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Reflections on the Reinheitsgebot…

Second only to its love of David Hasselhoff, the German affinity for its Reinheitsgebot boggles the minds of foreign visitors. Born as a cross between a taxation law and a means for protecting bakers’ ingredients, the Reinheitsgebot (literally translated as ‘purity regulation’ or ‘requirement’) has long been a dominating influence on the German beer scene. German brewers and drinkers alike proudly point to the regulation as de facto proof that their beer is the best in the world. The history, meaning, and practical effect of the historic regulation, however, are not so clear. In reality, the Reinheitsgebot is a confounding, convoluted, and even antiquated concept, the complexities of which the local German brewers don’t even appear to quite understand.

The earliest version of the Reinheitsgebot first appeared in the city of Munich in 1447 when the city council issued an ordinance asking all brewers to use only barley, hops, and water in brewing. Forty years later, Bavarian Duke Albrecht IV compelled local brewers to pledge support for the ‘purity’ ordinance. By 1516, the Reinheitsgebot had been extended to all of the then-defined state of Bavaria and it (with the addition of the newly discovered ingredient of yeast) would later be extended throughout the nation. The purity law dominated the German brewing scene until 1987, when the European Court of Justice struck down the provisions of the law which barred foreign brewers from marketing their non-compliant offerings as ‘beer’ in Germany.

While the landmark decision allowed foreign brewers to freely move their beers inside of Germany, the case was not the last word for German brewers. When you ask whether the purity regulation still governs their actions, German brewers tend to give mixed responses. Almost all brewers claim that the Reinheitsgebot remains the governing law, with some even suggesting that there are criminal penalties for violating it. While a handful of the republic’s more than 1200 brewers might privately tell you that the purity law no longer governs their businesses, none would dare speak such blasphemy in public.

A debate over the Reinheitsgebot can raise the ire of ardent German beer enthusiasts. Supporters point to the glory of a zesty German-style pilsner or the grandeur of a luscious maibock as proof of the value of the purity law. To these dedicated souls, anything that suggests tampering with these brewing treasures and their traditions is heresy. And there is no denying that the country’s reputation for excellent beers and its revered brewing traditions have in part been preserved by the country’s identification with and dedication to the purity regulation.

Despite its ties to tradition, the purity law has also served to stifle German creativity and provided harbor for some unfortunate misconceptions about beer. The uniform party line approach of German brewers has led both locals and foreign drinkers to propagate the myth that the Reinheitsgebot is what makes German beer ‘good’ and that any beers not made in accordance with its rigid rules are somehow inferior. Brewing in accordance with the Reinheitsgebot, however, is no guarantee of quality and as any imbibing traveler in Germany can attest, the country has its fair share of flawed beer. German brewers are not immune from the temptation to cut corners on maturation times or ingredient qualities, all while staying within the four corners of the purity law.

At its core, the purity law is built upon a faulty premise, namely that quality beer can only consist of three to four standardized ingredients. Strict adherence to this errant brewing ideology has caused German brewers, known for their technical savvy and innovative dexterity, to largely miss the craft brewing revolution. The explosion of brewing creativity spreading in countries, including Japan, Denmark, and Italy, which are unencumbered by such restrictive and outmoded regulations, has near completely bypassed the historically handcuffed German brewers.

In all fairness, the Reinheitsgebot is not the only obstacle to a revolution of new flavors in Germany. The nation’s beer drinkers are notoriously parochial in their selections and their reluctance to try new styles is legend among German brewers. A pass by a café during the lunch hour or a beer hall after work leaves you with the distinct impression that the German people like their just as it is. While German brewers could certainly produce a tongue blistering IPA safely within the confines of the Reinheitsgebot, they resolutely believe that their customers wouldn’t drink the stuff.

It is impossible, however, to ignore the irony of the Reinheitsgebot’s role in shaping the brewing nation’s hardened views. In the days before the spread of the purity law, the less politically powerful brewers of Northern Germany are said to have created dozens of once popular but no extinct beer styles, including spiced and fruit-flavored offerings. While paying homage to German brewing history is an honorable pursuit, expanding the brewing flavor palette beyond mere hops and barley would actually bring German brewers closer to their roots.

–Article appeared in Volume II, Issue I of BeerAdvocate Magazine

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