This month, the “German Purity Law” of Reinheitsgebot (rine-HEIGHTS-ge-boat) turns 500 years old. FIVE HUNDRED YEARS OLD. That’s older than the United States of America, older than the writings of William Shakespeare, older than the discovery that planets revolve around the sun.
Although the Reinheitsgebot was legally taken off the books in the 1980s, most German brewers continue to follow the purity rule that states “the only ingredients used for the brewing of beer must be barley, hops, and water.” (Yeast was added later on after the discovery of its role in brewing in 1857.) At its inception, this law applied to domestic and imported beers, and what technically began as a bread protection act evolved into a proud national tradition that many refuse to abandon.
Originally decreed by Bavarian nobleman Duke Wilhelm IV on April 23, 1516, the Reinheitsgebot served many purposes. First and foremost, it prevented valuable wheat and rye crops from being “squandered” on beer brewing so more could be used to make bread - a dietary staple at the time. Secondly, it protected consumers by keeping the beverage pure. Water supplies were so polluted in the Middle Ages that most people drank beer instead of water to quench their thirst. But beer could be just as equally dangerous. It was being brewed with all sorts of weird (and sometimes poisonous) ingredients to increase profit margins, impart flavor, or add additional intoxicating effects i.e. mushrooms, spices, animal byproducts, preservatives, starches, etc - and the cheaper the better. The Reinheitsgebot theoretically kept these extra ingredients out, ensuring a safer product. As centuries wore on, rulers came and went; kingdoms dissipated and new ones took their place. But the Reinheitsgebot continued on, gradually spreading north to other Germanic states and becoming official law in 1906 under the realm of the Kaiser. By this time, yeast had been added to list of acceptable ingredients as well as malted wheat for top-fermenting beers such as kolsch and hefeweizen.
In modern times, most Germans interpret the Reinheitsgebot’s main purpose as ensuring a high-quality product. While not everyone can agree that following this recipe guarantees success, it is no secret that Germany produces some of the best-loved beers in the world. German brewers swear by the tradition and most foreign brewers will modify their recipes to gain appeal in the German brewing market. Throughout its history, the Reinheitsgebot has been the single most influential law guiding German brewing practices, and despite being struck down by the European court as a barrier to trade in 1987, dissenting beers are few and far between. In 2013, the German Brewer’s Association began the process of nominating the purity law for UNESCO’s World Heritage List.
Brewing (and drinking) beer is a proud German tradition, but it’s not all rosy. In recent years, new generations of brewers and beer drinkers have begun to look at the bigger picture. While other countries are embracing experimental brewing and developing new beer styles, Germany continues to stick to the Reinheitsgebot, favoring convention over fad. Millennials are beginning to worry about how this will affect the future of German breweries in the age-old struggle between tradition and progress. Is a tradition worth clinging to if it holds back the natural evolution of human invention? Only time will tell, but one thing remains: the Reinheitsgebot lives on as a source of intense national pride for most Germans and certainly deserves its place in the history books.
So cheers to 500 years of great German beers! (Sorry, I had to.)
Alright, last week I described the migration of hop cultivation throughout Europe, and you can see how easily that would lead into the American history. Hops, in fact, came over with some of the first English settlers in 1629. Planted on small family farms, these hops supplied equally small breweries with a fresh, local crop every summer. But they weren't only used in beer. Hops have many culinary and medicinal uses of which the early settlers took advantage. Its young supple shoots can be cooked and eaten like asparagus, while the cones can be made into all sorts of remedies - hop pillows to cure insomnia, hop tea for anxiety and digestion issues, even as a poultice to reduce swelling and infection. It was quite common back in the 17th century for New England farms to include small hop yards.
It wasn't until the first large-scale breweries like Anheuser-Busch began taking hold that substantial commercial hop production flourished. With the majority of hop farms still contained within New England states, the early 1800s saw New York as the top U.S. producer. But that all changed mid-century. New railroad lines were revolutionizing the way Americans traveled and communicated. The Civil War had reached a conclusion. People were eager to settle new areas and create stable, productive lives. And a major crop failure in New York opened up new opportunities for other parts of the country. This ushered in a brief but golden age for hop growing in the Great Lakes - Wisconsin to be specific. Wisconsin promptly overtook New York , producing 75% of the nation's hops between 1860 and 1870 (a surprising fact that I, as a born and bred Cheesehead, never knew!). But it was not meant to be for the Midwest. After being introduced to the West Coast in the 1860s, hops quickly became the crop of choice for California, Oregon, and Washington farmers, and so began the present monopoly.
These days, Washington's Yakima Valley dominates the hop economy, producing 74% of America's hops. Oregon comes in at a distant second at 14%, and Idaho brings up the pack with 10%. With its relatively low humidity, abundant sunshine, and convenient snow melt from the nearby Cascades, the Pacific Northwest has become the epicenter of hop growing in the U.S. However, as interest in craft beers and brewing continues to sweep the nation, farmers around the country are recognizing an opportunity to provide these new breweries with a fresh, local source for hops. Small farms have once again begun popping up in Wisconsin, Michigan, and New York. And for many, its not just a job. It's a passion; a way of reconnecting to our past and reviving those great American traditions of hard work and entrepreneurship.
It's quite inspiring to witness this comeback, and it means only good things for the future of the relationship between small farms and craft beer. Not surprisingly, Central Oregon hosts its own network of hop growers. During our hop yard tour in August, we'll partner with these growers to give you the chance to see farms at peak production, and trust me, it'll give you a whole new perspective on what goes into making that pint of beer you enjoy at the bar every Friday. Don't miss out!
Driving through Oregon's lush Willamette Valley at the peak of summer, it's hard to not notice the walls of green marching across the horizon, looming over narrow country roads as you approach their ranks. Seeing those lovely giants thick with fresh cones, it's hard to believe hops weren't always grown in the Pacific Northwest. After all - Washington, Oregon, and Idaho have dominated the American commercial hop market for over 100 years. But much like many of our traditions, hop cultivation has historic European roots.
Hops grow wild in North America, Europe, and Asia, and the first recorded mention of the plant - to some debate - is from Pliny the Eldar's Naturalis Historia written between 77-79 AD. In his book of botanical observations, Pliny refers to wild hops as lupus salictarius (charmingly translated to "willow wolf"), an Italian food novelty. It's not until seven centuries later when hops are first connected to brewing. Abbot Adalhard of the Benedictine monastery of Corbie (in what is now Picardy, Northern France) wrote a series of rules in 822 AD on how the Abbey should be run. He included a description on gathering wild hops for beer, although it's not clear whether they were used as a preservative or for flavoring. Regardless, this document shows wild hops were at the very least being collected for brewing use.
Historians don't know exactly when the first commercial hop farms began popping up, but it was most likely in Northern Germany between 1100 and 1200 AD, when breweries of the Hansa trading towns were exporting hopped beer to surrounding areas. The Low Country's high society greatly enjoyed this German drink and, in turn, began to brew their own beer. By the 1360s, Dutch hop farms were supplying their local breweries, with Flanders to follow closely after. Hopped beer exports to England only continued this trend despite the initial push back from native drinkers of traditional unhopped ales. The first English hop farms were planted around the 1520s in Kent, then spread to other areas of the country as well as Scotland, with production peaking in 1878.
Throughout this evolution of commercial hop cultivation, the hops themselves were also undergoing a transformation. Wild hop varieties were consistently being discovered around Europe during the first few centuries of this craze, most likely still acting just as a preservative. In the late 1800s, brewers finally discovered it was the soft resin in hops - where alpha acids are produced - that decided how well the beer would keep, so growers started planting hops with higher alpha acid content to meet brewers' demands. Around this same time, American hop imports were on the rise, creating a very unique amalgamation of events. Tastes began to change from strongly-hopped beers to sweeter, more mild flavoring. Researchers at Wye College in Ashford near Kent began the first cross-breeding program in the early 20th century, blending the fruity, high alpha acid American varieties with floral English varieties. This created new and unique hop flavors with twice the preservative power, meaning less hops could be used in a brew to get the same amount of staying power. And the beers they produced were more mild - allowing the sweeter, more subtle flavors to shine. Many varieties grown today are based off these original crosses.
Small pockets of hop farms still exist throughout Europe, most in the historic growing areas of the past, like Kent and Northern Germany, but they're not as prevalent as in the past. Modern mechanization has all but wiped out small farms, and much of the momentum has swung America's way. Despite all of this, the Hallertau region in Germany continues to be the #1 producer of hops in the world, holding strong to their beer-loving roots.
So where does the U.S. fit into all of this? As you can guess from historic precedence, hops migrated with early European settlers to the New World and continued their march across the globe. You can read our story in next week's post. Stay tuned!
Hopservatory Manager, NASA JPL Solar System Ambassador