitsgebot (aka the Bavarian Beer Act), was implemented in 1516 by the German government and the Holy Roman Empire. It has defined how people brew beer right up into the modern age; and in Germany it is still used by brewers to indicate the quality of their product.
On its face, Reinheitsgebot (which translates as "purity order") was about standardization, combining two of Germany’s greatest historical obsessions: beer, and purity. And, perhaps not surprisingly, the “purity” part wasn’t all about the beer.
Sure, by legally restricting the ingredients to water, barley, hops and yeast, the state was effectively establishing quality criteria for what could be sold. This prevented lowlifes from selling crap beer, that was poorly fermented, and muddled up with all kinds of suspicious, old-world additives that were often included to mask the terrible, gut-churning flavor of beer prior to carbonation and refrigeration technology. It also reserved wheat for bread, made beer easier to tax, and set a standard price.
But, there were darker, more cynical motives at play as well.
While public health, standardized quality and standardized price were nice upshots of the Bavarian Beer Act, it was also a means and opportunity for the Catholic church to force itself between The People, and God.
Before the “purity order,” one very common ingredient used in beer was psychedelic mushrooms. The fly agaric mushroom, which was widely used in pagan rituals throughout Europe, offers a natural, easily accessible way for the average schmuck to experience a transcendental mystical awakening. Not only that, but magic mushrooms literally expand the human mind, and can increase a person’s cognitive power — neither of which helped the Catholic church maintain its control over Europe.
For historical context, in 1516, Martin Luther’s infamous protestant reformation was just getting started. Up until this point, clerics of the church had kept the Bible encrypted in Latin, so that only they could translate the “divine word.” If someone had a question about life or the universe, they had to go through the church.
Well, Luther ripped that safety net right out from underneath their holy feet. Using a revolutionary new invention called the printing press, he translated the Bible into the common tongue, and distributed it to people everywhere, to spite the religious monopoly.
All of which is meant to illustrate: at this juncture in history, the Holy Roman Empire, the almighty Catholic church, was freaking the fuck out. It was in crisis mode — heathens had seized upon God’s throttle, and they were running the ship straight at the rocks. They needed to double down on religious suppression efforts. Any rituals or traditions that threatened them, any substances that circumvented their singular claim to spiritual authority, needed to be tossed overboard, ASAP.
Enter, Duke Wilhelm IV and Duke Ludwig X, the co-rulers of Bavaria (Germany), who conveniently roll out this fresh edict, just as Luther is sowing the seeds of religious discord throughout their country:
“We wish to emphasize that in future in all cities, market-towns and in the country, the only ingredients used for the brewing of beer must be Barley, Hops and Water,” the act declares, sternly. (Yeast was added later when it was discovered in the 1800’s.) “Whosoever knowingly disregards or transgresses upon this ordinance, shall be punished by the Court authorities' confiscating such barrels of beer, without fail.”
No more magic mushrooms in your beer. No more pagan herbs like gruit, stinging nettle, or henbane, either. German beer was henceforth restricted, and sadly, because of this, many brewing traditions and local German specialties, like cherry beer and North German spiced beer, drifted into extinction.
Today, all over Germany, you’ll still find beers that boast of being, “Brewed according to the Reinheitsgebot purity law of 1516” (although the regulation was officially abolished in 1986). It has become a selling point for brewers, to indicate “purity” and to encourage brand trust; it is a popular marketing tool, not dissimilar to the “certified organic” or “free-range livestock” labels used for food.
That’s just in Germany, though. Today, beer is brewed in every corner of the world — and ain’t no 500-year-old Holy Roman edict gonna quash the creativity of the modern brewer. Because, this is 2018 goddamnit! Our brewers are artists and they throw whatever they damn-well feel like into their beer — cinnamon, pumpkin, vanilla beans, cucumber, chocolate, chilies, peanut butter, pizzas, marijuana, even coffee beans that have been eaten, digested, and pooped out by weasels. These are strange and beautiful times.
Which is to say, there is hope. We live in an era of beer-hysteria; the stuff is everywhere, there’s no hope of stemming its flow, and new recipes are being dreamed up every day by mad-brewers with vast autonomy to get weird with their beer. It seems, that the craft has reached a pinnacle of sorts, where creative freedom and quality of brew have settled on a common ground.
Maybe weasel-poop coffee-beer isn’t for you, but at least it’s out there (and rumor is, it’s not too shabby). And perhaps, in a future where people can accept, and even expect diversity like that in their beer, and throughout the taproom, someday, maybe, psychedelic mushrooms will find their way back into mix.
One can only dream.