German beer labels always carry the inscription “Gebraut nach dem deutschen Reinheitsgebot” or “Gebraut nach dem Bayerischen Reinheitsgebot von 1516” (brewed according to the German Purity Law or the Bavarian Purity Law of 1516). This “beer purity” law is one of the most remarkable and perhaps most misunderstood pieces of legislation. The original law was a ducal decree issued on April 23, 1516, by the Bavarian co-rulers Duke Wilhelm IV and Duke Ludwig X (below). It was introduced at a meeting of an assembly of the Estates of Bavaria, at Ingolstadt, some 60 miles north of Munich. Initially only in feudal Bavaria, but later in all of Germany, the Reinheitsgebot gave government the tools to regulate the ingredients, processes and quality of beer sold to the public (and to levy taxes on beer!). The Reinheitsgebot is the oldest, still valid food safety law in the world.
The 1516 Reinheitsgebot simply stipulated that only barley, hops, and water may be used to make the brew. The existence of yeast had not yet been discovered. The intent of the law was to keep beer “pure” by feudal decree, that is, to keep cheap and often unhealthy ingredients – such as rushes, roots, mushrooms, and animals products – out of the people’s drink. In medieval times, brewers often used such ingredients to raise their profits by lowering their standards. The word “Reinheit” (purity), however, did not appear anywhere in the original text. It only started to make its appearance in German legal texts around 1918. Until then, the law was usually referred to as the “surrogate prohibition.” In modern times, the purity law is part of the German tax code. It states that, in bottom-fermented beers, that is, lagers, brewers may use only barley malt, hops, yeast and water. Specifically, this rule forbids the brewing in Germany of lagers containing spices (as do many Belgian beers), corn or rice (as do virtually all mass-produced industrial beers in the rest of the world), sugar (to be found in many Belgian and British beers), un-malted grains (required for many Belgian and British beer styles), as well as chemical additives and stabilizers.
For ales, that is, for top-fermented beers, which hold about 10% of the German market, the Reinheitsgebot is somewhat more generous in terms of allowable ingredients, in part to accommodate an ancient and varied, mostly barley-based ale-brewing tradition in northern Germany, in part to accommodate the centuries-old, entirely wheat-based Weissbier (wheat beer) brewing tradition in Bavaria. German ales may contain � next to barley malt, hops, yeast, and water � “other” malted grains (including, of course, malted wheat for Weissbier), as well as various forms of sugar (derived cane or beet) and sugar-derived coloring agents � but still no chemicals or other processed compounds. Curiously, this wording of the purity law almost inadvertently forbids the brewing of wheat-based lagers. This is so entirely for reasons of tradition, not logic.
Though called the “purity” law, its regulations do not imply that beers made by other nations are “impure.” Rather, the significance of the Reinheitsgebot lies in the fact that German beer is all natural! It may not contain any chemicals, preservatives, or artificial process enhancers (such as artificial enzymes or yeast nutrients) nor may it contain any cheap and flavorless sources of starch (such as rice and corn). This means, a beer made in Germany is always a wholesome and flavorful product. It is the art and craft of the brewer that turns the Reinheitsgebot’s simple and restrictive list of ingredients into a cornucopia of beer styles, from blond to black, from light to heavy.
Over the centuries, acceptance of the Reinheitsgebot spread gradually from Bavaria northwards to other German states. By the time Bismarck (right, at his desk in 1886) forged the Second German Empire in 1871, the Reinheitsgebot was in force in many of the kingdoms and principalities that formed the new union. By 1906, it became the official law in all of the realm of the German Kaiser, with the addition of yeast as a basic ingredient and malted wheat as an allowable component in top-fermented beers, such as Alt, K�lsch and Weissbier (Hefeweizen).
With the formation of the Weimar Republic in 1919, the old Bavarian beer ingredients law, now renamed the Reinheitsgebot, became firmly anchored in the German beer tax law, in part, because the Free State of Bavaria, a large region in the south of Germany (bordering Switzerland, Austria and the Czech Republic), declared that it would not join the new Republic unless the Reinheitsgebot was enforced in the entire country!
The Reinheitsgebot survived the upheavals of recent German history, remained on the books during the Third Reich, and is still part of the tax code of the current Federal Republic. Even brewers in Norway, Switzerland and Greece have since embraced the cannons of the German purity edict.
However, all good things must come to an end. International trade and the global economy have finally � after almost 500 years � got the better of the Reinheitsgebot. To the dismay of German brewers, the Reinheitsgebot, with its narrow selection of ingredients, was struck down by the European Court in 1987 � as a restraint of free trade. The restrictions it contained were held not permissible in the newly integrated European market.
After centuries of ensuring beer quality, the Reinheitsgebot, therefore, fell victim to the triumph of form over substance. Since the ruling, it has been legal to import beers into Germany that are brewed with adjuncts (corn, rice, non-malted grains and sugar) and treated with chemicals for an artificial head and a longer shelf life. German brewers, however, still adhere fiercely to the Reinheitsgebot as a matter of pride and tradition. German beer labels and advertisements still proudly proclaim the purity of the local brew, and many a German imbiber would not think of letting anything but a “pure” beer pass his or her lips.