Reinheitsgebot’s last birthday

Screenshot from, a marketing effort from the Radeberger Gruppe
“It’s the Reinheitsgebot that fuels our creativity” — according to a ludicrous ad campaign from a group of German brewers (brought to my attention by Bryan Roth)

Here’s my contribution to the teetering pile of Reinheitsgebot-related reckons that are surfacing around the thing’s putative 500th birthday ― which is being celebrated despite the old law no longer being in force, the new law not being so old (obviously) nor so simple, and the whole thing being colossally pointless in the first place. I wrote the below for the most-recent edition of SOBA’s Pursuit Of Hoppiness magazine but have added back in a few asides that had to be cut from the print version for space and/or tone. Think of this as the Extended Edition. If I had the coding skills to better-emulate the famous footnotes for David Foster Wallace’s The Host, I’d do that. This’ll have to suffice. If you need more Bonus Material, I’ve ranted down these lines beforeFor the record, the original text was written entirely under the influence of Kraftwerk and Reinheitsgebot-compliant beers. The latter was a complete coincidence, only realised in hindsight. To compensate, the annotation and uploading was undertaken while drinking beers that firmly had their thumb in the Purity Law’s eye.

This year marks the five-hundredth anniversary1 of a surprisingly-short text2 that came to be known as Reinheitsgebot, the (‘Bavarian’ or ‘German’) Purity Law. It mandated that “the only ingredients for the brewing of beer must be Barley, Hops and Water”3 and its mythology has proven so strong that it’s still not uncommon4 to see breweries in New Zealand namedropping it in marketing material and referring to it as part of their mission or philosophy — half a world and half a millennium away.

I say “mythology” because the law is vastly overhyped, misunderstood and of basically no relevance to a properly broad view of beer. Almost all of the original 1516 decree concerns the price of the product,5 not its process, and its list of only three permissible ingredients renders brewing impossible since it predates the discovery of, and therefore omits, yeast. That may seem pedantic, but it’s a healthy reminder that old laws and not necessarily good laws. Few of us would be keen to visit a hospital that followed Sixteenth Century standards of hygiene.

“Purity” is also very much the wrong word for what the law sets out, which is (at best) merely simplicity via restricted ingredients. There’s nothing in the text by way of food safety or consumer protection; no rules about freshness6 or cleanliness are anywhere in sight. And its initial simplicity was soon lost, anyhow: unsurprisingly, the decree didn’t survive unchanged through the creation (and later reunification) of Germany, nor the country’s participation in European trade and shared regulation. Reinheitsgebot’s descendant, the Vorläufiges Biergesetz, is more complicated and is shot through with exceptions and odd clauses almost as much as you’d find in other countries.7 And still, somehow, the spectre of ‘Purity’ — as some longrunning and praiseworthy Bavarian tradition — trudges on.

The decree of 1516 didn’t succeed in codifying The Right And Best Way To Brew Beer. The shallow reason for this is that it wasn’t trying to — it was an unremarkable piece of market intervention to control prices and allocate resources (barley for brewers, wheat for bakers)8 — but the deep reason is that beer is as varied as the humans who make it and drink it, and thus has it always been. Our planet is literally covered in interesting flavourful things, and we are an endlessly creative species. The three-ingredient notion of beer in the Reinheitsgebot was new and shouldered aside many traditional families of recipes.9 It’s an aberration, not a baseline; freak, not foundation.

German beer generally has an excellent reputation, but the ‘Purity Law’ doesn’t deserve any of the credit for that. There is a lot to be said for the ability of arbitrary constraints to inspire creativity, like a novelist writing without using the letter e,10 but the worth of the end result is always to be judged on its own merits, not merely whether it navigated the limits placed on it: that entirely e-less novel might still be terrible. Generations of Germans have invented technically-compliant ways of broadening their beer, often to obvious success. But the overall effect has been more stifling than stimulating,11 and we’d all be better off letting this be Reinheitsgebot’s last observed anniversary.

Postscript: I’ve fixed it. While uploading this ― and talking about it with a few people through the week ― I’ve stumbled upon a proposal. You (those of you who want to) can keep the Reinheitsgebot, even in its heavily-mythologised form, if you just treat it more like the Trappist appellation. Compliance could be regulated by a membership body, complete with a trademark-protected badge and everything. Germans could join, or not. Non-Germans could join, or not. Pretending it’s the solution for everyone (or even just for one country) is a non-starter. So let’s stop. Surely those proud Reinheitsgebotters of the Radeberger Gruppe (who funded the glossy campaign at the top of this post) would be fine with that and could lead that charge. I mean, they’re not just in it to perpetuate some unearned advantage and control their local market, surely..?

  1. Though if I see anyone proclaiming April 23 (the date of its creation) as “exactly five hundred years ago”, I’ll be disappointed. Reaching back to 1516 takes you over the border between the Julian and the Gregorian calendars, which wasn’t even crossed uniformly by all countries at once, and generally presumes too much about the concept of just what day is regarded as what date. History is complicated even when it’s just memorising dates.
  2. This piece — not including these footnotes — weighs twice as many words as it.
  3. And that’s it. That’s the whole of the Reinheitsgebot that’s relevant to the ends for which it’s deployed these days. Half a sentence. Less than a tenth of the text.
  4. Pursuit is, and should be, a generally-upbeat kind of production. It’s not the place for naming and shaming. But here? Here is exactly that place. Membership of the local Reinheitsgebot Hall Of Shame includes (but is not limited to):

  5. Needless to say, no one even pretends to follow these provisions of the “Law”. And if you think computing a date across five-hundred years is fraught (you should; see above), don’t even get me started on trying to figure out the equivalent of a 1516 pfennig (one of which should be able to get you a Mass, “From Michaelmas [29 September] to Georgi [no fucking idea]”).
  6. Not that “fresh” is necessarily “best” or anything, of course.
  7. Including this one (he says, sitting in New Zealand). Our own statutory conception of “beer” is surprisingly and thoroughly fucked. It’s a subject to which I hope to return, one day, but it keeps giving me headaches.
  8. See how quickly the rule was bent, if not broken? You have heard of German wheat beer, right? And you know that wheat is not barley, yeah? QED.
  9. PEDANT ALERT: I’m deliberately not saying “styles”, here. That’s a modern way of categorising beer and hurling it backwards five centuries would commit the same ahistorical nonsense that worship of the goddamn Reinheitsgebot itself does.
  10. As has been done, most notably with Gadsby, and La Disparition — the latter, originally in French, was even translated several times keeping the constraint intact; a feat which has always boggled my brain.
  11. At least if we a) judge against what’s going on in non-compliant breweries, and b) listen to the few anecdotes banging around from German brewers who’ve moved out from under its restrictions. Which is basically all we can do.

3 thoughts on “Reinheitsgebot’s last birthday”

  1. I read recently that the whole ‘they didn’t know of yeast’ line is bollocks . While they didn’t have Pasture’s understanding they understood that yeast was required however it was omitted as they saw that fermentation produced more yeast than was added so yeast was seen as a by product of brewing rather than an ingredient .

    1. That gets a little philosophical. Which is, of course, my jam. If they knew that [thing] was needed (where that was understood as “certain sort of sludge” or “particular scraping from the barrel from the last batch”) then they did kinda-sorta know about yeast, sure. But they didn’t know anything about yeast, all at the same time. I mean, the microscope was still a century away, nevermind Pasteur. I’m up for reading (much!) more about pre-scientific notions of microbial life, but my relatively-naive understanding is there was none.

      But anyhow. Even if we grandfather in yeast as a fourth ingredient / thing in the 1516 conception, all the other problems about “purity” and arbitrariness remain — but I suspect you’re on board with those!

  2. Tangentially related, Stone Brewing’s place in Berlin is doing a ReinheitsVerbot event where only non-compliant beers will be served. (I presume for the sake of keeping it interesting, they’re ignoring the whole yeast thing.)

Have at it: