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500th anniversary of ‘Reinheitsgebot’

Last Saturday marked the 500th anniversary of the famous ‘Reinheitsgebot’ or ‘purity order’ for beer that was passed in Bavaria in 1516 but is the law’s future under threat?

Wilhelm IV of Bavaria who passed the Reinheitsgebot into law

Issued on 23 April 1516 at Ingolstadt by Bavaria’s Wittelsbach duke, Wilhelm IV, the law stated that only water, barley and hops could be used in beer production.

An earlier edict stipulating the sole use of the same ingredients had been issued in 1487 but had only applied to brewers in Munich.

The order of 1516 though saw this requirement adopted across the duchy of Bavaria. Any who “knowingly” transgressed the ordinance would have their beer confiscated from them – and probably fined as well.

Although chiefly remembered now as solely a restriction on ingredients to be used in brewing, the decree of 1516 also contained very precise instructions on the pricing of beer throughout the year.

The law reads that from Michaelmas (the feast of St Michael on 29 September) to ‘Georgi’ (the feast of St George on 23 April), the price of a ‘Mass’ of beer should not exceed one Munich ‘Pfennig’ and from Georgi to the following Michaelmas that price of a ‘Mass’ should not exceed two pfennigs.

The law also stated that: “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.”

There were other motives at work behind the law too. Although ‘purity’ and ‘quality’ were strong driving reasons, restricting brewers solely to barley eased the pressure on supplies of other cereal crops such as wheat and rye, which in turn meant that bakers did not have outside competition for these ingredients which ensured the price of bread was kept low.

The law also gave the Wittelsbach dukes an important monopoly on a beer style their purity regulations otherwise outlawed.

Bavarian wheat beers from brewers such as Paulaner and Erdinger may be among the most famous German beers today but in fact their re-emergence is a relatively recent phenomenon.

A popular style throughout the 15th century the Reinheitsgebot led them to fall out of production although the dukes actually retained the exclusive right to brew these ‘weizen’ or ‘weiß’ beers which they sold for a handsome profit.

Easing of the regulations (due to more plentiful wheat supplies) led to a revival of the style in the 19th century but it was still not until the 1950s that German wheat beers fully returned to the beer-drinking landscape.

The purity law was gradually adopted across southern Germany over the centuries and upon German unification in 1871, Bavaria pushed for its implementation across the country.

The move was strongly resisted by brewers in northern Germany and it was not fully implemented until 1906, helped by an imperial law of 1873 which heavily taxed the use of other ingredients in beer production.

In more recent times the law has been challenged both from within and outside Germany with arguments that it is protectionist or with demands for exceptions or slight tweaks to permitted ingredients.

For instance, the eventual discovery of the role of yeast in alcoholic fermentation led to its inclusion in the list of approved components while in 1986 an objection from French brewers meant beers not brewed under the code of Reinheitsgebot could be sold in Germany.

To this day many German brewers maintain that the law is a ‘gold-standard’ for beer and its production and is a valuable marketing tool. Indeed other brewers around the world have often adopted the principle themselves as a template for their own beers or indeed the whole industry.

Yet in the age of craft beer and experimentation there is an argument that the law is too restrictive and that it encourages uniformity and industrial-scale production at the expense of innovation – as this article in Der Spiegel explores. Many of the beers now criticised by the craft beer industry such as Budweiser, or Becks bill themselves as being true to the standards of this historical law.

The number of craft and microbreweries in Germany has risen 37% in the last decade to 717 – a minuscule amount in the wider context of the country’s beer-drinking and producing scene but very possibly the start of something more significant.

The Reinheitsgebot may be one of the oldest food quality standards in the world but as an example of (as Der Spiegel excellently puts it) “German purity fetishism”, with brewers around the world no longer willing to play by its rules is its future far from certain?

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