Celebrating 500 Years of German’s Beer Purity Law

Germany’s treasured—and controversial—rule has a fascinating past and an uncertain future

German Oktoberfest
German beers have been under strict rules for 500 years. Tim Graham/Corbis

In Germany rules are rules—and they even apply to something as fun as beer. The Reinheitsgebot, Germany's legendary beer purity law, turns 500 on April 23 in a sudsy celebration known as German Beer Day. Many Germans love the law, but others think it's an outdated relic that should be chucked. Beer purity is only one part of the Reinheitsgebot story; protectionism, taxes, national pride and marketing all come into play. 

How Was the Reinheitsgebot Born?

German expat Horst Dornbusch, an award-winning brewer, beer judge and writer, says the rule’s 500-year history is rather surprising. “That small 31-word passage in an obscure proclamation, crafted at the height of the Renaissance, has since acquired an almost mythical status in Germany. It is hailed as the country’s indispensable guardian of beer quality,” he notes via e-mail.

The Reinheitsgebot, which may be the world's oldest active consumer protection law, predates the birth of today's unified Germany. Duke Wilhelm IV of Bavaria handed it down in the city of Ingolstadt half a millennium ago as the Substitutionsverbot (substitution prohibition). Even 500 years ago, it was rather old news. 

Previous efforts to control the quality and pricing of German beer date back to at least 1156, when Augsburg adopted a similar statute under the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick “Barbarossa.”

Wilhelm's Bavarian law spread gradually across the land until, in 1906, it became mandatory throughout Germany by an Imperial Act under the reign of Kaiser Wilhelm II.

But it wasn't until World War I that a Bavarian legislator introduced a new phrase to describe the law during a beer tax debate—the Reinheitsgebot. Though the statute hadn't been known as a “beer purity” law before this time the phrase was embraced immediately and has been used enthusiastically ever since.

Why Was it Passed?

Sixteenth century 'breweries' bore little resemblance to modern facilities with their gleaming stainless steel tanks.

Open fires boiled brew kettles and fermentation took place in pitch-lined wooden vats. The process was less than hygienic and contamination was common. Brewers regularly added questionable ingredients like wood shavings, roots, and even poisonous (though hallucinogenic) plants like fungi or henbane. The results were intoxicating but they could also make imbibers sick—or worse.

Beer in this era wasn't just for relaxation, it was a dietary staple for many and the act aimed to ensure a safe, reliable supply. It also helped set prices and profit margins to make sure beer was affordable—in fact the vast majority of the law deals with pricing and penalties designed to hit brewers in the pocketbook.

And the Reinheitsgebot was as much a baker protection act as a beer law. Banning wheat in beer kept it available and cheap for bakers, while brewers used still less expensive barley. This edict ensured that the people would have plenty of bread to wash down with their beers.

The original law restricted beer brewers to three ingredients; “thou shalt use no other piece than barley, hops, and water for making beer,” it stated. However it has since been tweaked many times over.

Yeast, which converts sugar to alcohol and CO2 during fermentation and helps determine a beer's flavor, wasn't included because the law predates its discovery.

During old-fashioned open air brewing processes (which some brewers still employ today) there was enough airborne yeast, particularly near bakeries where beer was often brewed, that it was naturally added to the mix unnoticed by brewers.

After Antonie van Leeuwenhoek's microscope debuted in 1676 scientists gradually uncovered the role of yeast in fermentation and the law was amended to include it.  Another notable addition was malted wheat, which enables brewers to make familiar German top-fermented styles like Hefeweizen, Alt, and Kölsch.

What's a 'Beer' Anyway?

After complaints by French brewers, the EU Court of Justice struck down the Reinheitsgebot in 1987 as a protectionist measure. The ruling opened German shelves and taps to foreign brews—no longer could the country use the law to ban imported beers brewed outside of its edicts.

Germans did stick to the statute themselves, but a 2005 German court interpretation loosened the reins a bit further.

The brewing and sale of non-compliant beers was allowed as long those products aren't labeled as 'beer.' This has led to a spate of “special beer” and “beer mixed drinks,” though actual prosecutions of more egregious violators, in terms of fines and/or jail time, are unheard of. But in uber-strict Bavaria, however, they are still known to destroy beers like milk stouts under the premise that they are 'misleading' consumers.

But the law does have an important practical function with teeth. It's part of the tax code by which the government takes its cut of brewer profits.

Honoring Tradition

Beer has lost a bit of its luster in the nation where modern brewing methods were born. Consumption has been been sliding and statistics show it's down perhaps one-third since the 1970s, though Germans still rate among the world's most prolific beer drinkers.

Among German beer lovers the Reinheitsgebot varies in importance, perhaps according to the Biergarten surveyed, but enjoys strong support. The German Brewers' Association, which represents the nation's mainstream breweries and rigorously defends the Reinheitsgebotcites a survey conducted by Germany's Forsa Institute that found 85 percent of drinkers favored upholding the law.

To traditional brewers the Reinheitsgebot is a guarantee of quality, a defense against an onslaught of cheap rice and corn-based beers, and not least a powerful marketing tool to promote their product.

To those who charge the law stifles creativity and innovation the German Brewers Association counters that monotony isn't a concern. Since the law allows the use of 100 kinds of hops, 40 malts, and 200 yeast strains drinkers can enjoy a different kind of beer brewed under the law every day for 15 years without duplication—even while brewers continue to create more.

“So, there is absolutely no incentive for German brewers to let the 500 year-old document fade into the past. Quite the opposite,” the association asserts in a statement for the law's anniversary. 

Time For a Change?

Yet drinkers vote with their wallets and popular beer styles around the world, including both traditional offerings and many in the rapidly growing craft beer craze, often use fruits, cocoa, coffee and any number of other natural ingredients to naturally flavor beers that would be forbidden under the Reinheitsgebot.

The trend has reached Germany as well, where many craft brewers are ignoring the Reinheitsgebot. “I just brew what I want right past the law,” an unnamed German brewer recently told Dornbusch. “I call my beers by their style designations and simply leave the world ‘beer’ off the label.” 

San Diego's Stone Brewing is opening Germany's first U.S.-owned brewery. To mark the Reinheitsgebot's 500th anniversary Stone is hosting a “Reinheitsverbot”  event that will pour only non-compliant beers, of both Stone and German origin, at their Berlin facility.

Even in the U.S. 95 percent of Stone's beers do meet the Reinheitsgebot, including all the brewery's year-round offerings. But they don't brew with the law in mind, and certainly aren't afraid to deviate with the use of coffee, fruit, cocoa, or other natural ingredients when desired.

“It is a fact that high quality beers can be brewed both inside and outside of the Reinheitsgebot and that cheap beers can be brewed both inside and outside of the Reinheitsgebot,” Stone Brewing CEO and co-founder Greg Koch told the German press in advance of the event, laughingly adding that he wondered why “someone [would] wish to have their choices limited for them by a 500 year-old taxation law.”

Horst Dornbusch suggests a simplification of the law could preserve tradition and invite innovation at the same time by simply stating what Germans clearly do not want in their beer.

“No rice, no corn, no chemicals, no enzyme preparations, and (because we are in the 21st century) no GMO raw materials,” he suggests. “That’s 14 words, less than half the length of the 31 words of the ducal decree of 1516! Then leave the rest to the brewer.”

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