Around the Bottle Makes Three world headquarters we’ve been feeling a bit German lately. Last week’s 3-post series on Oktoberfest made us want to gear up in our lederhosen and head out for some schnitzel and brats. It also left us thirsty for more knowledge on German beer. That’s why today we’re going to look at the traditional German beer law that turns 501 this month: the Reinheitsgebot.
What is Reinheitsgebot?
The German Reinheitsgebot (pronounced “Rine Heights Ge-Boat”) literally translates to “purity law.” You’ll often here it referred to as the German Beer Purity Law. It is the oldest food safety law still in existence. What we know of today as the Reinheitsgebot was initially decreed on April 23, 1516 by the Bavarian Duke Wilhelm IV and his brother Duke Ludwig X. Among other things their original decree established what ingredients could be used to make beer. Specifically, it stated that German brewers could use only barley, hops and water to make beer.
Obviously, that initial law has been tweaked just a few times in 5 centuries since its inception. When it was discovered that yeast was the special sauce that made fermentation happen, it was added to the list. Other ingredients, such as malted wheat, coriander, and bay leaf have also been allowed in certain regional styles of beer.
Why Was Reinheitsgebot Created?
Originally the Reinheitsgebot law was created to address three different concerns. First, lawmakers wanted to limit a brewer’s profit as a way to keep beer affordable for citizens. Back then, beer was much more than a social lubricant. Beer was part of your daily diet and, therefore, important for your nutrition. The law kept brewers from price gauging, keeping beer prices in check.
Secondly, the law addressed public safety concerns. As you can imagine, things were just a bit less hygienic 500 years ago. Contamination was common. Brewers were known to sometimes add questionable ingredients to their brews. While the results of their experimentation were often intoxicating, they could also be dangerous, or even deadly. By limiting ingredients to barley, hops and water, drinkers could be assured that their next beer wasn’t going to be their last.
Finally, the law banned brewers from using wheat, which benefited German bakers. By forcing brewers to use barley, wheat remained cheap and easy for bakers to obtain. This ensured that loaves of bread and baked goods would be available for everyone… you know, to pair with their beer.
Recent(ish) changes to the Reinheitsgebot
For hundreds of years the Reinheitsgebot was the law of the land and dictated what beers you could brew and drink in Germany. However in 1987 things changed. That’s when the EU Court of Justice declared that the Reinheitsgebot couldn’t be used as a reason to ban imported beers. This allowed brewers outside of Germany to import their beer, even if the brew wasn’t made in accordance to the Reinheitsgebot. However, German breweries were still required to brew according to the purity law.
In 2005, a court loosened the rules for German brewers just a bit, allowing brewers to make beers that didn’t comply with the Reinheitsgebot. The catch was that the brewers couldn’t legally call these beverages beer. Despite the loosening of the rules, some regions still strictly follow the Reinheitsgebot. In Bavaria, for example, an absolute purity law still applies. If an inspector deems that your beer is “misleading” to consumers because you’re using an unapproved ingredient, they can force the brewery to pour it out.
Why Has Reinheitsgebot Endured?
An argument can easily be made that the German Beer Purity Law is outdated. Some brewers claim that it prevents them from being creative and competitive in today’s worldwide market. So why not overturn the age-old law?
In a word: tradition.
German beer traditionalist don’t want the law changed, and many German drinkers seem to agree. A survey completed by the German Brewers’ Association found that 85% of German beer drinkers support the Reinheitsgebot laws. Purists will argue that with so many varieties of hops, malts and yeasts available there is plenty of room for creativity within the current law.
America and the Reinheitsgebot law
Clearly, there are no laws banning brewers in the United States from using all sorts of unique ingredients in our beer. Some breweries choose to follow the German Beer Purity Law to show they are making authentic German-style beers. However most breweries seem to like being able to do whatever they want. Beers with fruit, spices, extracts, enzymes and other additives make for some fun and unique brews.
Mockery Brewing in Denver, came up with their name in part as a response to the Reinheitsgebot laws. As we reported when they opened, Mockery’s intention was to make some beers in adherence to the German beer purity laws, while the other half would be a complete mockery of the laws. Score one for Mockery Brewing, and all the creative craft brewers of America, for not being afraid to be a little “impure” once in a while.
Mockery Brewing’s 2nd Annual Reinheitsgewhat!? Party
This month as the German Beer Purity Law turns 501, Mockery Brewing will be celebrating a 2nd year of thumbing their nose at the rules. Their 2nd Annual Reinheitsgewhat!? Party will take place on Saturday, April 29th from noon to 11 p.m. Mockery Brewing promises to feature lots of special, limited-edition beer releases… all of which break the German beer purity law. The Polkanauts will be entertaining folks with their awesome metal/polka tunes. Revelry Events will be there too, cooking up some authentic German cuisine. So unless you’re a German beer purist, go check out the party. It’s sure to be a fun time.
Final Words on the Reinheitsgebot
In the end, beer is a huge part of German culture. The fact that the Reinheitsgebot has stood the test of time is a source of great pride to German brewers and beer drinkers alike. Plus, these traditional beers are still very popular with drinkers worldwide. Given the history and the success of these beers, there’s no sign that the law of the land will change any time soon.
If you want to learn more about Reinheitsgebot you can read more in-depth about at reinheitsgebot.de. However if like us you just want to end things with a silly song, then here you go: