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Pure and Not So Simple

What relevance does a 500-year-old Bavarian beermaking law have for American brews today?

By Julie Johnson

“Brewed according to the Beer Purity Laws”—when American beer drinkers see this as part of a beer promotion, they might wonder: Whose laws? And how pure?

U.S. breweries that invoke this standard are linking their beer to a set of Bavarian food regulations, a tradition of quality that is nearly five centuries old. In this era of micro and specialty brewing, many breweries emphasize their commitment to quality by advertising that they conform to an ancient document called the Reinheitsgebot.

This German mouthful (pronounced RINE-heights-ge-BOAT) is known variously on beer labels and in ads as the Beer Purity Laws, the Bavarian Purity Law of 1516 or the Purity Pledge.

Since American brewers borrow and adapt the traditions of many great brewing cultures, it’s worth asking what relevance a 500-year-old set of German food ingredient laws might have for American beer lovers today.

The Reinheitsgebot dictated the permitted ingredients for beer in Bavaria, circa 1516. It stipulated that beer could be made from only three ingredients: malted barley, hops and water. The Bavarians did not realize that an invisible partner, yeast, was a critical fourth player—that discovery had to wait for Anton van Leeuwenhoek and his microscope. All the same, it is convenient shorthand to credit the Bavarians with remarkable prescience and to describe the Reinheitsgebot as stipulating all four essential ingredients of beer.

The Reinheitsgebot is seen today as an assurance of quality for the consumer. Its origin, however, probably had more to do with the needs of those in power—for revenue, control of resources or civil stability—than the welfare of lowly beer drinkers.

Different writers attribute the origin of the Reinheitsgebot to various forces. In one account, the Reinheitsgebot grew out of a hard-pressed government’s search for revenue. The Elector of Bavaria enacted the laws as a guarantee of Bavarian beer quality, in the hopes of strengthening the reputation of the brewing industry and building a tax base.

Alternatively, the Wittelsbachs, the ruling ducal family, which controlled all barley production, sought to preserve their monopoly by barring beers made from any other grain.

A final explanation underscores the need for social stability: In an attempt to reserve all wheat for bread baking and prevent its being diverted into brewing, the Royal House forbade the making of beer with any grain but barley, which is less suitable for bread. The royal family maintained the exclusive right to grant limited charters for wheat-based brewing for its own consumption, a testimony to the appeal of wheat beers.

Until recently, the Reinheitsgebot applied to beer consumed within Germany, with the result that most non-German brews were excluded. It did not apply to German beer brewed for export. The European Union deemed the Purity Laws to be a restraint of trade in 1987, although to this day, German beer drinkers are pretty dismissive of non-Reinheitsgebot beers, effectively preserving the tradition through consumer choice.

So, what value does the Reinheitsgebot claim have for U.S. consumers? Some value certainly, although a few marketing campaigns have overreached themselves. Reinheitsgebot beers may follow the purity laws, but it does not follow that other beers are somehow less than pure.

The Reinheitsgebot beers cannot contain grains other than barley, unmalted grains of any kind or other fermentable materials such as sugars and syrups. This is good news if you are offended that mass-market brewers produce their beer by using less expensive grains, such as corn and rice. On the other hand, other great brewing traditions, such as those of England and Belgium, include other grains or sugars (not to mention some pretty wild spices and herbs) to create character or balance, so the practice is not to be sneered at.

The restricted ingredient list for any beer labeled Reinheitsgebot has an unexpected benefit: Beer lovers with a dietary sensitivity to, say, wheat can be reassured that their beer contains only the critical four ingredients and no potential allergens. Since U.S. brewers are permitted to put some 200 ingredients into their beer without listing them for the consumer, concerned drinkers may want to opt for the beers that voluntarily subscribe to the Reinheitsgebot or make a similarly worded claim.

Brewers who adhere to the Reinheitsgebot cannot clarify their beers with so-called fining agents, which are passed through the beer to pick up particulate matter. This is good news for strict vegetarians, as some finings are derived from animal products, such as isinglass, which comes from sturgeon bladders.

The place where the “beer purity law of 1516” claim rings false is when it is invoked by a brewery that is not in the German brewing tradition. There are American craft breweries that specialize in beers in the English-style ale tradition, and yet market their beers as conforming to the “German Beer Purity Law.” What nonsense. Tell me that you use pure ingredients and no scary chemicals, and I’ll be glad to have that information. But if a brewery invokes the Reinheitsgebot but brews English- or Belgian-style beers, I’d be concerned about their, well, purity.

Julie Johnson is the editor of All About Beer magazine, based in Durham, N.C. This story first appeared as her monthly column in Durham’s Independent Weekly. Reach Johnson at editor@allaboutbeer.com.

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TABLE SCRAPS

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