On April 23, beer enthusiasts around the world celebrated 500 years of Bavarian beer-making standards, known as Reinheitsgebot—the Beer Purity Law. With more than 1,300 breweries producing roughly 5,500 different kinds of beer and an annual beer festival that attracts millions of guests, Germany has a well-deserved reputation for being the master of the amber nectar.
For 500 years, the laws have helped German beer brewers sustain the highest quality of beer in its purest forms, earning themselves a near-mythological reputation for making the best-tasting beers in the world, unadulterated without aromatic or flavorful additives. In fact, misuse of such additives led to the inception of the Purity Law.
As the number of brewers continues to steadily rise in the United States, brewing according to theReinheitsgebot standards has become a way for micro-breweries to set themselves apart from the rest. While some breweries focus on intensely flavored beers, others honor the traditional beer-brewing process that highlights a simple—and, unanimously decided, perfect—recipe. Following the beer Purity Law is now a symbol for having dedication and respect for the original beer-brewing processes.
To celebrate over 500 years of Bavarian Purity Law, today we explore the beginning of the world’s highest standards of beer making. If you run a brewery, share the news with your customers and put on a fun promotion: A free stein for any guest that can properly pronounce Reinheitsgebot.
How the Beer Purity Law Came to Be
How the beer Purity Law came to be is due, in part, to some dubious beer-making processes during the Middle Ages. Introduced by Duke Wilhelm IV of Bavaria, the Reinheitsgebotwas the first law to recognize product quality guarantee. It decrees that hops, barley, water, and, eventually, yeast are permissible ingredients to brew beer, and is considered the first, valid consumer protection law in the world. Yeast had not yet been discovered in the early 16th century, but later, its powers were revealed, and yeast was included as an official ingredient that’s essential to the brewing process.
Before the Purity Law, tampering with the ingredient list had become a regular threat to beer drinkers. Brewers were adding dangerous elements like henbane, thorn-apple, wood shavings, roots, soot, and pitch (a pitch-black tar derived from plant resin that was used to caulk ships) to fashion a substance that tasted, smelled, and looked like a beer, but was, in fact, a dangerous liquid. If a brewer miscalculated during the brewing process while using some suspicious additives, the “beer” could knock someone out with malaise, or worse, kill the person that consumed it.
In time, the beer Purity Law was developed to protect consumers, and by its very nature, cast out the brewers that never took their craft very seriously. Those who did invest in the beer-brewing process nurtured their knowledge and made beer with pure intentions had flourishing businesses. Just look at one of the most popular beers from Munich, Augustiner Beer; its first recorded year of business is 1328 and business is still going strong.
The Reinheitsgebot was first issued on April 23, 1516 in the Bavarian city of Ingolstadt, and it was a law representing centuries of legal development. If you can put yourself in the shoes of an ordinary person from the Middle Ages, you must imagine a very reduced diet. There were few gastronomic choices a person could make, and depending on the time of year, fresh food would have been scarce. In that time, beer was a primary source of nutrition for the general population’s diet, and it was an important point for authorities that people had access to safe, healthy beer.
A nutritious food source was just the first element of the Reinheitsgebot¸ there are three additional objectives that the law stipulates:
- There is a price cap; no one is allowed to oversell their beer.
- It’s prohibited to use wheat in beer since wheat in the form of bread was a primary food staple and source of nutrition.
- Ingredients that have a rich flavor or have hallucinogenic effects are banned and are generally viewed as inferior to hops and malt. (Additionally, this served as a protective decision as these kinds of ingredients which were often toxic and potentially poisonous, like thorn-apple or deadly nightshade.)
Protecting the general public’s nutrition sources was critical for centuries, with protective laws dating back to 1156 in Augsberg and 1363 in Munich. What began as a city-to-city mandate eventually became a state-wide law in Bavaria. As one of the most influential regions of the area, the Reinheitsgeboteventually spread to other German states, such as Baden in 1896. The Purity Law became mandatory for the Northern German Society for Tax Payers on Beer in 1906 and has been a valid, nationwide law ever since.
Protecting a Culinary Heritage
More than a refreshing liquid that pares beautifully with a burger or sausage, beer represents centuries of craftsmanship and is considered by the European Union as part of the “culinary heritage of Europe.” Since 1994, German beer brewed following the Purity Law is classified as “traditional foodstuff,” a distinguished distinction the EU grants to foods that are representative of a cuisine and culture.
You might be wondering how it is that other types of beer can then be sold in Germany. In 1987, it was made lawful to sell beers brewed outside of Germany that are not in accordance with the Beer Purity Law; however, Bavarian breweries still follow its guidelines using only the four principal ingredients: hops, malt, water, and yeast.
Beer has a rich history, not just in Germany but also the United States. Learn how prohibition imploded the US beer brewing industry, and how micro-breweries are having a resurgence.
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