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.)
Hopservatory Manager, NASA JPL Solar System Ambassador