Five Hundred Years Of Beer Tradition Enters New Era To Meet Controversy

german beer purity vs craft beer reinheitsgebot

The does purity equal quality? debate takes center stage.

With half of a millennium of history under its belt, the Reinheitsgebot (commonly anglicized to German Beer Purity Law) is as deeply ingrained in beer culture as, well, grains. April 23rd marks its 500th anniversary, celebrating a law that for many decades made “German beer” synonymous with quality.

In essence, the German Beer Purity Law is an ingredient list (and a rather strict one at that). In its inception, it stated that to be legally considered beer, the brewed beverage in question could only contain water, hops, and barley. That’s it. If it was labelled beer and deviated from the law, it was punishable by confiscation – a rather serious consequence for beer drinkers.

But where is it now? And what is the future for the German Beer Purity Law?

A Brief History of the Reinheitsgebot

Originally, the German Beer Purity Law wasn’t even German – or at least not quite. In its beginning (as we know it now) it came from the state of Bavaria, who in 1516 enacted it prior to becoming part of Germany. During the German unification in 1871, Bavaria made the country-wide adoption of the law a precondition for unification. That’s right – they said “brew beer our way or we won’t join the country.”

At first, the law only taxed brewers who used ingredients other than hops, barley and water rather than banning them outright. It wasn’t until 1906 that the law was followed strictly nation-wide in Germany. Needless to say, it was a slow progression before the German Beer Purity Law was accepted unanimously, even though now it is considered ubiquitous.

Since then, the law has undergone several tweaks, the most important of which was the inclusion of yeast (previously unknown to brewers as an essential part of the process) and the occasional exception for other ingredients.

Why the Purity Law?

It’s hard to pin the adoption of the Reinheitsgebot down to one reason. The primary one seems to largely be economic – Bavaria wanted to reduce competition for grains used by their bakers like wheat and rye. However, perhaps more compellingly are its ties to food safety.

As you can imagine, food safety laws were a bit less stringent 500 years ago than they are now. This didn’t just extend towards what ended up on people’s plates, but also in their glasses. Beer was certainly brewed similar to how it is now, but with the lack of refrigeration and preservatives, brewers had to get creative with ways to keep their beer.

Ingredients like soot, stinging nettle and henbane were all used (with varying degrees of success) to keep beer drinkable for as long as possible. Understandably, there was a pushback against the use of these ingredients, helping the German Beer Purity Law gain traction.

There’s even some speculation that the law stemmed from religious fear of Pagan herbs being used in the brewing process. Most likely, all of these factors and more influenced the implementation of the Reinheitsgebot in Bavaria, and made a convincing case for its adoption in Germany.

The Future for the German Beer Purity Law

So what place does the Reinheitsgebot have in the future of brewing, especially with the rise of craft beer? Many people are asking this same question. With North America leading the charge into increasingly complex brewing styles, some feel the purity law which once guaranteed quality, is now holding Germany back from the international beer scene.

In fact, already there has been some controversy regarding what can be defined as “beer” under German law. Monastery-brewed Klosterbrauerei Neuzelle has been battling to be considered beer for years. Brewed in the same way for 600 years, it is beer in every definition except one — the Reinheitsgebot. The brewers of Klosterbrauerei Neuzelle continue to battle authorities to this day about whether or not their beer is, well, beer.

Several more German politicians and brewers are contesting that the Reinheitsgebot is limiting beer diversity in Germany, and making it less competitive. However, other drinkers contest that the purity law has served 500 years of brewers, and that needn’t change it any time soon. This is a debate which will likely only intensify as the global craft movement advances.

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Throughout history, the Reinheitsgebot has changed many times, and evolved with the drink it originally was designed to protect. It’s undoubtable that further evolutions will take place.

Where once it served to keep soot out of beer, now it acts more as a mark of national pride. The future for the German Beer Purity Law remains uncertain, but it has proven itself resilient and adaptable in the past. In the meantime, you can count on your German pilsners being crisp, clean and – of course – pure.

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I’m Cam “Smoth” Smith, a fiend for the fermented, a wino, whiskey-naut, and beer imbiber. I’ve been avidly tasting wine, spirits and craft beer since I was too young to be avidly tasting anything. I started Sublime Imbibing to share my passion, and help others develop their own. Imbibe literally means “to drink” and to absorb knowledge. I'm hoping to help you do both. Check out http://sublimeimbibing.ca to learn more!
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