There is a lot to be said for tradition, more so than ever with the current trends of cultural homogenization and closures of local businesses. And while it is often portrayed as tantamount to tradition, the famed German purity law is hooey, plain and simple.
Its relevance in focusing the styles of Germany has been been as instructive and destructive as 13 years of Prohibition were in this country. Gose (pron: gōz-eh, a sour beer made with naturally salty water), breyhan (sour wheat beer), grätzer bier (highly hopped, pale, smoked wheat beer), and many varieties of fruit or spiced beers – gone! Some of these lost styles are only now being made again in a few of the more risk-tolerant brewpubs.
I’m not going to get emotional about it, no not me, not like the rabid advocates of this misappropriated and antiquated policy. But it is fair time we let the cat out of the bag.
The Reinheitsgebot (pronounced something like: HRHINE-hites-ghe-boat) literally means “purity order.” However it was not until 1908 that that term gained use as a title. Originally is was called the “surrogate prohibition” decree. It was laid down in April of 1516 by the Dukes Wilhelm IV and Ludwig X of Bavaria. But the concept is even older. A similar document, predating the other by over 80 years, was uncovered north of Bavaria in Thuringia in 1999.
The order has since been touted as a way of protecting the wheat and rye for the baking industry, ensuring strange ingredients were kept out of beer, or even as a consumer protection act, but it holds darker secrets. As far as beer quality goes, the code does not require traditional methods like decoction, nor eschew off-flavors like diacetyl. Growers are free to use pesticides, and brewers can use chemical additives and chemically extracted hop oils. No, the “purity order” doesn’t say anything about healthfulness. In fact, organic beer producers pose a real threat to the house of cards upon which this marketing phenomenon has been built.
Brewers had been using wheat and rye and medicinal herbs and mushrooms in their beer. What is now Germany was a region of rich and varied brewing traditions that had been documented as far back as “the Holy Roman Empire.” Why worry about what brewers put in their beer? If you make a beer with weeds from your yard and rye with fungus growing on it (ergot is a rye rust from which LSD was first isolated), people will either like or not. If they like it they’ll come back for more. If they don’t, well, the brewer had better find a different line of work. Then again, maybe that’s the sensibility of the modern free market, and as we’ll see, the Reinheitsgebot is not at all about a free market system.
Only a single stanza of the decree deals with ingredients – the rest is about price controls. In the highly touted ingredient portion, the decree stipulates that beer must be made exclusively from barley and hops and water. One commonly hears about how yeast hadn’t yet been described by Louis Pasteur, so it was fine that yeast was left off the list. But even brewers in this dark time knew that one cropped the barm from one batch to the next. No, there was deeper meaning in the Reinheitsgebot…
One way to think about it is that the Dukes had created a more restrictive definition for the word “beer,” along with the provision that anything not meeting the definition could be confiscated by the authorities without compensation to the brewer.
Modern historians endlessly quote one another, saying that the underlying reason for the rule was to ensure that there was adequate wheat and rye for making bread. Frankly, bread, beer, what’s the difference? – they are both hearty, nourishing comestibles and generally immune to Medieval sanitation problems.
There was no way the people were going without their beer, so if the overlords said this is the way it must be, you might as well roll with it. Besides, if you didn’t abide by the code the authorities would confiscate your beer without remuneration. What these historians fail to mention is who owned all the barley fields. You guessed it, the Dukes. The original Reinheitsgebot was market protection for the wealthy. And you thought American corporate lobbying was a new idea?
The Reinheitsgebot has been modified throughout history - the current definition bears little resemblance to the original. (Source: google, frequency of historical dates with regard to the rule.)
As time went on the rule was variously massaged, abandoned, lost and rediscovered, until it ultimately arrived in its modern form – as a shallow marketing tool to help push claims of traditionalism behind your beer product. How could I posit such claims? Well consider the following, which I’ve knocked down to only a handful of points.
The original decree affected only the feudal region of Bavaria. Later, as Germany began its long crawl from 300 fiefdoms towards today’s single nation, Franconia and Thuringia were added, and the Reinheitsgebot came along for the ride. But after a couple of centuries one heard much less about the decree. It became seen more or less as a rule for pricing and taxation on beer.
Almost from the beginning the rule was gradually modified. In the 17th century a provision to allow brewing with wheat was added, but only members of the aristocracy were allowed to do so. Reorganization in 1803 resulting from the Napoleonic wars saw the famed brewing cities of Bamberg, Nürnberg, and Bayreuth added to a growing Bavarian state. The Reinheitsgebot now expanded northwards. Later, at the turn of the 20th century, the states of Baden and Württemberg in southwest Germany were added.
But back in 1810 Bavaria’s Crown Prince Ludwig married Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen in Munich. Five days after the royal wedding the commoners were invited to a field for horse racing and, it goes without saying, beer drinking. The party grew into an annual commercial enterprise, and by 1818 mercantile beer stalls had appeared.
The grand wedding reception had inaugurated the Oktoberfest tradition. Some say the Reinheitsgebot had been lost in obscurity and largely ignored for the previous couple of centuries. With the rise of Prince Ludwig, a descendant of the of the original Ludwig X, talk of the Reinheitsgebot re-ensued.
The latest ode to the Reinheitsbegot: the Kuchlbauer museum in Abensberg, Germany. It houses an exhibition on the German "beer purity" tradition.
So the Reinheitsgebot’s influence grew throughout Bavaria and other German city-states. In 1919, at the close of WWI, further consolidation took place when the Weimer Republic was formed. As a condition of joining, Bavaria, the largest single participant, asserted that the purity law had to apply to everyone else in the Republic. Even some other countries, Greece and Sweden for example, adopted the standard. In the most amazing display of vibrato, Germany even tried to leverage their participation in the EU with the five-centuries old ball and chain. But in 1987 the EU ruled it an obstacle to commerce. Which it always was.
Some American brewpubs and microbreweries even began touting the rule as a marketing device. It’s not so surprising. We’re victims of the preferential retelling of history and we love a hero. Just as we still think Benjamin Franklin was a great and mighty man of all seasons. No, he was a misogynist, turned-with-the-winds kind of guy who took credit for the work of those around him. But we really do admire that portly gentleman dangling a key from a kite string, don’t we? Now even Ben Franklin is a marketing device with the oft-misquoted “Beer is living proof that God loves us…” bit.
This is not to say that there aren’t other obstacles to beer commerce and that megalithic global corporations don’t dominate the market. There are, and they do. But at least the Reinheitsgebot is finally being seen for what it is: antiquated, price fixing, trade control, and pap marketing.
I’m not alone in thinking the Reinheitsgebot has outlived its usefulness:
[Note: with this piece I am inaugurating a new category on the Palate Jack called Gripefruit – my bitter editorials. Don’t fear, there will always be sweet stories to temper the bitterness.]