Nothing elicits the ire of craft beer enthusiasts more than the mere mention of the Reinheitsgebot, or German Purity Law. At best it’s seen as an outmoded relic of a by-gone era and at worst the medieval equivalent of capitalistic evil and stain on the history of beer. One blogger comments that “while it is often portrayed as tantamount to tradition, the famed German purity law is hooey, plain and simple.” Another blogger simply says that the Reinheitsgebot is an “old load of bollocks.”
On the other side of the fence, many – mostly Germans – regard the decree as the very protector of purity and quality in the brewing arts. So, who’s right? Was the Reinheitsgebot merely, as some claim, an attempt to prevent valuable wheat and oats from being diverted away from the production of bread? Was the decree actually Wittelsbach protectionism designed to preserve a royal monopoly on wheat beer? Or, could the law have indeed been the Western world’s very first example of consumer protection regulation? I figured that as my exploration of the beer universe deepened, it would be helpful and interesting to get to the bottom of this controversial piece of history.
As I read contemporary criticisms of the Reinheitsgebot (and, believe me, there is a ton of criticism), I’m struck by how the majority tend to anachronistically project modern prejudices, sensibilities, and beliefs in analyzing the law. In order to avoid this pitfall, it’s instructive to take a look at the medieval context out of which the decree arose.
The Reinheitsgebot of 1516 entered the scene at the tail end of a dramatic transition in the history of brewing in Europe. Prior to the 13th century, the main producers of beer in Germany were religious orders who brewed for local consumption. The emergence of large-scale commercial economies starting in the 1200s meant that beer production began moving from the monastery to the private commercial brewer. Unfortunately, that transition was not always smooth. The traditional brewing methods that had been passed down through generations of monks were often neglected (or just plain ignored) to the detriment of beer quality.
Regional differences also played a huge part in the commercial growth of beer in the late Middle Ages. In northern Germany, where the commercial revolution was most evident, powerful guilds managed to create strict regulatory controls on the production of beer. In addition, the guilds ensured that good craftsmanship in brewing were well promoted. For these reasons, the best beer in Europe in the 14th century was coming from northern Germany. The situation was much different in southern Germany where the feudal aristocracy retained more control over economic activities including brewing. The feudal lords were slower in adapting to the new commercial realities, which resulted in a lack of competition from southern brewers.
Nowadays we tend to take for granted modern food safety regulations. We simply assume that no matter what beer we purchase it will be, in the most literal sense of the word, drinkable. Such was not always the case during the commercial revolution of the late Medieval period. Aside from various spices that were frequently used to preserve beer like rosemary, caraway, or juniper, more nefarious ingredients were utilized in an attempt to cover up off-flavors. Cheap fillers such as chalk, soot, and even hard-boiled eggs were thrown into the wort making beer drinking an unpleasant, and sometimes even dangerous, proposition.
In response to these conditions, local lord and city councils all over Germany began passing ordinances in an attempt to regulate the type of ingredients used in brewing. The earliest known regulation was issued in 1156 by Emperor Frederick Barbarossa in his legal code declaring that ” any brewer making bad beer or using unjust measures shall be punished. Offenders shall have their beer destroyed or it shall be distributed to the poor.” In attempt to improve their beer quality, the city of Nürnberg in 1293 issued a decree limiting ingredients as well as setting a minimum lagering time. The city followed this decree with strict enforcement, which resulted in the situation where, by the 15th century, Nürnberg was known for good beer.
Let’s not kid ourselves though. The lords and city officials of medieval Germany weren’t necessarily working altruistically for the common good. These regulations were economically motivated. As southern Germany lagged behind the north in terms of beer quality and production, the beer business in southern principalities floundered. People wanted the northern variety, creating a situation where exports from the north began displacing local production. This lack of competition from southern brewers had a tremendous impact on the taxes and duties the princes were able to collect. The math was simple: good beer equals full coffers.
The Dukes of Bavaria knew they had to do something in order to compete against the flood of quality beer from the north. By the mid-15th century, there were only 30 breweries in Munich, which is miniscule compared to the hundred or so that filled the small town of Einbeck in the north. So, in 1447, the Munich city council ordered that only water, barley, and hops be used in the beer brewing in that city. It was this ordinance that provided Duke Wilhelm IV and his brother and co-ruler Duke Ludwig X the pattern for what would become the Reinheitsgebot. On April 23, 1516, the legislative assembly of Bavaria meeting in Ingolstadt passed the law at the behest of the brothers.
To gain a sense of the real purposes behind the Reinheitsgebot, it’s instructive to actually read through the decree (English translation of the law). Interestingly, the question of ingredients only takes up one sentence in the actual ordinance. The majority of the law deals with pricing regulations. Specifically, the price of beer was capped at 1 pfennig in the winter and 2 pfennigs in the summer – the difference was to compensate for the increased cost of brewing and lagering in the summer months. So, aside from regulating ingredients, the Reinheitsgebot had the obvious purpose of providing definitive price controls on the sale of beer in the realm.
Given the context of brewing in the Middle Ages, it seems to me that the quality of brewing as well as pricing controls were forefront in the minds of the Bavarian dukes. But, the question is then, Why did the Reinheitsgebot exclude all other grains in brewing? Many point to this fact as evidence that the decree’s main purpose was reserving the wheat supply for bread production. While this motive certainly was present, I believe that it was secondary to more political concerns. At the time, there was one noble house in Bavaria that possess a royal license to brew wheat beer. It just so happens that this family, the House of Degenberg, were rivals to the ruling Wittelsbach family. Instead of revoking their royal chart, which would have been in bad form, the Dukes could use their purity decree to help stifle the Degenberg’s monopoly.
Attributing a single motivation to the Reinheitsgebot would be fool-hardy. It’s clear that the quality of beer produced in their realms was of major concern for the aristocratic lords of the day. Quality in brewing resulted in greater sales, more exports, and, therefore, higher customs and tax revenues. In addition, the Reinheitsgebot was clearly designed to establish some sort of regulation in the pricing of beer. You can then throw into the mix various political, personal, and protectionist motivations that certainly played a part in the decree’s passage.
Perhaps what is more interesting in this discussion is not the motivations of the decree at the time but, rather, what the Reinheitsgebot evolved into. Following its issuance, the decree seems to have had the desired effect. Bavarian beer quickly caught up to the northern brewers in both quality and reputation. As the Hanseastic League began to crumble in the 17th century, Bavaria was able to surge ahead to become the center of brewing in Germany. The renown that Bavarian beer enjoys today can, in many ways, be linked directly to the decree of 1516.
Over the centuries, the Reinheitsgebot has rooted itself deeply into the imaginations of Germans. When German Unification became a reality in the 1870s, Bavaria made it a provision of its entrance into the German Empire that the Reinheitsgebot would be adopted by the rest of the nation. This was certainly a blatant example of Bavaria attempting to preserve its beer monopoly from northern competition. However, its key to note that the decree didn’t come into full force throughout Germany until 1906 by which time much of the medieval brewing traditions of the north had been almost completely supplanted by the Pilsner.
Although the European Court of Justice struck down the German Reinheitsgebot in 1987, the decree still plays an important part in German brewing tradition. Today, the Reinheitsgebot is almost synonymous with good beer. This is an unfortunate development. As critics rightly point out, limiting ingredients to water, malted barley, hops, and yeast does not guarantee a good beer. Despite this fact, German brewers today use the Reinheitsgebot as a marketing tool in order to provide their brew a seal of legitimacy and quality, which they frequently do not deserve.
A further consequence of this deeply rooted tradition is the lack of innovation. For centuries, the Reinheitsgebot has, for better and for worse, defined the character of German beer. Today, there is little desire among German brewers to innovate beyond the Pilsners and pale lagers that dominate the market. Even in Bavaria where quality beer is still the order of the day, tradition shackles brewers keeping them from developing their craft beyond the bounds of the narrow precepts of the 16th century decree. As long as German beer continues to be limited by the Reinheitsgebot, neither an American style craft beer revolution nor Belgian ale tradition will ever be possible. The alternative is growing irrelevancy in the beer world.
Looking back, however, I believe that the Reinheitsgebot were a positive development for the time. Although dubious motives such as greed, politics, and personal rivalry certainly were present, the spirit of the decree was the promotion of quality, affordable beer. Such a goal is something both critics and supporters of the declaration can agree on.