Reinheitsgebot: Holding Germany Back?

The average American associates Germany with three things: Nazis, cars, and beer. The most important of these is obviously the last.

Reinheitsgebot original text

Reinheitsgebot Original Text

Many brewers in Germany, especially Bavaria and the south, brew their beer following an almost 500 year old tradition called Reinheitsgebot (“purity law”). This law was created by Albert IV, the Duke of Bavaria, and it stated that beer could only contain three ingredients: water, barley, and hops.

If you’re a brewer or if you know anything about fermentation then you’ll notice a VERY important and vital ingredient is missing – yeast. This is because the law was created before Louis Pasteur’s germ theory proved that microorganisms like yeast existed. Brewers at the time simply mixed the three Reinheitsgebot ingredients together in what I expect were fairly unsanitary conditions and then mother nature did the rest. Nonetheless apparently 79% of Germans want to put the Reinheitsgebot on the UNESCO world heritage list, according to the Deutscher Brauer-Bund.

While it’s interesting that brewers were able to make beer with any form of reliability under those conditions, what is even more interesting, in fact astounding, is that they can still get away with brewing beer whose main ingredients are only barley and hops.

Despite Germany’s brewing-fame, the American craft brewing scene is a few leaps and bounds ahead of the game.

Barley and Hops

It is characterized by fascinating combinations of undeniably unrein ingredients. A local microbrewery in Columbia offers beers brewed with chili peppers, chocolate, flowers, raw fruit, and salt, not to mention far more conventional ingredients like wheat and rye.

I think the reason that Germany’s craft brewing scene is so much smaller than one would expect is because of it’s inability to move beyond the Reinheitsgebot. However, that isn’t to say that there are no German craft brewers.

Bavarians may be more conservative and traditional (I’m talking about beer not politics here), but the Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung says there has been a “Mega-Ansturm” of microbreweries in the northern half of the country, especially in large metropolitan areas like Berlin, Hamburg, and the Ruhr.

These German craft brewers are taking a leaf out of the American scene’s book by brewing with increasingly unique ingredients, and also seem to be tapping into the mentality of brewing good, wholesome beers. The Hopfen Helden blog recognizes one Berliner microbrewer as an “artist-slash-brewer.”

Nonetheless, many still brew at least some of their offerings in accordance with the Reinheitsgebot, and there is undoubtedly a stigma against those that don’t follow the old laws. While Germany may be internationally known for brewing good beer, within the country it’s the Bavarians who are known for brewing only reines beer.

Yeast – the missing ingredient

Finally, although the Reinheitsgebot may be keeping German brewing medieval, there is something to be said for the tradition it has set. German beer styles are ubiquitous across the world and the almost all traditionally follow the purity law. And from a technical standpoint it remains an impressive feat to brew such a wide variety of styles with only three ingredients. In any case, it’s refreshing and exciting to see German microbrewing gain some traction and begin to express itself and it will be even more exciting to see how this creativity continues to interact with the Reinheitsgebot.

For a number of fascinating and well-articulated views on the Reinheitsgebot (and only if you understand German) check out this talk:

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