INSIDE VOICE #7: 400 years of beer innovating around tax law

In Europe, the growing conditions for beer ingredients – barley, oats, wheat, hops – are comparatively pretty narrow relative to grapes and other cereal grains. While beer traditions, and very intriguing ones, do exist outside of England, Netherlands, Germany, and Belgium. I’m focusing on these 4 countries for right now as they’ve been the most influential on our current beer styles.

Beer & bread share 75% of the ingredients. Bavarian monks were still allowed beer during their fasts and American colonial records frequently referred to beer as ‘liquid bread’.

Different cultures at different times have placed beer at a different point in the ‘vice’ – ‘food’ spectrum. From not taxing it because it was liquid bread to a complete prohibition.

Most cultures generally land someplace in the middle, “beer is so popular that taxing it will help us pay for this war” (in the case of the US, that was the Civil War).

But to tax it, you must first define what ‘beer’ is.

This is where things get interesting.

Today, we use ‘beer’ to generally refer to any malted grain-derived beverage containing alcohol.

Within ‘beer’ there are two major branches distinguished by where in the fermenting vessel the yeast activity is located.

In ales, it’s at the top.

In lagers, it’s at the bottom.

But this wasn’t always the key distinction. At one point in history, ‘beer’ and ‘ale’ were two very different beverages. While that point could very well be just a decade ago in Texas,

We’ll go a little further back.

About 400 years back, in Europe.

At this time, a beverage balancing the malt sweetness with hops was called ‘beer’.

And a more traditional beverage balancing it with gruit was called ‘ale’.

What is gruit?

Gruit is a combination of bitter herbs and spices usually containing; bog myrtle, yarrow, and rosemary.

Some records also mention heather, ginger, juniper, caraway, and cinnamon.

Gruit as a mixture was monopoly by the Catholic Church. This meant, the Catholic Church controlled the collection, composition, and sale of gruit to local brewers. Occasionally, they would license those rights to local municipalities. This is the earliest known tax on beer.

The Catholic Church was so serious about maintaining this monopoly that in 1381 Frederick the Archbishop of Cologne decreed that all brewers must buy gruit from the Episcopal Gruit house and the importing of hopped beer was forbidden.

This monopoly on gruit drove brewers to find other bittering agents.

And they found that in hop flowers.

Hops, previously considered a noxious weed, turned out to be more potent at bittering beer, as well as improving shelf-life, more reliably consistent, and bypassed the Catholic Church’s taxes.

By 1450 hop farming was well underway in the Netherlands and across Northern Europe. The adoption of hops by brewers coincided with growing frustrations with the Catholic Church all culminating with Martin Luther and the Reformation.

Between 1487 and 1520 both Bavaria and the Netherlands had established laws declaring that only hops could be used in beer. No other herbs.

In 1516 there’s an English record declaring:

“Hop and Reformation, bays, and beer, came to England in all the same year”

As early as 1350 the Dutch were brewing a 75% malted oats and 25% malted wheat beer.

50 years later, in 1400, malted barley was introduced and gradually gained on the oats, and by 1550 malted barley made up 25% of the recipe.

This 50% oats, 25% wheat, 25% barley combination describes the ‘koyt’ one of the few traditional Dutch beer styles. I bring this up for 4 reasons:

  1. Koyt is considered one of the styles straddling this ‘gruit’ / ‘hop’ beer transition.
  2. A barley, wheat, oats combination is the basic grain bill for beers in the popular hazy NE IPA style.
  3. Nobody enjoyed it at the time. During the Dutch Golden Age, beer from elsewhere in Europe was so preferred, a 75% tariff was placed on beer imported into Holland.
  4. Colonial America…

In the early 1600s, the Dutch colonized modern day New York, from Manhattan up to Albany.

They brought their oat & wheat brewing traditions with.

There is a record of my 10th great-grandfather paying for his rented farmland with bushels of wheat, oats, and rye.

No doubt the rest of it went to supplying local bakers and brewers (who paid a licensing fee of 6 beavers per year).

Grain was so plentiful and beer so popular that a law at the time stating the minimum amount of malt used for beer calculates to a 7% ABV.

Further down the coast, the English in Virginia were far less successful in translating their barley-based brewing traditions to the New World. Eventually, they gave up, switched to tobacco.

They would then trade that tobacco for malt and beer from the Dutch.

This helped supply the Dutch West India Company’s global trade network with tobacco while bypassing the English crown’s taxes on colonial tobacco.

Eventually the crown got wise to the fact that colonists were smuggling tobacco, as well as molasses and sugar for rum. So in 1764 the Sugar Act outlawed all rum and liquor. Driving the colonists to switch to beer and cider. It wasn’t just in the colonies that England looked to pay off the Napoleonic wars, it was also at home.

The story of beer tax law in England is best told through the rise and fall of the Porter style.

All of this is in thanks to Ron Pattinson’s amazingly comprehensive research into English commercial brewers.

In 1790 Parliament increased the tax on malt. At this point, a Porter was 100% brown malt (with likely a smokey, toffee, tobacco, nutty profile) and 7% ABV.

Over the next 10 years, an incremental reduction of malt reduced the ABV by 2% and had some other consequences.

The newly introduced ‘pale malt’ had greater sugar extraction despite being more expensive, brewers started switching over. It appears the drop in ABV was less concerning to the drinking public than the paler color, so brewers started adjusting the color with whatever they could get their hands on – liquorice juice?

Which caused Parliament to restrict the ingredients to barley, hops, yeast, water.

Only 300 years after the Dutch and Germans, but whatevs.

This drove to the invention of the drum roaster and black malt, which could, with just a percentage or two provide the opaque black color Porter drinkers were expecting.

Quickly followed was brewers adoption of the alcohol hydrometer to measure sugar extraction, which quantified just how poorly brown malt performed against pale malt.

And over the next 60 years, ingredient restrictions were lifted, first allowing sugar and then allowing rice, corn, and unmalted grain.

By 1900, a recipe for Porter looks very different than one century earlier. It now includes dark invert sugar and corn. No longer a toffee and tobacco, but coffee and caramel one.

Increased taxes and supply shortages through the wars cut Porters ABV in half again and by 1950 it was completely out of fashion. Many breweries dropped their Porter all together, while keeping the higher ABV Stout.

Bavarian law; barley, hops, water, (yeast) for bottom fermenting beers.

Top-fermenting beers can use wheat and rye, but they can’t call themselves ‘beer’, and these ingredients are taxed at a higher rate (strangely like Texas a decade ago).

Reinheitsgebot adoption by all brewers across Germany was a precondition of Bavaria joining the Weimar Republic in 1918 and again in 1949.

This obviously gave preference to Bavarian bottom-fermenting barley-only beers you might be familiar with like; Oktoberfest, Doppelbock, and Pilsners.

While discouraging equally traditional northern German styles like Berliner Weisse, Gose, and Gratzer. These heavily wheat-based styles are only recently being re-discovered by craft brewers globally.

Our last stop of the night is Belgium.

Belgium taxed brewers on how much grain could fit in their brewing system, so economical brewers would buy the smallest system they could and then reach the intended alcohol content by adding caramelized sugar later in the process.

This incentive to hit higher ABVs than the brewing system could comfortably support was amplified in 1919 with the Vandervelde Act which outlawed distilled spirits in Belgian cafes.

Brewers filled the void by introducing styles like the Golden Strong, Dark Strong, and Tripel with ABVs approaching and sometimes passing 10% with a complexity and drinkability that could compete with cocktails and beer imported from elsewhere in Europe.

So, yea, I do think Minnesota’s lame packaging restrictions will change.