What is the Reinheitsgebot?
If you have been a homebrewer for any length of time, or you’ve found yourself wandering down the vast rabbit hole of Bavarian and German brewing traditions and edicts, then you have probably heard the term “Reinheitsgebot” at least once. No, I did not just sneeze, I spoke German; say it with me “rhine-heights-geh-boat”. Very good! So, what the heck is it, what does it mean and what significance does it have today? These are all questions you may or may not have, but I have very little self-control when it comes to talking or writing about beer, so I am going to tell you anyway.
Reinheitsgebot translated literally, means “purity order” is an approximately 500-year-old Bavarian brewing edict that was the brainchild of Wilhelm IV of Bavaria and brought to fruition on April 23rd, 1516… You could say it’s a bit “long in the tooth”. I don’t know about you, but I feel young next to a 500-year-old brewing law! (It’s about time I felt young next to something.)
Contrary to what the name implies, the original form of Reinheitsgebot was not as geared toward consumer health and preventing the inclusion of “harmful” ingredients as many may think, though this was a part of it, as brewers sometimes added not-so-healthy things when supplies like hops were short. The original edict which would see many renditions in the coming centuries had slightly different priorities. Ingredients were originally listed as the third stipulation and stated that only barley, hops, and water could be used. Many individuals hear this and have a few follow up questions, and rightfully so. Some of those questions might include confusion about the omission of yeast, and the reasoning on why beers often viewed as traditionally German, include ingredients not allowed by the original edict. You may also be wondering if it’s something you should be paying attention to.
So, what on earth was the primary motivation for the creation of Reinheitsgebot law in the first place? When the edict is read in its totality, it becomes clear the primary reason it existed was mostly monetary. Are you shocked? Probably not. The first points stated in law, deal with pricing restrictions, and dictate what could be charged for a product and what season specifically that pricing cap applied to. Within the edict also existed a statement allowing Duke Wilhelm to change any part of the rules, whenever he wanted during grain shortages.
Speaking of grain shortages, that brings me to my next point. Many individuals wonder why their Bavarian Wheat beers, or any other traditionally recognized German styles containing wheat, would not have been considered passable under the original law. Wilhelm’s reason for this came, at least partly down to his desire to protect his people from potential food shortages, which were commonplace in 16th century Europe. By restricting brewers to only using barley, wheat was reserved for bakers and helped to prevent the price of bread from inflating beyond what the average person could afford, making the motivation for the edict a far cry from the sometimes “snotty superiority complex” that Reinheitsgebot is often, unfairly associated within the modern-day.
When we examine the original edict, it is hard not to notice that yeast is not mentioned. This omission has led many to believe the myth that brewers did not know about yeast in the 16th century. Fortunately, this probably could not be further from the truth, and the brewers of old deserve a bit more credit for their understanding of alcoholic fermentation than that! We know for a fact that brewers were aware of yeast and its role because they had a job title dedicated to the harvesting of yeast from prior batches. This individual placed in this role was called the “Hefener”. If they knew about it, why didn’t they mention it? Brewers in the middle ages thought about yeast as an innate feature of beer production, not as an extraneous ingredient. Though they may not have fully understood where it came from (mostly the air at that point) they knew it was important, and that they needed it to continue to produce beer, but was not viewed as an “ingredient” within what has been their understanding and usage of the word at the time. A very old case of “lost in translation”.
When discussing Reinheitsgebot, it’s important to know that in 1506, it only applied to brewers in Bavaria, but not brewers in other places, like Berlin and the surrounding areas. This is at least partly because by this time, Bavaria was already well known and established at brewing lager beers, meaning beers that could ferment in colder temperatures and this was exclusive to Bavaria, only. In other parts of Germany, brewers had completely different mindsets and were brewing funky ales, that allowed for the additions of all kinds of different brewing ingredients, unlike the restrictions set forth by the Duke. Brewers in places such as Belgium even made a concerted effort to set their beers away from those brewed in Bavaria and, Cologne even went so far as to ban the production of Lager beers in 1603. Drama much?!
Up until the later 19th century, there was still quite a bit of division between Bavarian brewing traditions and the rest of Germany and what would become part of Germany, going forward. During the German unification of 1871, a new rendition of the purity law was embraced that left out ingredient restrictions, which gave the government the ability to tax all ingredients that brewers were using, across the land. Ah yes, there’s that monetary element, again. Later, in 1906 the law further adapted to include specific rules for the production of lagers and ales as separate, core styles. WW1 brought about yet another reunification under the Weimer Republic. Bavaria would only agree to their inclusion IF their beloved beer law was also included. Talk about shrewd negotiations!
In 1919, Reinheitsgebot split into two laws. The older, restrictive Bavarian lager rules seen as one law (the portion often misunderstood today), and the other, a more lenient code applying to Ales. This has understandably created much confusion among modern brewers attempting to understand it or those with a desire to follow it. Fast forward to the present day, and we see many individuals that are under the false impression that proper German beer (or any beer for that matter) is only ever made from barley, hops, and yeast. This is categorically false, as the current Reinheitsgebot covers additional ingredients found in broader traditional German styles such as Wheat, salt, and spices. Nowadays Reinheitsgebot, more than almost anything else, is a tax classification and a point of national historical pride. Unfortunately, it’s still got a lot of people confused, and under the impression that beer brewed outside of the “purity order” does not qualify as “real” beer… This is also, untrue.
Attempting to brew a beer according to Reinheitsgebot restrictions in the modern day is quite tough. This difficulty doesn’t come from the law includes, but rather because of what it does not mention at all. Brewing technology has made leaps and bounds over the many decades and centuries since the purity order’s inception. Is a brewer permitted to add water conditioners, nutrients, or malt in extract form? What about dry-hopping or forced carbonation? What about wort aeration? Answer? Pretty much a big, fat, shrug. We can’t know what isn’t even mentioned, unfortunately.
Brewers in Germany do their best to follow the modern rendition of Reinheitsgebot, but it often poses challenges that brewers outside of Germany never need to consider. Need to acidify a mash; Thinking of reaching for a spot of lab-created lactic acid? You better not, if you are trying to follow the rules; that acid needs to come from an acidified malt. What about clarifying or fining agents? You better be sure it’s not making it into the finished product, ha! German brewers honor these long-held traditions with pride, however, they are not above admitting that it does create more work for them in general. Reinheitsgebot was originally something the government handled the primary enforcement of, later it was the pride of brewers that kept it policed. In modern-day, it seems to be the customer that is most concerned with this term. This consumer allegiance while admirable and historically significant, is at least partially driven by the misconception that beer brewed outside of these rules, is somehow subpar and that’s a sad prospect.
If you are brewing beer outside of Germany, it’s completely up to you to follow Reinheitsgebot or not follow it. It’s the opinion of this brewer, that knowing how to work with your ingredients whatever they may be, with the end goal of producing delicious beer, should always be the primary priority. Part of the fun of brewing your own beer is breaking the rules and having the experience of learning new things! Rules are great, but so is creativity and experimentation! At the end of the day, brewers and drinkers alike should keep well in mind that beer that “tastes good” is the most important “rule” of all, regardless of how you get there! So next time you hear some snobbery pertaining to non- Reinheitsgebot compliant brews, kindly suggest some historical research and a nice cold beer! Maybe you’ll make a new friend, maybe you’ll experience an awkward silence or maybe you would rather just “know more than them” and hey, that’s fine too! Bottoms up, brewers!
**Smashes down empty stein**