Hey! Happy Oktoberfest! Prost! It started on Saturday. I’m sure you know that.

I’m not here to talk about Oktoberfest, but every year Oktoberfest brings the same thing to mind for me: Reinheitsgebot

If you know me in person, and have talked to me about beer, you have probably heard me rail on about Reinheitsgebot at least once. A little story a friend of mine likes to tell involves me ranting on in the kitchen to him over a beer. My wife enters the room a few minutes into the conversation – barely hears any of it – and says:

“Are you ranting about the Reinheitsgebot, again?”

“Yes, dear.”

Fact is this: I respect what people are trying to get at with the Reinheitsgebot. I do. But sometimes I feel like we have some sort of weird misguided loyalty to it. It’s a trade restriction, for crissakes, not a holy writ.

Here’s a translation of it, taken from brewery.org:

“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.”

So, mostly it’s price fixing. It’s “don’t charge more than X amount per Mass.” It’s also a grain restriction. It’s not a law decreeing the all-holy purity of beer, it’s a law saying “don’t use wheat or rye.” You’ll also note that it only applies to “all cities, markets and in the country” the Duchy could make beer out of whatever the hell they wanted. They’re restricting commercial breweries.

Why? Well, probably to stop the price of wheat and rye from going up to keep the cost of making bread reasonable. Fair, right? Okay. Fine. In 1871, when Bavaria joined Germany, they insisted on the Reinheitsgebot as a precondition in order to prevent competition from beers made with a wider range of ingredients. In fact, it was even written into Germany’s beer taxation laws in the 1950s, at first only to lagers, but eventually to all ales as well.

Fortunately, the EU had the wisdom to suspend the Reinheitsgebot, saying that it was unfair for trade (because it is) and that anything allowed in other foods may be allowed in beer. However, beer brewed under Reinheitsgebot is still protected as a “traditional food” which seems a little ridiculous. I’ll get back to that.

As it happens, the British had an Ale Purity law, as well. They outlawed the “doctoring of ale, with hops” because of its “psycho-active properties” in 1484, just a few short years before the Reinheitsgebot was proposed in 1487 (it was put into law in 1516). You don’t see people clamoring to stick by that one, do you? Maybe that’s because hops are such a perfect addition to beer… but you know? A lot of other things are good additions to beer, as well. Imagine a summer without wheat beers. Sad.

Myself? I believe, firmly, that the Reinheitsgebot heralded the rise of the bland commercial crap that currently dominates our marketplace. You see, when Reinheitsgebot was enforced in Germany it put an end to a good chunk of old brewing traditions. I’ve read references of spiced ales and cherry ales, and of course even wheat beers don’t jive under Reinheitsgebot, either. In my imagination, Ye Olde Westerne Germanye has a brewing tradition a lot like that of Belgium (which it borders) until somebody slapped this trade restriction in place.

In fact, the rise of Pilsener is directly related to folks in other places mimicking the brewing traditions of Bavaria – it’s even noted in the company timeline of Plzensky Prazdroj, maker of the most famous Pilsener Urquell.

5 October 1842 First brew of Bavarian type beer, bottom-fermented beer, so-called pale lager.

What they don’t mention there is that this happened after the recruitment of Bavarian brewer Josef Groll, the father of Pilsener, who would have been brewing under the restrictions of the Reinheitsgebot his entire life. Why change a good thing, eh?

Pilsener, we all know, is the cultural precursor to Milwaukee’s Best Light Ice. It’s enough to make a man weep.

So, aside from the Reinheitsgebot being the origin of everything that’s wrong with the world of macrobrewing, what else do I have against it?

It’s old and it’s over. It’s marketing talk, at this point. It reduces beer to three components, one of which is technically incorrect. A lot of people like to say that the Reinheitsgebot restricts beer to being made with water, malt, hops, and yeast. Take a gander up there. No malt, no yeast. Sure, yeah. Technicalities. They say “barley” which is then made into malt, yes. And yeast wouldn’t be isolated as an organism for another 2-300 years. Who cares?

I care.

Fact: water, malt, hops, and yeast are the essential ingredients for making beer. They are simply the most efficient ingredients (unless you apply Science to help convert starches into sugars in another, more artificial, “I’m adding a bucket of unrelated enzymes to my mash” way). MOST beers are made out of water, malt, hops, and yeast. Throwing up some fancy-pants label about how “This FINE beverage is made under the restrictions of the Bavarian Beer Purity Law” seems almost somewhat akin to saying that your beer is “Triple-Hops Brewed” or “Cold Filtered.” What you’re saying applies to many, many, many, MANY beers. Why don’t you tell me what makes your beer different, instead?

Giving weight to the Reinheitsgebot also seems to imply that beers made with adjuncts – like many Belgian beers and Abbey ales, for example – are somehow inferior. In fact, many of those adjunct-laced beers are recognized as some of the finest beers in the world. You’re saying they’re not “pure?” Whoop-dee-doo. They’re awesome. That’s what counts.

Finally, I sometimes feel that the weight of the Reinheitsgebot gives us pause when experimenting with German beer styles. Certainly, Americans have (wonderfully) bastardized wheat beers in almost every way imaginable, but for some reason when we talk about a lot of the traditional German beer styles there seems to be somewhat of an effort to get them as close to their Reinheitsgeboty heritage as possible.

By this point, I think that American Craft Brewers have shown that there’s still a lot of new ground to be covered in beer. Let’s not get tied down to this archaic trade restriction as some sort of arbitrary measure of quality. Let’s let the taste buds do the talking, break out of this 400-year-old box, leave the marketing lingo behind, and put the Reinheitsgebot to bed as a historical curiosity.

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Categories: history, marketing, op-ed, taxation
Posted By: erik
Last Edit: 21 Sep 2009 @ 09 50 PM

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 17 Jun 2009 @ 9:38 AM 

A little more history for you today, but this time with a poignant question. Behold this piece from Duke’s Digital Collections:

I don’t know about you, but the first thing I thought of after reading this was (click for a larger image, but I bet you know the ad):

Hops are the soul of beer

I think all this begs the question: What is the soul of beer?

I’ll be honest. I’ve always been a little irked by the latter ad, here. Hops are not to beer what grapes are to wine, unless the analogy centers around “a thing that grows on a vine that is ultimately in the beverage.”

If you want to think about it as a soul, I think we can safely say that grapes are the soul of wine. They are the primary source of fermentables, the primary source of variability. I don’t think that’s true for beer. Granted, one of the main reasons that the analogy doesn’t work is because beer has a more complicated list of ingredients than wine. But, let’s face it, as much as I don’t really want to agree with Pabst here, the primary source of fermentables and the primary source of variability in beer – if that’s what you want to call its soul – is really malt. (I am really interested to know what Pabst did with their malting that they thought was so exceptionally different.)

Yes, I can absolutely make my pale ale taste widely different with hops. I can go from grassy to piney to citrusy to cat pee. I can accent the malt or I can completely bury it. I can’t, however, make my pale ale into a stout or a kolsch with hops. For that matter, I can’t even make beer without malt – but I can make beer without hops, even if it won’t necessarily taste like what you and I think of as beer. Hops have only been an addition in ales in the past 500 years…. out of 4000 or so. Has it been soulless for most of its existence?

What do you think? What’s the soul of beer?

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Posted By: erik
Last Edit: 17 Jun 2009 @ 09 38 AM

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 15 Jun 2009 @ 2:06 PM 

I always thought that when people talked about how the beer in England was “warm” they meant “room temperature” or at the very least “cask conditioned” but a little find by my lovely wife titled “In Commendation of Warm Beer” caught my attention today.

We care not what stern grandsires now can say,
Since reason doth and ought to bear the sway.
Vain grandames saysaws ne’r shall make me think
That rotten teeth come most by warmed drink.
No grandsire no; if you had us’d to warm
Your mornings draughts, as I do, farre less harm
Your raggie lungs had felt; not half so soon,
For want of teeth to chew, you’d us’d the spoon.
Grandame, be silent now, if you be wise,
Lest I betray your skinking niggardize.
I wot well you no physick ken, nor yet
The name and nature of the vitall heat.
Twas more to save your fire, and fear that I
Your pewter cups should melt or smokifie,
Then skill or care of me, which made you swear,
God wot, and stamp to see me warm my beer.
Though grandsire growl, through grandame swear, I hold
That man unwise that drinks his liquor cold.

Source: Anecdotes of literature and scarce books By William Beloe (published 1807).

That’s evocative, isn’t it? It sounds to me, from the construction of the line “God wot, and stamp to see me warm my beer.” that the beer is actively being warmed. Is it warm beer … or hot beer?

A little more researching brought me to In Praise of Ale or Song, Ballads, Epigrams, & Anecdotes Relating to Beer, Malt, and Hops (1888). Check this out from page 599!

When beer was the staple drink, morning, noon, and night, it was natural that our ancestors would prefer their breakfast beer warm and their “nightcaps” flavored, hence the variety of comforting drinks.

Warm breakfast beer! The 19th Century is starting to sound pretty awesome. But wait! There’s more!

Southey, in his “Commonplace Book,” records the process of roasting porter, a once fashionable tipple, as practised by Sir J. Beaumont : —

“He had a set of silver cups made for the purpose. They were brought red-hot to table, the porter was poured into them in that state, and it was a pleasure to see with what alarm an inexperienced guest ventured to take the cup at the moment that the liquor foamed over and cooled it.The effect must have been much the same as that of putting a hot poker in a pot of porter, which I have often seen done at Westminster; or a piece of red-hot pottery, which we sometimes use here.”

Holy moly! Hot for certain! In fact, the chapter goes on (and on and on) to talk about how much better for you hot beer is, than cold (I might dispute their science.) and finally gives recipes for what can only be called warm beer cocktails!

Here’s my last excerpt, a recipe for “Egg Flip”:

Take two eggs, and break them into a basin; add about three ounces of sugar, and beat those together. In the meantime, make a pint of table beer or mild porter hot, but do not let it boil, otherwise the eggs will be curdled, in which state they are termed by many “hen and chickens.” When the beer is near boiling, take it off, mix the eggs and sugar already prepared and the hot beer together, by pouring the mixture backwards and forwards from the pot to the basin. Add a wine glass of gin, or any other spirit which may be preferred; but gin is the liquor generally used. Grate a little nutmeg or ginger on the top, and it will be ready for drinking.

If anybody is really looking for a 19th Century feel to a tavern or pub, they should start experimenting with this stuff. I wonder how long it will be before Dogfish Head packages something like Egg Flip, along with a DIY red-hot-poker kit.

If I can find a print copy of this, I will work up a little book review and summary of available recipes. Until then, browse through the book via Google Books, all 632 pages of it. It’s a real treat.

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