Reinheitsgebot: Behind the German Beer Purity Law

The Reinheitsgebot, the so-called German purity law, might just be the most celebrated manufacturing regulation in the world.

As it is most commonly expressed, the Reinheitsgebot (Rine-heights-ge-boat) states that only water, barley malt, hops, and yeast may be used in the brewing of beer.

But the truth is the Rein­heitsgebot says both more and less than that. It’s a bit like Hamlet’s famous soliloquy. Everyone knows “To be or not to be,” but what’s he really getting at, anyway?

The Reinheitsgebot, in fact, is a 500-year-old piece of history that, beyond the surface, tells us much about the times in which it was written.

Common Usage

One thing is certain. Advertising copywriters love the Reinheitsgebot.

You’ve read it in a gazillion places, in ads, labels, Web sites, and six-pack holders, something along the lines of:

“Schmernbaum beers are among the finest brewed in the world. You can count on Schmern­baum quality, freshness, and taste — every glass, every bottle, every case. That’s because all Schmernbaum beer is hand-crafted to the exacting standards of the Reinheitsgebot, Germany’s centuries-old beer purity law.”

But the actual law itself is conspicuous by its absence in most of the places that sing its praises.

There are a few reasons for that. First, the Reinheitsgebot isn’t really about beer quality. In fact beer quality is secondary to the main idea, which is price regulation. The law is billed as the world’s “oldest consumer protection law.” This point has merit, considering the fact that the Reinheitsgebot, which was officially decreed in 1516, survived in one form or another from 1493 to 1987!

It’s true that the Reinheitsgebot was a consumer protection law. But its authors were more concerned with the price of beer than with its quality, and for a very specific reason.

Because beer was taxed, the more beer produced, the more tax money the Duchy could collect. The more beer the people drank, the more beer was produced. And so on. Not unlike products of today’s industry/regulator relationships, the Reinheitsgebot was conceived as a cooperative regulation between the brewing industry and the government to promote beer drinking in general and to keep it affordable. Now that’s a law we can live with!

But what about that “purity of ingredients” thing? You know, barley, water, hops? That old Reinheitsgebot saw that requires brewers to use only very specific ingredients. You are likely to miss that bit about ingredients if you read it quickly.

There is no mention of malt. Nor of yeast. The latter is easily explained. The Reinheitsgebot was written before the great scientists of the 19th century, Pasteur among them, discovered and identified yeast. The lack of the word “malt” in the law is not so easily explained. Most scholars agree that it was inferred in 1516. The law was later amended to include the word “malt.” More on that later.

The Bread Connection

By mandating that beer be brewed with barley only, the Reinheitsgebot made weissbier illegal contraband — and weissbier brewers enemies of the state, as it were. It is possible that the Reinheitsgebot had more to do with bread than beer. With the code, the Duchy saved the wheat and rye fields for flour, ensuring that there would be enough bread to meet demand.

This seems rather anachronistic today, but it is not too unlike current food labeling laws that require “mayonnaise” be made with eggs and “ketchup” be made with tomatoes. It also can be seen as an attempt at managing the agri­­­cultural output of Bavaria at the time, to make best use of the available resources for the common good.

The Weissbier Connection

Then again, there is another, more cynical theory associated with the Reinheitsgebot’s wheat ban, one that reeks of the elitism of aristocratic power.

As a homebrewer, you know how challenging it can be to keep your beer pale. Beer in its natural state is dark: brown, black, or red. So it was in 16th-century Bavaria, before the art of making pale Pilsner beers was perfected in neighboring Bohemia. Even the bottom-fermented beers of the day were pretty dark, as a rule.

But the brewers knew a secret: When wheat was added to the grist bill, the resulting beer was pale, light, crisp, and very refreshing.

In their desire to possess all the finest things of science and art, the Bavarian aristocracy went crazy for the “white” beer. Perhaps a little too crazy.

The Reinheitsgebot prohibited the private brewers from making weissbier — leaving an opportunity for the nobility and the clergy to monopolize its production. Evidence for this assertion can be found in the history of weissbier during the period. By 1600 or so, all of the known weissbier breweries were controlled by nobles or monks.

Weissbier brewing spread from one royal court to the next, from cloister to cloister, keeping up with demand among the nobles.

All this time, of course, the great unwashed were swilling their dark barley beer, so the story goes. The Reinheitsgebot might have ensured that there was enough wheat for bread and the nobles’ white beer.

In time the weissbier craze faded among the nobles, and the language of the Reinheitsgebot was changed to allow wheat in the breweries. Wheat beer became just another style that was legal for the com­moner to enjoy.

The Biersteuergesetz

The Reinheitsgebot is not, strictly speaking, a beer purity law. Drinkability and sanitation were not the issues that led to its draft. So what about this notion of the Reinheitsgebot brewer carefully crafting his beer to exacting, government-supervised, violators-be-banished standards?

Enter the Biersteuergesetz, Germany’s Beer Tax code, which was the form of Reinheitsgebot in effect until a 1987 court case. It is generally agreed that the Reinheitsgebot fathered the code — and influenced both its language and spirit.

The Biersteuergesetz is more specific to beer production than the original Reinheitsgebot and certainly more detailed in its requirements:

• Only barley malt, hops, yeast, and water may be used for the brewing of bottom-fermented beer (lagers). Exceptions are made for hop powders and extracts, as well as fining agents that have no effect on the taste, odor, or color of the beer.
• For top-fermenting beer (ales), other malts may be used. Also, pure cane, beet, and invert sugars as well as dextrose and coloring agents derived from these sugars are allowed.
• Exceptions to the ingredients rule are allowed on a case-by-case basis, particularly for specialty beers and beers intended for export.
• Homebrews are expressly exempted from the ingredient rule.

The Biersteuergesetz continues with specifications for experimental beers and brews of unconventional strength. It also prescribes special procedures for maltsters.

The code is light years ahead of its simplistic ancestor. It allows for removable finings, hop extracts, non-barley malts, sugar, and yeast.

But again, the law falls short of true quality control. Unlike modern quality assurance schemes, it ignores beer’s fifth ingredient: bacteria. Because only the word “yeast” is used, bad yeast also is ignored. Technically speaking, a beer contaminated with both Lactobacillus bacteria and Saccharomyces diastaticus spoilage yeast could be okay according to the code but undrinkable to the imbiber.

Which leads to the inevitable question that might make the ad copywriters squirm: Does the Reinheitsgebot or any of its modern progeny mandate good beer?

The simple answer: no.

Just as buying the best golf clubs won’t make you a good golfer, the Reinheitsgebot can’t make you a good brewer. You could follow the Reinheitsgebot and still make some pretty terrible beer or even some really bland and boring stuff. Let’s face it: there are more than a few unremarkable mass-marketed beers — European ones mainly — that are made to Reinheitsgebot standards.

But the tradition of the code has staying power. The European Court struck down the law as a barrier to trade in 1987. In spite of this historic decision, foreign beers have made few inroads in the German market. The Germans love their beer — and their Reinheitsgebot. Most brewers continue to brew according to the code — and foreign brewers have even reformulated their recipes to follow the Rein­heitsgebot. The Guinness Stout sold in Germany, for example, is much different than that sold in Dublin. It’s made with all Reinheitsgebot-approved ingredients, even though the law has been off the books for more than a decade!

Perhaps the law survives because of its spirit. Michael Jackson in his New World Guide to Beer (Running Press) sums it up nicely:

“The law is antique and so has its faults. But is does have the merits of being very simple and based on a sense of beer as an honest product — pure and wholesome, too…The law itself could not ensure that all brewers would have skill, flair, and sensitivity, but in no corner of the world has as much good beer been made than in Bavaria.”

Reinheitsgebot or no, German brewers are and have always been among the world’s best. No argument there.

Issue: December 1999