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Making sense of the Reinheitsgebot

Now that it's been around for 500 years, let's figure this beer purity thing out. And does it have any relevance today?
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You can expect to hear a lot this year about the Reinheitsgebot, especially over the next few months.

Germany’s famous beer “purity” law would be celebrating its 500th birthday this April, if it were an anthropomorphic parchment with hands, feet, face and a thirst. But it’s not. It’s just a law—albeit one that is widely misunderstood—so it doesn’t celebrate anything at all. People do, though, especially those looking for any excuse to drink (or to sell) beer.

So let us arm you with some real knowledge that can be used to gently educate friends, bartender and brewers who mention the Reinheitsgebot—whether they celebrate it or vilify it. The more we learn about the real thing, the more we’d suggest a healthy like/hate relationship is best.

Because, like most laws and personal relationships, it’s complicated.

What exactly happened 500 years ago, and where?

Duke Wilhelm IV of Bavaria signed a decree that limited the price of beer. It also limited what ingredients could be used to brew it: only water, barley and hops. There were earlier local laws in some German cities—notably one in Munich that is thought to have influenced the Bavarian law. But that was before war reunited Bavaria; the 1516 order is the one that is remembered.

Why is it called the Reinheitsgebot (literally, “purity law”)?

That is only the popular modern name, coined by a Bavarian politician in 1918. It’s arguably a misnomer, since the idea was not necessarily to keep beer “pure” but to keep both beer and bread affordable. The decree explicitly limited the price of beer (I wonder how many pfennigs a pint would cost today) while also keeping brewers’ grubby mitts off the bakers’ precious wheat—that was to keep bread affordable.

When did the law extend to all of Germany?

Not until 1906. The Bavarians had insisted on it as a condition of German reunification in the late 19th century, but it was controversial. Northern brewers made a wider variety of beers, some traditionally made with fruit and spices. The northerners—correctly, it must be said—saw the Bavarian law as a protectionist measure. And what happened afterward? Many of those odd regional styles disappeared in the 20th century, as pils gained popularity.

Was it the first food safety law?

No way. There were others before that, and the decree didn’t address food safety or sanitation. Some also call it the “oldest consumer protection law,” maybe because it is still in effect … sort of. Long story short: When it comes to historical “facts,” beware all superlatives.

What does the law look like today?

Like legalese. Today it’s part of the Vorläufiges Biergesetz—the Provisional Beer Law. But it has evolved over the years, for example, to allow yeast. It allows hop extracts. It also allows the use of wheat, or any other malted grains, as well as sugar—but only for top-fermenting beers. And there is no prohibition on the importation of non-compliant beers, or else it would violate various international trade laws.

Is the Reinheitsgebot still in effect?

Yes, basically. You have to follow it if you want to brew and sell beer in Germany. But, a German company could brew non-compliant beer in another country and import it. A German brewery could make non-compliant beer, but the brewery can’t market it as “beer.”

How does it affect brewers today?

Here is one example that got some press in Germany—although I didn’t know about it when I walked into the Tap-House in Munich last week. The owner of the Tap-House is Camba Bavaria, a medium-small brewery founded in 2008 about 50 miles east of Munich. Camba makes a wide variety of brands—international-style craft, let’s say—including hoppy ales, Belgian styles, fruited things, and barrel-aged whatsits.

Knowing that I would be writing about the Reinheitsgebot, I decided to drink something non-compliant. Because that’s my idea of fun, I guess. I saw Milk Stout on the menu and ordered it.

No dice. The barman—who was from Minnesota, incidentally—explained that there were legal troubles related to the Reinheitsgebot.

So I asked the brewery about it. It seems that Camba ran into some complications with federal authorities last fall, and it began with that Milk Stout.

According to the brewery, officials told them (1) they can’t call it beer, since it has lactose (milk sugar); (2) they can’t call it “milk” anything since there is no milk in it; (3) they can’t call it Klim Touts either, by the way, because don’t be cheeky; and oh (4) you’ll have to go ahead and pay taxes on it as if it were beer, even though we say it’s not beer, because “milk stout” is clearly an established international beer style, even though you can’t call it that.

While Camba and the relevant officials continue talking to try and sort this out, the brewery is currently prohibited from brewing or selling the beer. Thus, Camba said, it was forced to destroy its existing stock of the stuff.

Officials also took samples of Camba’s Christopher Ale (a spiced wheat beer) and Coffee Porter. The brewery says it expects those beer might be banned next. Meanwhile, at the Tap-House in Munich, I was able to taste a barrel-aged amber ale that had been racked onto cherries. The thinking is that the cherries were added after brewing, so it should be OK.

See? It’s complicated. Or, perhaps—as one inspector admitted to Cambra—“it’s incomprehensible.”

Does the law deserve any credit for the quality of German beer?

By limiting brewing ingredients, it could be argued, the “purity law” kept out dodgy adulterants or cheap adjuncts.

And if I’m honest, the great majority of my favorite beers would all be Reinheits-kosher. There is something to be said for the creativity and workmanship that happen within a limited framework. As variety-conscious drinkers, we’re aware of the apparently limitless spectra of flavor and possibility using four simple ingredients.

But in reality the law never required quality nor had much to say about it. Instead it became a symbol that got credit for the achievements of expertly trained workers.

“Unfortunately, many people seem to get confused about the reasons for the high quality of German beer,” writes beer historian Ron Pattinson. “As far as I can tell, the Reinheitsgebot is totally irrelevant; German beer is good because German brewers are highly skilled and make their beer with pride and care.”

“I have drunk beer in Germany which was so badly infected that it was unfit to have left the brewery,” writes Pattinson. “The Reinheitsgebot has nothing to say about this.”

Never mind. What, when and where I can I drink to, for, or against this thing?

Look: I know you don’t need an excuse to drink. But sometimes you like one. OK.

So on Saturday, April 23, feel free to raise a krug to honor/defy/shrug in cool ambivalence to a 500-year-old German parchment.

The really big party will be in Ingolstadt, where the law originally was signed. The city will throw a Fest of Pure Beer from April 22 to 24. Good idea to park in Munich and take the train. Other cities will be organizing events too, throughout the year, especially in Bavaria. Tourist offices are gleefully printing up the brochures.

Meanwhile, some smaller indie brewers and craft beer bars around the country are organizing a counter-celebration of sorts—an “Anti-Reinheitsgebot” party to say that “500 years of restriction is enough.” There is a page for it on Facebook. It sounds cranky but the message is mostly positive: to promote the creative freedom of German brewers. I’m sure they would be delighted if/when American bars and breweries decide to participate with their own events.

Or, here is a perverse idea: April 23 also is the first day of Belgium’s largest beer festival, Zythos in Leuven. Might as well raise a glass to a largely symbolic German law in the country that is arguably its greatest counterpoint.

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