If you have ever had a mug of a German beer, you know that it can be a transcendent experience. Known for their exceptional lagers, Germans reign supreme as the world’s top beer brewers. But, the road to that supremacy began more than 500 years ago when the Duke of Bavaria, Wilhelm IV, issued the original decree that led to what is now known as the German Purity Law. The Reinheitsgebot (pronounced: rine-hites-geh-boat) reigns as one of the oldest consumer protection laws still enforced.
In 1516, Duke Wilhelm IV sought to protect his subjects from unscrupulous brewers and tavern owners by stipulating how much could be charged for beer and what it could contain. Geographic boundaries were set for pricing beer and the law provided for fluctuations in pricing if economic circumstances warranted. By restricting the price publicans could charge for beer, the Duke made it more accessible to his subjects and limited price gouging.
The good Duke was also concerned about the purity of the beer being produced for consumption by his subjects, so he included in the decree a restriction on the ingredients. Many beers of the time were routinely brewed by irresponsible brewers with ingredients like ash, sawdust and even roots – some of them poisonous – to bring down the cost of production and maximize profit. To combat this, the original decree stated, “…in all our towns, marketplaces and the whole of the countryside, beer shall have no other ingredients than barley, hops, and water.”
While the new law put an end to beer made with dangerous additives, it was also intended to help the bakery industry by limiting brewers to the use of barley. This increased the supply of wheat and rye for baked products and insured that both bread and beer would be plentiful. The law also made it illegal to use ingredients like gruit – a mixture of herbs like sweet gale, mugwort, yarrow, horehound and heather – that religious conservatives believed were used in pagan rituals.
Through the years, the original Purity Law underwent several changes, but the spirit of the law remained. It formed the basis of beer laws that spread throughout Germany and contributed to the extinction of several Northern German beer styles such as spiced and cherry beers. As Germany entered the Industrial Age, Bavaria insisted upon the Purity Law be applied throughout Germany as a condition of unification. This met with heavy opposition from brewers in the north, but the law was eventually enacted with heavy taxes placed on outside ingredients rather than an outright ban.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the law was first referred to as Reinheitsgebot and was finally applied consistently throughout Germany as the law governing beer production. Curiously, as the tumultuous events of the 1900s ground on, brewers and even consumers began to embrace the law. The purity of German beer became of pride and an important marketing tool. It became so deeply rooted in tradition that no self-respecting German would think of drinking anything other than a Reinheitsgebot-compliant beer.
Now, 500 years later, the craft beer revolution is taking Europe by storm. As a younger generation of beer-drinkers seeks styles that do not comply with the Purity Law, the law is being called in to question. Whether the Reinheitsgebot can survive is yet to be seen. But, the superiority it brought to German beer can never be denied.
Here are some traditional, Reinheitsgebot compliant German beers you can try locally:
Founded more than 600 years ago, the Spaten brwery has adhered to the since its inception. The brewery’s Dunkel is a malty, dark departure from the typical German light lager. This brew is highly recommended as an accompaniment with rich meats and stews.
Crisp and highly-carbonated, this brew is a standard of the German Pilsner style. It is especially refreshing when served very cold and enjoyed with the afternoon sea breeze.
While most German beers are lagers, Koesch is an ale. Brewed only in the German city of Cologne, this style is slightly fruity with a crisp, hoppy finish.