On Saturday, April 23, Germany will be celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Reinheitsgebot, the beer purity law that has regulated what can and cannot be used to brew German beer since it was enacted in 1516, and while it can be attributed to the quality beer Germany has been known for, there are many that wish it would just go away.
So what is the Reinheitsgebot? The original 1516 Bavarian law both set a price for beer and limited the ingredients that could be used to only three: water, barley and hops. As Germany unified in 1871, Bavaria insisted that the country adopt this regulation, and despite strong opposition from brewers, by 1906 the Reinheitsgebot became mandatory nationwide.
The original 1516 text read:
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.
Slight modifications have been made to the law over the years, including the addition of yeast as an acceptable ingredient, and in 1987, the European Court of Justice found that the law was protectionist, forcing Germany to no longer insist that imported beer also follow the Reinheitsgebot.
More recently, in 2005, a German court made it a little easier for German brewers to experiment with other ingredients under one condition… it could be sold as long as it wasn’t called “beer”.
While other minor exceptions have been made, many beer producers in Germany want the Reinheitsgebot gone completely. The major players still feel the law guarantees a level of quality that sets German beer apart from the rest of the world, but the smaller guys are seeing imported craft beers carving away at their market share.
Bavarian brewer Tilman Ludwig is one of those wanting more freedom, and while he has always adhered to the Reinheitsgebot, he will be celebrating the regulation’s 500th birthday by doing things his way and breaking the law.
His brewery, 3Brew, is releasing a special edition ale called “Extra Pure”, which adds ginger, lemon verbena, peppermint and basil to the ingredient list. Only 300 cases have been made, and while its sale is against the law, Ludwig isn’t all too concerned.
“There is a chance authorities will ban the sale, but that’s a risk I’m happy to take to make a statement,” Ludwig told Bloomberg in an interview. “The Reinheitsgebot is not my enemy; I’m just in favor of more diversity and openness. I want the consumer to decide if a beer is good or bad, and not some public authority.”
Anyone found breaking the Reinheitsgebot can face a 20,000 euro fine and a year in jail, but the German Brewers Association has said that they do not know of anyone that has faced either of these penalties.
The Reinheitsgebot can certainly be accredited for Germany’s worldwide beer popularity and reputation, but after 500 years, is the required adherence still necessary?
Beer consumption has been on a steady decline in Germany, and with the younger generation opting for alternatives, including fruitier mixed beers imported from outside the country, maybe its time to loosen the reigns a bit.
Removing the Reinheitsgebot wouldn’t prevent those who want to hold onto the 500 year tradition from doing so, but just imagine the possibilities if German brewers could make and sell a whole new generation of German beer.