The Reinheistgebot is commonly referred to as the “German Purity Law,” and 2016 marks the 500th anniversary of this simple yet somewhat mythical “law” that supposedly governs the quality of beer in Germany. At Loudoun Brewing Company we like the purity law, which in its simplest form states that beer shall only be made with 4 ingredients, barley, hops, water, and yeast. However, some folks get too wrapped up in the presumed importance of this doctrine, and therefore we are presenting you with the top 5 things that you (probably) didn’t know about the Reinheistgebot.
1. The original law is not German
Actually, it’s Bavarian (Bavaria out dates modern day Germany). Although the original law was written in 1516, many of the “purity” aspects of the law didn’t come into play until 1952 when Germany adopted the Reinheistgebot as part of the country’s tax law.
2. The original law had nothing to do with beer purity
What?! How can that be? Actually, the original law was written because of rising prices in wheat and rye, which was causing bread prices to spike. Limiting brewers to barley reduced the demand on wheat and rye, and as a result the price of bread dropped.
3. Many traditional German beers do not follow the original Bavarian purity law
Have you ever had a Hefeweizen? How about a Roggenbier? A Gose? A Dunkelweizen? These “traditional” German beers include ingredients that are forbidden by the original purity law, namely wheat and rye. They also happen to be ales and not lagers, and the original law was intended for bottom-fermented beers (lagers) only. This also led to a confusing branding issue in Germany where some brews were labeled as “beer” and some labeled as “ale”. To be labeled as “beer” it had to follow the purity law whereas with “ales”, well all bets are off. In the US today we consider ales to be a type of beer. Bavaria (and subsequently Germany), on the other hand, saw them as very distinct products. Confused yet?
4. The current purity law was contested as “trade protectionism”
As previously indicated, when Germany adopted the Reinheistgebot into their tax law, it created a precedent that beer could not be labeled as “beer” unless it adhered to the purity law guidelines. Germany began to reject imported products labeled as “beer” if they violated the German definition of “beer”, and therefore sale of these imports was prohibited. During the formation of the European Union this was seen as a violation of trade agreements, and Germany had to allow the “products,” to be imported. We’re now calling them “products” because I’m not sure who calls it what anymore.
5. The purity law has stifled creativity in German craft beer
Germany has fallen behind the world wide trend toward craft beer because of their adherence to the purity law. Even traditional craft Belgian ales such as Lambics and Abbey Ales, though considered to be some of the best beer styles in the world, do not follow the purity law guidelines, namely because of fruit and adjunct sugars. Oh, and they’re also ales. Although at some point ales were included in the purity guidelines. Honestly, this whole thing is too confusing. German brewers who are adopting craft beer styles are forced to label their creations as “ales” or “malt beverages” because labeling them “beer” would be a tax code violation, not to mention you lose the whole tradition bragging rights thing.
To me it seems silly, but to many Germans the “beer” label is a badge of honor indicating that they are following a national tradition. I get it, tradition is cool and people dig it. “Ale”, “malt beverage”, “beer”, whatever you need to call it, I cannot in good conscious turn it down if it’s brewed with great care, passion and respect for the craft. I would encourage folks to not get too wrapped up in the semantics of 500 year-old literature and simply enjoy the creativity and enjoyment that beer is bringing to our lives in the present. Cheers!