Some see the Reinheitsgebot, or German/Bavarian Beer Purity Law of 1516, as a defender of tradition and a guardian of purity. Others see it as an antiquated and restrictive law that inhibits freedom and creativity.
Contrary to what many believe, the Reinheitsgebot (pronounced “rhine-heights-guh-boat,” more or less) was not created solely to ensure beer was brewed to the highest standard. The intention of the law was multi-faceted: to preserve quality, to control beer pricing, to ensure beer’s taxability, and to reserve grains such as wheat and rye for bread making because they were in short supply.
In the original law, beer was limited to just three ingredients – barley/malt, hops and water. Yeast wasn’t included because it wasn’t known at the time.
In the Middle Ages, beer was considered a basic food and it was safer to drink than water because it was boiled and it contained alcohol. Setting a law on pricing and ingredients ensured people had good beer at a good price, plus it deterred unscrupulous brewers from using cheaper and/or harmful ingredients.
The Reinheitsgebot was amended and re-written many times, including the 1952 Bundesgesetzblatt enactment and the 1980 Zollaenderunggesetz Customs Law Amendment. In 1987, a European Union court declared the law a form of protectionism that created trade barriers, so it forced Germany to change the law by allowing foreign beer into its market. This caused German breweries to have to compete with breweries that may or may not use adjuncts, such as rice, corn, sugar, oats, fruit, etc. In 1993, restrictions loosened up even more.
Many German breweries stick to the older law and even boast about it on bottle labels and in their marketing, as if only using the four main ingredients in beer is somehow better than breweries that choose to use additional ingredients.
Stone Brewing Co., which is about to open a new brewery in Berlin, has this to say about the Reinheitsgebot:
“While 95 percent of the beer we brew at Stone meets the Reinheitsgebot, we don’t brew any of our beers with it in mind. We simply brew the beers the way we want to, and we’re not interested in an antiquated tax law from the 1500s dictating our decision. Anyone who thinks the Reinheitsgebot equals purity is spending too much time listening to marketing rhetoric.”
In my opinion, whether a brewery follows the German Purity Law or not is irrelevant. Beers made without adjuncts are not necessarily better or worse than beers made with adjuncts. Countless breweries – including most U.S. craft breweries – make great beer with just the four main ingredients. And many others make great beer with the four main ingredients plus more.
In other words, breweries that strictly follow the Reinheitsgebot can make good or bad beer, just as breweries that don’t adhere to the Reinheitsgebot can make good or bad beer. In fact, you don’t even have to be German to make great German-style beer!
Regarding great beer made with adjuncts, look no further than Belgium, which borders Germany. Most of Belgium’s best breweries make beers that do not comply with the German Purity code, including fruit lambics and faro (gueuze made with sugar).
I vividly recall a conversation I had with a German guy while trekking in the Alps. Somehow the topic of beer came up (I know, shock of the century), and he said, “German beer is the best in the world because it follows the Reinheitsgebot.” I reluctantly changed the topic because I didn’t want to have to school a German about beer.
If you’re proud of your country’s tradition and history, that’s one thing, and I’m all for it. But being ignorant and blissfully self-righteous is another.
I bit my lip, but I really wanted to tell that guy that the current “Purity Law” isn’t so “pure” anymore. As mentioned, since 1516 Germany has made many exceptions to the law. In 1857 Louis Pasteur discovered yeast, so the law had to be amended to include yeast. In the late ’60s, hop extracts were allowed (some German breweries now brew with them exclusively). And many exceptions have been made for adjuncts and other additives, such as wheat, sugar, salt, Brettanomyces, spices, clarifiers and finings, as well as chemicals to treat the brewing water.
What’s most astounding is that many of Germany’s finest beer styles do not even comply with the original law, including Hefeweizen, Dunkelweizen, Berliner Weisse, Roggenbier, and Gose.
If you want to split hairs further, you have to wonder why this Purity Law doesn’t offer protections or enforcement against bacterial infections. Or why it doesn’t require all beer ingredients to be organic.
All of that said, I really feel that the Reinheitsgebot is a neat part of Germany’s culture and history. Nowadays, however, I think it’s completely irrelevant, and it has little to do with ensuring quality or purity.