“The Reinheitsgebot…had less to do with keeping peasants from poisoning themselves…than with controlling the hops and barley crops”

Beer is less ancient than wine, McGovern went on to say, because it requires more technology: agriculture to grow the grain, fire and kettles to cook it. But, once invented, it quickly spread. “It wasn’t just in one part of the world,” he said. “It was all over.” If wine was rare and therefore aristocratic—it could be made only once a year, when fruit was ripe—beer trickled down to the working class. All you needed was a little malted grain and something bitter to balance its sweetness. Before barley became the grain of choice, brewers used millet and rice. Even after hops were domesticated, around 700 A.D., they threw in wormwood, henbane, cowslip, ivy, mugwort, bog myrtle, elderberry, oak leaf, laurel leaf, autumn crocus, or wild rosemary. Some plants were poisonous, most were not, and they gave the beer an endless variety of flavors.

The Reinheitsgebot, when Duke Wilhelm IV of Bavaria imposed it in 1516, had less to do with keeping peasants from poisoning themselves—never a great concern of the gentry—than with controlling the hops and barley crops. It made a virtue of trade restrictions. And beer, that great bouillabaisse of an invention, became nearly as predictable as wine.

Burkhard Bilger, “A Better Brew”, The New Yorker (24 November 2008), 98-99.