The Rambling American: Reinheitsgebot

The 400-year-old German Purity Laws are a proud brewery tradition, but Locke McKenzie questions their legitimacy today.

40 years ago the moon landing began one of the biggest conspiracies of contemporary American lore. Over 400 years ago the Reinheitsgebot, or German Purity Laws inspired a myth that has spanned centuries and oceans.

Established in Bavaria in 1516, the Reinheitsgebot is a set of laws dictating how to brew beer. According to their mandate, beer can contain four and only four ingredients: malted grain, hops, water, and yeast. Anything else here in Germany would be unacceptable (literally – it would not be legally marketable as beer).

Considering Germany’s renown in the fields of beer development (wheat beer, lager beer, Rauchbier, etc.) and drinking culture (Oktoberfest, schnapps, and brew-houses) the Purity Laws, directly translated as “Purity Commandments,” are now arguably the best-propagated benchmark of beer brewing in the world.

Because we don’t have such strict guidelines in the U.S., we have large breweries like Miller tossing things like artificial foam stabilizers and preservatives (other than alcohol) into their beer. They want to brew quickly and efficiently and are more than willing to throw as many foreign ingredients into our beer as they can in order to do so.

It’s no wonder that the Germans call American beer “disgusting” and “watery.”

In order to protect us from such beer-brewing abuse, I must say that the regulations of the Reinheitsgebot have done their job in Germany: they keep beer pure. But out of this same line of logic comes the problematic myth of the Reinheitsgebot. This is one that many micro/craftbrewing enthusiasts tend to cling to.

I spoke briefly with Steve Dresler, head brewer of the Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, a California-based craft brewery, who believes in the strengths of the Reinheitsgebot.

“Following the Reinheitsgebot in no way needs to limit a brewers creativity,” Dresler said. “We make a number of beers here, and only use the essentials of malted barley, hops and yeast, and do use some malted wheat at times.”

Sierra Nevada is not the first brewery I have known that does this. On visits to the Red Hook Brewery in Woodinville, WA (now owned by Anheuser-Busch — look out!) and the Deschutes Brewery in Bend, OR, the tour guides respectively proclaimed that their breweries brewed to the standards of the German Purity Laws.

In making this assertion, all three of these breweries essentially claim that the Reinheitsgebot is the only true way to brew beer, although, comically none of them technically brew all of their beers to these standards. (I haven’t found direct literature from the breweries’ websites that mention the Reinheitsgebot, but this fact was unofficially voiced by brewery representatives during brewery tours or in informal conversations.)

In reality, as many American microbrewers will tell you, the Purity Laws are an anachronistic standard that are relatively meaningless in today’s brewing culture. Rather than promoting the production of great beer, they suppress the development of the modern understanding of it.

To begin, the Purity Laws had very little to do with purity in 1516 and much to do with control. Due to poor water quality, alcohol was so important to the health and stability of society that the government categorized it as a “foodstuff.” This put beer into the front line of regulation.

The beer industry needed grain. So did the bread bakers. In order to control who used what, the Reinheitsgebot proclaimed that the brewers could only use barley when making beer (a law they had to reform some years later due to the popularity of wheat beer in the southern German provinces).

The government also needed to tax the amount of beer being brewed and served, which meant amounts and prices needed to be regulated. People often overlook the fact that most of the literature of the Reinheitsgebot has to do with prices. As one excerpt reads, “From Michaelmas to Georgi, the price for one Mass [Bavarian Liter 1,069] or one Kopf [bowl-shaped container for fluids, not quite one Mass], is not to exceed one Pfennig.”

This is not to say that nothing in the Reinheitsgebot contributes cultural value to the brewing industry. In the 16th century, brewing did not aspire to the standard that it does now. The brewers were still trying to grasp what made beer taste good, and in an attempt to find a good seasoning, were regularly adding ingredients like oak bark.

Then at some point, they discovered hops. They knew it tasted good, and the government therefore decided that it should be one of the four essential ingredients for beer. Considering that hops are still a standard for almost every beer brewed in America or Europe, one can tally this up as an important contribution.

The problem with the Reinheitsgebot in contemporary brewing culture is that our brewing knowledge is much more advanced today. Sure, we may need the taxes and whatever, but we certainly have a much more advanced sense of what can go into a beer and make it taste good.

If we were to look at some of the more successful European beers outside of Germany, for example, we would see that none of them meet the standards of the Reinheitsgebot. Guinness, for instance, does not technically qualify as beer in Germany because the malted grains have been roasted. Most Belgian beers also do not make the grade because of the spicing techniques (coriander, cumin, chamomile, ginger), which make their beers so noteworthy.

Especially in America, where I would argue we have the youngest beer brewing culture, it seems totally irresponsible to brew to the Reinheitsgebot. Yes, there are many styles brewed to the Reinheitsgebot worth taking influence from and, yes, we should respect the cultural importance of these laws, but we have the opportunity to do so much more. We have Jasmine IPAs (Elysian Brewery, Seattle, WA), Hazelnut Browns (Rogue, Portland, OR), and barrel-aged stouts (New Holland Brewery, Holland, MI) that are pushing our understanding of beer’s abilities.

We should grab this bull by the horns and run with it, instead of trapping ourselves behind some strange myth of what pure beer should be. As New York Times author John Schwartz says of the moon-landing hoax, to believe in something so nonsensical and outdated “staggers the imagination.”

I think this quote works in both cases.

Locke McKenzie runs a language company in Munich, Germany. When not expounding on the finer points of communication, he tends to drink and write about it at Reinheitsgebot-Renewed.