When Martin Luther allegedly took nail to paper to secure his 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg’s All Saints Church in 1517, the Roman Catholic Church wasn’t exactly a paragon of morality. The domination of Catholicism loomed large over Europe, and Papal leadership wasn’t shy about abusing that power. Without a full, boring history lesson, by 1517, the church was about 40 years deep into that awkward teenage “Spanish Inquisition” phase, were big fans of oppressing peasantry with unfair monetary loans, and had a knack for selling positions of clerical and theological power to the highest bidder. They’d also found a way to milk even more money from the average church-goer by selling indulgences to anyone who’d sinned a little too much on their post-medieval weekend bender.
Luther and his peeps, pretty happy with the whole Jesus and Christianity thing, but also pretty upset with the rampant and generally unchecked usury, simony, and other bad words that end in -y, decided a lot needed to change. They printed their grievances Gutenburg style, and left them all over Germany for people to see. Other people had tried to reform the church earlier, but Luther’s proto-distribution of poorly xeroxed pamphlets kicked off what we now know as the Protestant Reformation. While Luther lead the charge, it’s important to remember that the people made up the army. It turns out pretty much everyone who wasn’t a ranking Catholic clergyman agreed that the Catholic Church had gotten a bit too big for its fancy pope-hat.
As usual, by now, I’m sure you’re asking what the hell this has to do with beer. Besides the fact that Germans were already brewing lager at this time and had official “beer laws” on the books (they weren’t allowed to brew in the summer), two fundamental concepts arose from Martin Luther’s protestations: sola scriptura and sola fide.
The two Latin phrases were the crux of reformation-age Lutheran rhetoric. Sola Scriptura (translated: “scripture alone”) noted that holy text (in this case, the Bible) was and should always be regarded as the source of all religious authority, basically giving a big middle finger to the Papacy for trying to make up their own religious meanings to benefit earthly gains. Sola fide (translated: “faith alone”) supported scriptura, suggesting that god’s opinion of you, and your ultimate metaphysical salvation, was a matter of how strong your faith was, not how much money you gave to the church. The two ideas formed the foundation of a branch of Christianity that was much more personal. A relationship with god where church was a spiritual catalyst, not a gatekeeper.
Fast forward almost exactly 500 years, and start to genuflect on bar stools instead of pews. Much like a church, a brewery is dependent on its congregation to survive. There’s a massive battle being fought to keep church goers going and beer drinkers drinking. One that centers around – you guessed it – money.
Without being hyperbolic, there are some legitimate similarities between the 16th century Catholic Church and AB-InBev. Both asserted domination over an aspect of life across a large demographic, both used their position of power to affect political and socioeconomic change, both played manipulative games riiiiight on the periphery of law, trying to control how their constituency feels, and ultimately, how they spend their money. AB-InBev purchasing other breweries is like a great schism; a huge move that makes people lose faith in the power and legitimacy of the organization.
Without too many mental backhand springs, Carlos Brito (CEO of Anheuser-Busch InBev) could be seen as the leader of a new Papal order; one more concerned with the fate of your liver, than the fate of your soul.
But a lot of people aren’t happy with that, for the same reason Martin Luther and his dawgs weren’t happy with how the Catholic Church was running things. They see the potential of a better future, a future where they have control, and don’t have their tastes dictated for them. A future where no central, shadowy agency holds ultimate power of choice. A future of dipsomatic freedom, good or bad. While not as important as say, the future of your immortal soul (although some people seem to treat it that way), beer matters on a fundamental enough level that people want to see it change, and wrestle the power back into the hands of those who proverbially “get it.”
One, if being whimsical, might argue that beer is a living, bubbling microcosm of American society at large, fermenting the desire to break the strangle-hold of the status quo, and usher in a better, tastier era.
It’s not even that far-fetched, considering. Look no further than the new idea of “Indie” beer. While “craft” started and lived most of its life as a marketing term, this new incarnation seems so much more personal, less about differentiating from a sales perspective, more about hardening the identity of a loose group of like-minded revolutionaries. What is the first thing a Christian denomination does when it makes enough internal changes to break away from the main church? It renames itself.
Even rock bands do it, when they can’t place their new style into the existing molds of what music should be.
Why not breweries?
Many have been trying to reform the beer world, but probably none have been as effective as the Brewer’s Association. The BA holds the reigns of the teeming network of smaller brewers – those modern-day Luthers ready and willing to post the 95 Tweets on the door of the @AnheuserBusch handle. But I think, by now, as good beer hits a softer, balding middle age, consumers are less enamored by yet another trade organization who claims to have their best interest at heart. I’m sure the BA means well, but beer people have trust issues, thanks to Big Beer. As a result, this reformation will be hammered into history by the consumers, one IPA or Imperial Stout at a time.
I mentioned sola scriptura and sola fide for a reason. Both sought to remedy problems created by the current ruling body, and both focused on bringing purist belief back to the people. Is that not, almost too conveniently, exactly what this “craft beer movement” has been about? A beerish interpretation of Sola scriptura could mean that true beer authority should be derived from all-grain, quality ingredient recipes, not what some brewery tells you is good. A modern take on sola fide might mean that ultimate beer enjoyment derives from a drinkers individual tastes, not the result of some hamfisted marketing campaign.
Whatever happens, I believe the ones purchasing beer hold the ultimate power. More so than the pagan-esque homebrewers who attempt to define their own rules, and definitely more so than the corporate group-thinkers who attempt to apply blanket rules. A reformation will happen, and I’m guessing sooner than later.
But remember: the clash between the Protestants and the Catholics didn’t end quietly and peacefully. It ended in one of the most devastating wars in human history. A massive amount of geopolitical and financial power is up for stakes, again. Seriously, billions upon billions of dollars. I’m not saying beer drinkers, the BA, and ABInBev will ever come to literal blows, but you heard it here first: the tension building now will not end with handshakes and smiles and everyone going home and having a pint.