Mark it in your calendars: April 23, 2016 is the 500th anniversary of the enactment of the Reinheitsgebot. Beer drinkers, rejoice!
Drinkers in North America might better know it as the German Beer Purity Law. It was (and still is) a law regulating the ingredients that can be used to make beer. The short story is that on April 23, 1516, Bavarian Duke Wilhelm IV issued a decree to restrict the making of beer to certain ingredients, namely barley, hops and water (yeast had not yet been discovered). The Reinheitsgebot went on to shape half a millennium of German brewing traditions and, in many respects, defined what most beer around the world is today.
But history is never that clean, nor that simple. There have been more than one Reinheitsgebot in history. Munich created a similar law in 1487, years before Wilhelm’s decree. In the 1800s, a second version was created to regulate other parts of what is now northern Germany. The Reinheitsgebot only became law for all of Germany upon unification of the Weimar Republic in 1918.
The list of allowed ingredients has also been amended over the years to reflect realities. The biggest was the addition of yeast in the 1700s after Louis Pasteur discovered its key role in fermentation. There are also allowances for wheat and rye and certain sugar adjuncts in ale brewing.
Historically, there were three motivations for the law. First, banning the use of wheat and rye in beer prevented price competition with bakers. In other words, it was a way to keep the price of bread affordable. Second, unregulated brewers would often add noxious and dangerous ingredients to their beer, either for bitterness or to mask off-flavours. Such ingredients included roots, mushrooms, animal by-products, henbane (a toxic plant) and soot. Third, at the time the church was in the process of stamping out the use of ingredients in beer associated with pagan practices, such as herbs and fruit, in favour of hops.
The Reinheitsgebot is still in force today (sort of) as it is part of the German Tax Code. However, in 1987, it was struck down by a European Union court as a protectionist trade violation—a case launched by adjunct-happy French brewer Fischer, located in Strasbourg on the German border. Today, the Reinheitsgebot only applies to beer brewed in Germany.
Five hundred years after its enactment, the Reinheitsgebot still has a powerful moral authority. It is a reflection of “pure” beer made in a traditional fashion. Being able to say you are “Reinheitsgebot–compliant” remains a powerful statement in some beer circles. While its legal authority is diminished, its marketing influence has grown, in large part alongside the rise of craft beer. Evidence of this is the sheer number of lager brewers who attempt to attach this title to their brand—though some are more legitimate descendants of the tradition than others.
Craft brewing today, of course, prides itself on its use of experimentation and unusual ingredients. None of this would be allowed under the Reinheitsgebot. But when you speak to craft brewers, they understand and respect the basis of the law. It served an important purpose historically, and it is still relevant today. Ninety percent of beer produced in the world is almost half comprised of corn (or rice) syrup. This is what the Reinheitsgebot aimed to prevent, and it’s what craft brewers are working against.
The Reinheitsgebot might seem like a bit of dusty history. But it still shapes how we think about beer today. So grab a German lager and celebrate.V
Jason Foster is the creator of onbeer.org, a website devoted to news and views on beer from the prairies and beyond.