Prelude to the Reinheitsgebot

                                                   Submitted by Mike Retzlaff

We’re all fairly familiar with the Reinheitsgebot; the so-called “Beer Purity Law” which was decreed in 1516 by the Duke of Bavaria as an “executive order”.  It should be noted that nowhere in this decree is the word “purity” ever mentioned. There were a number of previous orders and a few subsequent changes.

Emperor Frederick I was the author of the first known secular beer regulation in Germany. It dates from 1156 and was part of the first city code of law, the Justitia civitatis Augustensis, which Frederick gave to the city of Augsburg.  The emperor decreed that “a brewer who makes bad beer or pours an unjust measure shall be punished; his beer shall be destroyed or distributed at no charge among the poor.”  The punishment for a violation was five guilders. After the third offense, the perpetrator lost his brewing license.

Issued by the magistrate of the city of Erfurt in 1351 in Thuringia, a decree stated: “A calibrated tankard must always be filled to the mark.  The beer in it shall cost 4½ pfennigs and 8 groschen*.  No burgher or councilor may brew more than two beers per year, nor may he make half a brew, nor may he mill less or more than three boxes of malt to brew with.  Only on Wednesday evening, and not before the beer bell is rung, may he start a fire under the tun and start brewing.  But nobody may brew who does not possess containers, tuns, kilns and casks.  The beer must be an entire brew.  The amount to be brewed must be announced on Walpurgis Day (February 25), and the precise amount announced must then be brewed.  Nobody may brew with straw and twigs for fire.”

“Anybody who breaks an innkeeper’s beer mug or runs away without paying, will pay a 10-groschen penalty or must leave town. Anybody who buys hops may not touch the measuring jar until the vendor has filled it and has removed his hand from it. (In those days, brewers bought hops by volume, not by weight!) In the countryside, nobody may sell beer from another region nor may he brew without the knowledge of the town. Any burgher caught brewing in the countryside will no longer be considered a burgher of the town.” Here we find an early version of Bierzwang (literally: beer coercion), the parochial practice of the local authorities to permit only those beers to be served within their walls and in the surrounding countryside that were brewed (and taxed) within their own jurisdiction. The Bierzwang remained common in many parts of Germany until 1803, when, under the influence of the Napoleonic conquest of central Europe, Bierfreiheit (beer freedom) was finally established as a matter of law in much of Germany.

In Regensburg in 1453, the official beer inspector, Dr. Konrad Megenwart, forbade brewers within their city walls to use “seeds, spice, or rushes” as flavorings.  To ensure that the citizens would get their money’s worth, the city fathers also outlawed the brewing and selling of thin beers made from the final runnings of the mash.

In 1447, the Munich city council issued an ordinance demanding that all brewers use only barley, hops and water for their beers. This was the forerunner of what was to become, half a century later, the famous all-Bavarian beer purity law, the Reinheitsgebot. By 1487, the Bavarian Duke Albrecht IV forced all brewers in the city of Munich to take a public oath of faithful allegiance to the 1447 ordinance.

Furthermore, the Duke introduced beer price controls: in winter, a Maß (approximately 1 liter) would cost one silver pfennig, in summer, two. This price difference was to compensate brewers for the extra grain and long storage (lagering) required for stronger summer beers. One of Albrecht’s successors, Duke Georg the Rich, in 1493, extended the 1447 ordinance to the duchy of Landshut in central Bavaria. Clearly, a regulatory clean-up was afoot in Bavaria.

*Groschen = 10 pfennig coin

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