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The story behind the Reinheitsgebot

The German purity laws occupies an important place in beer lore, but I have mixed feelings about it. I have long planned to blog about it. What has kept me from doing so, is my lack of understanding of it. It's not the old-fashioned German or for want of available explanations of its meaning and significance. Quite the opposite, there are so many interpretations and explanations that I simply do not know which to believe. Thus, there must be a large number of misconceptions and myths surrounding it, many which are obviously false. In this entry, I will try to separate the truths from the myths.

Portait of duke Wilhelm in fancy cloting and with an absent-minded attitude Hertug Wilhelm IV

Let us start with the basics. Duke Wilhelm IV of Bavaria signed the German purity law (Reinheitsgebot) on April 23, 1516 in Ingolstadt. The law basically states that (1) the maximum allowed prices for beer; and (2) that beer may only be brewed from barley, hops and water. The text of the Reinheitsgebot is: (taken from the article "History of German Brewing" by Karl J. Eden, published in 'zymurgy' magazine, Vol. 16, No. 4 Special 1993.)

We hereby proclaim and decree, by Authority of our Province, that henceforth in the Duchy of Bavaria, in the country as well as in the cities and marketplaces, the following rules apply to the sale of beer: From Michaelmas to Georgi, the price for one Mass [Bavarian Liter 1,069] or one Kopf [bowl-shaped container for fluids, not quite one Mass], is not to exceed one Pfennig Munich value, and From Georgi to Michaelmas, the Mass shall not be sold for more than two Pfennig of the same value, the Kopf not more than three Heller [Heller usually one-half Pfennig]. If this not be adhered to, the punishment stated below shall be administered. Should any person brew, or otherwise have, other beer than March beer, it is not to be sold any higher than one Pfennig per Mass. Furthermore, we wish to emphasize that in future in all cities, markets and in the country, the only ingredients used for the brewing of beer must be Barley, Hops and Water. Whosoever knowingly disregards or transgresses upon this ordinance, shall be punished by the Court authorities' confiscating such barrels of beer, without fail. Should, however, an innkeeper in the country, city or markets buy two or three pails of beer (containing 60 Mass) and sell it again to the common peasantry, he alone shall be permitted to charge one Heller more for the Mass of the Kopf, than mentioned above. Furthermore, should there arise a scarcity and subsequent price increase of the barley (also considering that the times of harvest differ, due to location), WE, the Bavarian Duchy, shall have the right to order curtailments for the good of all concerned.

This law applied to Bavaria - which was smaller than the Bavaria of today. It was revised several times, and in the course of German unification, it was extended to the whole of Germany in 1906.

As I said, there are a number of misconceptions, myths and maybes. Let us go through them:

A picture of the text of the law The text of the law.
  • First it is said to be the first consumer protection law. This is not correct. Emperor Barbarossa granted Augsburg its local civil code in 1156 (Justitia Civitatis Augustensis) in which is stated that a brewer who brews bad beer will be fined and have that beer confiscated. If repeated twice, he will lose the right to brew. Laws restricting ingredients of beer were also given in Munich in 1363 and in Nuremberg in 1394. A list of references to these and other laws thoroughly shows that 1516 was just one event in a long trend. Even King Hammurabi of Babylon living around 1770 BC made laws that protected the consumers from watered down beer by punishing its production by death penalty. These examples relate to beer, but consumer protection laws also existed for other merchandise. Thus, the myth of Reinheitsgebot as the first consumer protection law is not based on reality. Although it can be claimed to be an old consumer protection law, it is not even an early consumer protection law (and we will get to the "consumer protection" part later).

  • Others say it is the oldest consumer protection law still in existence. However, the problem is that it is not really in existence, and breweries that proudly state that they are brewing according to it, are doing this not by law, but by their own free will. EU ruled against the German Reinheitsgebot in March 1987, because it was used to exclude beer from other countries, for instance many of the Belgian beers, and thus was an obstacle to free marked of EU. To the best of my knowledge, Norway was the last country to have the Reinheitsgebot incorporated in its formal laws, but it was removed in 1994 when entering the EEA. The former German colony of Namibia is said to produce no beer not in accordance with the Reinheitsgebot, but I have found no reference to a law declaring this. It appears that the Reinheitsgebot was never one law that was continued over the centuries. Rather, it was an idea, that was carried from one code of law to the next, disappearing and resurfacing, originating long before 1516, but never tied to one particular code of law for the hole period from 1516 until today.

  • It is claimed that the Reinheitsgebot is is still adhered to even if it not a formal law, and that makes it into some sort of semi-alive, moral law. The Germans themselves had considerable number of formal loopholes in the law when it was still in existence - so one gets the feeling that it was followed only when practical. They allowed wheat beers, rye beers, the addition of sugar to top-fermented beers, the addition of minerals to the water in order to make it suitable for brewing, not to mention the addition of carbondioxid. The allowed brewing season was expanded when refrigeration was invented. And in addition, the parts of the law dealing with pricing is - unfortunately - not enforced. In effect, the Reinheitsgebot is simply the ever-evolving set self-imposed restrictions that the brewing industry by consensus wants to follow. Thus, that makes current "brewed according to the Reinheitsgebot" an unimpressive (but not totally worthless) statement. I am not necessarily against these practices, I just want to point out the inconsistency between them and the bold claims (albeit implicit) often made by breweries who say the follow the law.

  • The traditional explanation for the Reinheitsgebot is that it is about the quality of the beer. At best, that is partly true, it is about the ingredients rather than the quality. However, there is the question of whether it really is a law that applies to the ingredients of the beer. As can be seen from the text of the law, it mostly applies to pricing, and the provision relating to the ingredients of beer is merely an afterthought. An argument can be made that the Reinheitsgebot is really about resource utilization rather than about the quality of the beer. By specifying barley - and implicitly excluding wheat - one ensured that the grains better suited for the making of bread was not used for beer. Supporting this argument is the fact that in Bavaria and Germany, wheat-beers were reserved for aristocrats, and they won that right long after the Reinheitsgebot, and only after much dispute. It can also be claimed that the maximum pricing of beer pushes farmers and brewers in the direction of using the barley for bread rather than beer in years of bad harvests. Is it about resource utilization rather than about consumer protection? Perhaps. I can find no other reason for the exclusion of wheat-beers.

  • It is also possible to argue that the Reinheitsgebot is really about making the playing field fair for the brewers: that they all have the same standard set of rules. It is hard to accept this explanation, though. Because the Reinheitsgebot has such a long history of being used as the opposite: excluding breweries from the marked based on rules about the ingredients. Still, there are numerous historic examples of where adjuncts were added to mask defects or give the beer impression of being stronger than it was, so the argument can not be dismissed without further examination.

  • A third possible explanation is that the restriction of ingredients in the beer was to protect the society and its members from the psychedelic effects of the more exotic adjuncts. We know well the effects of alcohol, and the weak effects of hops are also understood. However, a huge number of other adjuncts than hops were added to beer, and a large number of psychedelic and even enteogenic effects are known or suspected. It suffice to mention hen-bane, which by its name "bilsenkraut" is said to have been a main ingredient in the original, medieval, heavy beer that gave the village of Pilsen its name (not to be confused with the modern Pilsner beer developed and named after the town in the nineteenth century). The caricature of witches is that of old ladies brewing in large cauldrons, using frogs and herbs and dragons and what-not It is probably a reminiscence of brewers of the Middle Ages. They were mainly woman and they often used a varied set of adjuncts. No one would brew with such a huge cauldron unless it was to make a drink to quench the thirst. The size of the cauldrons is therefore the best indication that this was beer. Thus, in this context, the Reinheitsgebot is really a piece of witch-hunting, prohibiting the stronger (albeit not necessarily in alcohol) brews of the traditional "alewives". This explanation may seem somewhat far fetched, but I do not think it can be dismissed altogether.

  • Much has been said about the lack of mentioning yeast in the Reinheitsgebot of 1516. Still, it was mentioned in 1551 in a Munich regulation. The claim that brewers didn't notice yeast or understand its significance until Louis Pasteur (1876) is simply nonsense. Several explanations has been stated for the lack of yeast in the 1516 text: that their beer were naturally fermented (like the lambic); that the yeast of a brewery resided in the brewing equipment and was not explicitly added; and that yeast was not considered an ingredient. I believe that the last one is the only explanation is trustworthy. Brewers in that time new about yeast, and as a routine they carried the yeast from one batch onto the next - just as we do today. They did not know why yeast was important, but they knew it was important. However, yeast was perhaps seen more as brewing "equipment" or a product of brewing rather than an ingredient of the product. So, just as a cow is not considered an ingredient of milk and a ploughshare is not considered an ingredient of barley, so was yeast not considered an ingredient of beer, only part of the process. Even today, most beer is filtered in order to remove the yeast, which is considered a facilitator of brewing rather than an ingredient you want poured into your glass. Therefore, the lack of yeast in the original Reinheitsgebot is neither dramatic nor strange.

  • It has been claimed that the Reinheitsgebot has helped Germany preserve at large number of breweries. Although it is true that Germany has a large number of breweries, and Bavaria has the greatest share of those, I doubt that there is much truth to this. First, other countries has experienced the all too common oligarchization of the beer marked, even during the years where a local, formal Reinheitsgebot was in force. Second, Bavaria have not lost its large number of breweries after the Reinheitsgebot were lifted nearly twenty years ago. And third, the USA has passed Germany in number of breweries, without the help of neither a formal nor a significant informal Reinheitsgebot. I believe that if the Reinheitsgebot has helped maintain the number of breweries in Germany and in particular in Bavaria, it must be due to a patriotic sense of being peculiar and different, rather than due to any quality-improving effects of the law.

The common explanation of the Reinheitsgebot is that it is an piece of consumer protection. I have listed three alternative explanations: a) Regulating the marked for fair competition, b) forced improvement of resource utilization of grains, and c) a piece of witch-hunting directed against the brewing of the alewives using strange adjuncts. Please note that none of these four explanations precludes any of the others. They may all be part of the truth.

I've also seen Weiss bier claimed to be brewed according to the Reinheitsgebot of 1516 - that is amusing, although it would be technically correct if they just dropped the 1516-bit. And for the Pilsner beer, for which a large number of breweries claim on their bottles: "according to the Reinheitsgebot of 1516"? It makes you wonder whether they actually know that law or not. It would be better to write "brewed according to the Reinheitsgebot" or even "brewed according to the German Reinheitsgebot, of which an early but now out-dated instance was given in 1516.".

But it doesn't sound so snappy ...