Leah’s Beer School: Lesson 26

What is Reinheitsgebot?

Reinheitsgebot (pronounced Rhine-heights-ga-boat) meaning “purity order” refers to a series of regulations limiting the ingredients in German beer to water, barley and hops. Although previous purity laws exist, the 1516 Bavarian law is recognized for laying the foundation for future regulations.  By 1906, Bavarian purity laws were applied across Germany, though it was not referred to as Reinheitsgebot until the formation of the Weimer Republic in 1918.

Bavarian Purity Laws 

Duke Wilhelm IV enacted the 1516 Bavarian purity laws primarily as a form of consumer protection to prevent price gouging from innkeepers, and to ensure the availability of wheat and rye for bakers to produce of affordable bread. Initially these laws were also designed to eliminate problematic methods of preservation, including using soot, stinging nettle and henbane. Religious conservativism was also at play, to supress use of plants in Pagan rituals suck as gruit, henbane, belladonna or wormwood.

German Unification & Purity Laws 

The 1516 Bavarian Purity Laws were a precondition of Bavaria’s participation of German unification of 1871. North German brewers used additives not allowed in Bavarian beer, and although they were not banned altogether, imperial law of 1873 imposed an additional tax. The purity laws did evolve slightly, and as early as the mid 1500s, ingredients like coriander, bay leaf and wheat were also permitted. Yeast was not mentioned in the 1516 laws, but it was considered part of brewing process as it was often transferred from one batch to the next. The addition of yeast became allowed as it was later understood that brewers were able to add it as a specific ingredient.

Reinheitsgebot Today

German purity laws are often criticized for being protectionist, and in 1987 Germany was forced by court order to allow the importation of non-Reinheitsgebot beer. In 1993, purity laws were revised to permit the use of malted grains, finings and other stabilizing agents, powdered hops and hop extracts for bottom-fermenting beer. Top fermenting beer were subject to the same rules, but were permitted to use a wider variety of malted grains and sugar for flavour and colouring. Since 2005, purity laws allow for additional ingredients to be used in brewing, but the product cannot be labelled as beer. In 2015, the Bavarian Brewers’ Association voted in favour of revisions allowing other natural ingredients into beer.

Many Germans proudly consider purity laws as a part of their cultural identity, while others argue that protectionist laws have hindered Germany’s adoption of popular beer trends. Beer purity laws remain a hotly debated topic – will Germany uphold purity standards to preserve their cultural identity or will be more creative license be granted to brewers in a growing craft beer industry?

(Leah is a Toronto based freelance writer as well as Head Beer Weenie and a server at C’est What)