and Not So Simple
relevance does a 500-year-old Bavarian beermaking law have
for American brews today?
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?
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
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,
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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