What’s a Reinheitsgebot and what’s it have to do with beer?

Pints | by Jason Foster


April 23, 2016 is a pretty important day for beer drinkers. It is the 500th anniversary of the enactment of the Reinheitsgebot. Beer drinkers rejoice!

Reinheits-what?? What’s that?

Allow me to explain.

North Americans might better know the Reinheitsgebot as the German Beer Purity Law. It was (and is) a law regulating the ingredients that can be used to make beer. A version of it is still on the books today.

On April 23, 1516, Bavarian Duke Wilhelm IV issued a decree to restrict the making of beer to certain ingredients — namely barley, hops and water (yeast hadn’t been discovered). It went on to shape half a millennium’s worth of German brewing traditions. Plus, in many respects it defined most beer around the world today.

Pretty significant, I would say.

But history is never that straightforward. One of the more interesting twists of historical fact is that it only became known as the Reinheitsgebot in 1918. Before that it was known as Surrogatverbot, which translates to adjunct prohibition — which is what it was. Adjuncts are additions such as corn, rice, sugar and other non-traditional ingredients.

Another little-known factoid: there was more than one Reinheitsgebot. Munich created a similar law years before Wilhelm’s decree, which, in 1516, only affected Bavaria. In the 1800s, a second version was created to regulate other parts of what is now Northern Germany.

The Reinheitsgebot only became law for all of Germany upon unification of the Weimar Republic in 1918 (Bavaria, bless its oom-pah-pah heart, made it a condition of joining).

The list of allowed ingredients has also been amended over the years. The biggest change was the addition of yeast, after Pasteur discovered its key role in fermentation. There are also allowances for wheat and rye, and certain sugar adjuncts in ales.

One Rule To Brew Them All

Why go to such trouble to regulate ingredients? Historically there were three motivations.

First, banning the use of wheat and rye in beer prevented price competition with bakers — in other words it was a way to keep bread affordable. Second, unregulated brewers would often add noxious and dangerous ingredients to their beer, either for bitterness or to mask off-flavours. These sketchy ingredients included roots, mushrooms, animal by-products, toxic henbane and soot.

Finally, the church at the time was in the process of stamping out the use of ingredients such as herbs and fruit — which it associated with wicked pagan practices — in favour of hops.

The Reinheitsgebot is most famous for its prohibition of ingredients in beer other than the proscribed list. However, most of the law’s text addressed the issue of prices. In effect, the Reinheitsgebot was a price control edict. It restricted the price brewers could charge per volume of beer and, additionally, restricted the mark-up an innkeeper could apply to the end price.

This makes the Reinheitsgebot one of the world’s oldest consumer protection laws — and the oldest currently in force.

I say it’s still in force, as it is part of the German Tax Code. In 1987, however, it was struck down by a European Union court as a protectionist trade violation — a case launched by adjunct-happy French brewer Fischer, located in Strasbourg on the German border. Today the Reinheitsgebot only applies to beer brewed in Germany.

But 500 years after its enactment the Reinheitsgebot still has moral authority. It’s a reflection of “pure” beer made in a traditional fashion. Being able to say your product is “Reinheitsgebot-compliant” remains a powerful statement in some beer circles.

Also, while the Reinheitsgebot’s legal authority is diminished, its marketing influence has grown — in large part due to the rise of craft beer. The sheer number of lager brewers attempting to attach their product to the name (usually using the English translation) is proof, though some are more legitimate descendants of the tradition than others.

Craft brewing today, of course, prides itself on its use of experimentation and unusual ingredients. None of this would be allowed under the Reinheitsgebot. But when you speak to craft brewers, they understand and respect the law’s spirit. It served an important purpose historically, and it’s still relevant today in a world where 90 per cent of beer is almost half corn (or rice) syrup.

That’s what the Reinheitsgebot aimed to prevent, and that’s what craft brewers are working against.

So why should you, Mr. and Ms. Beer Drinker, care? Because the Reinheitsgebot exemplifies the best of what beer can be: honest, pure and natural. You might not be at risk of someone putting soot in your favourite pint, but there are lots of ways to adulterate beer and make it less than what it should be.

You don’t need to look for Reinheitsgebot-compliant beer. But if you seek out breweries that exemplify the spirit of what Duke Wilhelm was trying to do, I guarantee your efforts will be rewarded. And that’s a guarantee worth toasting.