Germany Marks 500 Years of “Reinheitsgebot” Beer Purity Law

Spaten beer at the Oktoberfest in Munich.

Spaten beer at the Oktoberfest in Munich.

By Christian Stampfer on 17 May 2016
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Five hundred years ago, what is believed to be the first consumer protection law, the Reinheitsgebot – Germany’s Beer Purity Law – was enacted.

The Bavarian law, which went into effect on April 23, 1516, limited the ingredients that could be used to produce beer to water, barley, and hops. It also set the price of beer and threatened confiscation for any brewer violating the Reinheitsgebot. Wheat, which was later allowed, was to be used only for baking bread given its scarcity at the time.

“Most notably, we desire that henceforth everywhere in our cities, market-towns, and in the country, no beer will use ingredients other than only barley, hops, and water,” the proclamation reads, adding, “Whoever knowingly does not comply and disregards this order shall be punished by the court with the confiscation of the offending barrels of beer without fail.”

Today, while some craft beer makers chafe under its limitations, the German beer industry uses the Reinheitsgebot as a marketing tool, and Germany is world renowned for its beer thanks to its reputation for quality.

Things have changed since the 1500s, however. By the mid-1500s, Bavarian authorities began to permit the use of ingredients such as bay leaf, coriander, and wheat in the production of beer and the Reinheitsgebot was later amended to allow for the use of yeast after its role in fermentation became known.

The Reinheitsgebot is so important to Bavaria (half of Germany’s 1,250 brewers are located in the state) that it made nationwide adoption of the law a condition of unification in 1871. And beer itself is so important to Bavarians that it was considered a basic foodstuff.

Bavaria has exported not only its beer but its enthusiasm for it to the world, both with widely-copied festivals such as the Oktoberfest but also the Biergarten or beer garden. German brewers have also attempted to have the Reinheitsgebot added to the Unesco list of intangible cultural heritages.

The Reinheitsgebot has been updated. The 1993 Vorläufiges Biergesetz or Provisional Beer Law stipulates that only water, malted barley, hops, and yeast be used for brewing a bottom-fermented beer, and allows the use of powdered or ground hops and hops extracts as well as stabilization and fining agents. Brewers of top-fermented beer can use a wider variety of malt as well as pure sugars.

Finally, it’s possible to sell beer with other ingredients in Germany, according to a 2005 court ruling. You simply can’t call it “beer.”

(Photos: Accura Media Group)

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