21 Sep 2009 @ 11:03 AM 

Reinheitsgebot: Our weird love of trade restrictions.


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.

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


Responses to this post » (9 Total)

  1. Amy says:

    Fabulous article. I’ve been wanting to do a spotlight on the old, outdated, and completely misunderstood (and misrepresented) “beer purity law” but you did a fabulous job. I’ll just link to yours instead. 🙂

    Love your blog by the way. Very well done and interesting to read.

  2. erik says:

    Thanks! I’m glad you enjoy it!

    Reinheitsgebot really gets me going. People are really over-reverent.

  3. […] Our weird love of trade restrictions (by Erik Lars Myers) […]

  4. kris says:

    I just finished a Lowenbrau and it was quite good, certainly no Milwaukee’s Best Light Ice. We shouldn’t dismiss all Pilseners simply because large commercial American Pilseners generally suck. What I would like to see out of American craft brewers is more in the way of bottom brewing. What are the chances?


    ps. I do like your points about how the political economy shaped Reinheitsgebot. Sounds like it could be an interesting book.

    • Amdom says:

      There’s already a reeivw of the stuff and apparently it’s pretty damned good. And I really enjoyed the taste of Tactical Nuclear Penguin. So if these big ABV beers can keep me wanting more, more power to them!But in the end, it’s just genius brand marketing.P.S: check out Brew Dog’s reply via the link Nate posted above. This beer has been in works for 5 months now, not just to combat the Germans []

  5. erik says:

    I think the chances are pretty good.

    A well crafted Pilsener is really a thing of beauty and a lot of craft brewers are certainly rising to the challenge, even if a lot of craft drinkers tend to have a knee-jerk reaction against them.

    I would just argue that Pilseners are not good because they meeting some fancy pants trade restriction from 1516, but instead because they’re delicate, wonderful beers.

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