After 500 Years Is The Reinheitsgebot Still Relevant?

The Beer Purity Law Remains Largely Unchanged And Strictly Enforced

    How many laws are you aware of that have been in effect for almost 500 years? Not only in effect but remained, for the most part, unchanged or amended in some way? You can probably count them on one hand, possibly even a finger. The Reinheitsgebot is just such a law and is still strictly enforced  in German-brewed beers.

“Beer can not contain anything other than water, hops, barley  and yeast.” -The Reinheitsgebot     

     The Purity Law states very simply that “Beer can not contain anything other than water, hops, barley  and yeast.” Actually, the original law didn’t even include yeast, and in 500 years has been the only addition to this law. It was created by Bavarian Duke Wilhelm IV  in 1516 over concerns that contaminants such as soot, poisonous roots and sawdust were being added to the beer-making process. The Purity Law is still taken very seriously in Germany and is upheld to this day by those rules. In fact, brews that include any other ingredients than this short list are not even allowed to call themselves “beer.” Brews with other ingredients have to go under the name of “beer-style” or “special beer.”

hops photo

     So how does this fit into the modern-day explosion of craft brews that is taking place even in Germany? Craft beers use a host of other ingredients including oatmeal, chocolate, coffee, peppers and about every fruit adjunct you can think of. Does this law need to be amended for the 21st Century or stand where it has for 500 years? According to The German Brewers Association — a group that represents everyone from micro-breweries all the way up to global giants such as Anheuser-Busch InBev, says the Reinheitsgebot doesn’t hinder creativity. The dozens of different malts, hops and yeast allow for more than a million possible variants, the group says. Moreover, the law sets German beers apart by prohibiting ingredients such as sugar, food coloring or artificial aroma.

      The counter-argument from the rebels believe the reason beer consumption in the country has declined for decades is because of the unchanged law. Germans drank an average of 107 liters in 2014, down from 142 liters in 1992, the Bavarian Brewers Association says. The rebels say a more liberal interpretation of what defines the drink we call beer would help stem that decline. The Traditionalists believe that experimentation with the permitted ingredients offers scope enough for innovation point to the current trend to search for new hop and yeast varieties,  there is about 200 of each,  which all help to add new twists to established beers.

Our craft beer movement traces its catalyst to the innovative brewers who weren’t afraid to tinker with revered Old World styles, styles that had been perfectly acceptable to Europeans for hundreds of years.

barley photo

     It is in large part due to the American craft brew spike that this debate has risen. American-style IPAs are hugely popular in the beer scene, and they are slowly also making their way into well-curated bars and restaurants in the big cities.  Our craft beer movement traces its catalyst to the innovative brewers who weren’t afraid to tinker with revered Old World styles, styles that had been perfectly acceptable to Europeans for hundreds of years.

     There are valid arguments on both sides of the fence as to whether the law should be changed, or outright abolished. Though sawdust and poisonous roots are probably not much reason for concern in the modern era, but there is something to be said for the legacy and tradition behind the law.