The “Beer Purity Order” (Das Reinheitsgebot)

By Carol Rice

Why do some German beer labels carry the inscription “Gebraut nach dem deutschen Reinheitsgebot” or “Gebraut nach dem Bayerischen Reinheitsgebot” (brewed according to the German Purity Law or the Bavarian Purity Law of 1516)?  The simple answer is that those brewers are proud of their heritage and traditions, and proud that they produce all natural beer.  Not to mention that it is a good marketing device.

The Reinheitsgebot is a very misunderstood law.  Some hail it as the first bit of consumer protection legislation in the world.  Hardly!  Hammurabi’s Code probably deserves that title.  Then, of course, there are the dietary restrictions in the Old Testament of the Bible.  There have been many other such laws in many places.  Some think the Reinheitsgebot deals only with the ingredients in beer.  There is much more to it than that.  However, the Reinheitsgebot is one of the few ancient laws that survives, and is still in force in some places.

It was introduced at a meeting of an assembly of the Seven Estates of Bavaria in Ingolstadt, a small town north of Munich.  This was a gathering of the knights and nobles – the landed gentry.  It was the court of the House of Wittelsbach, who ruled Bavaria from the 12th Century through World War I.  The Reinheitsgebot was a decree, an executive order of sorts, not the product of a representative assembly.  There were no legislatures back then.  Contrary to popular opinion, the decree was issued by two dukes, Wilhelm IV and his brother, Ludwig X, five hundred years ago today, April 23, 1516.  Poor Ludwig gets lost in the histories.  Their father wanted to establish the rule of primogenitor upon his death when the throne would pass to his heir.  This is the rule whereby the first-born son inherits everything.  Its purpose was to prevent landed estates from being broken up into smaller and smaller parcels as the generations went by.  But little Ludwig, the younger brother, refused to be left out.  He declared that he had been born before his father issued the distasteful decree.  Therefore, it could not apply to him.  In some way, he forced his father and Wilhelm to accept his position as co-ruler of the Duchy.  For practicality sake they each took a greater interest in different parts of Bavaria: Ludwig to the north; Wilhelm to the south.  They issued this decree jointly because both of their domains were affected by its causes and would be affected by going forward.

Eventually, the Reinheitsgebot gave governments in all of modern day Germany the tools to regulate the ingredients, processes, and hopefully, the quality of beer sold to the public.  It also fixed the price of beer, and some say, reserved the ducal right to tax beer.  But, the rulers of the Duchy had been doing this all along.  Taxation is not specifically mentioned in the 1516 decree.

This law relied heavily on an 1156 decree given by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I, known as Barbarossa, in Augsburg, another little Bavarian town.  That decree said that an innkeeper who pours bad beer or uses unfair measure (meaning a short pour) shall be punished.  There were no short pours in Augsburg.  It was a three-strikes-and-you’re-out regulation.  There were fines for the first two violations.  With the third offense, the publican lost his license.  What a good law!  It was a Munich law 300 years later that is the true predecessor of the Reinheitsgebot.  This is the law that Wilhelm and Ludwig decreed for all of Bavaria.

A little aside here: If you have read the translation of the decree, or the original German, you have seen that the word purity, “Reinheits, does not appear in the text at all.  Decrees did not come with titles.  That name was applied four hundred years later.  But, it was referred to as the Substitution Order.

We now think that the intent of the law was to keep beer “pure”.  It prohibited additives – substitutions – cheap and often unhealthy ingredients such as rushes, roots, mushrooms, and animal products.  In medieval times, brewers often used such ingredients to raise their profits by lowering their standards.  Hmmm.  We wouldn’t think of such shenanigans today!  Or would we?  Ginger and lemon grass saison, chicory porter, bacon beer.  Now, we do use all of those things in our craft beers and homebrews.  In reality, the decree was handed down to accomplish several other important things.  Purity of beer was an unanticipated bonus.

The first thing accomplished by the St George’s Day decree was the regulation of the price of beer.  Yes, the dukes were of guilty price fixing.  The ramifications of that sin were many.  The Reinheitsgebot decreed summer and winter prices for beer, delineated by Feast of Saint Michael on September 29th, and the Feast of Saint George – April 23rd.  The price for beer was fixed at “one Munich Pfennig” per Mass during the winter and twice that in summer.  The prices were well below what the market would bear.  The restriction of ingredients in beer amounted to a regulation of agriculture and trade because of its effect on the market for grain.  You will understand why this was very important later.  Wheat was reserved for baking – only.  Thus, the demand for wheat was cut in half, cut by the number of brewers who could not use it in their beer.  This should have had the effect of lowering the price of wheat.  The decree made sure of it.  This kept the price of barley low as well.  And had the added result of limiting how much profit the innkeepers could make.  The dukes had no real need for an economic middle class.

The second item of the decree was the most famous.  The Reinheitsgebot did stipulate that only barley, hops, and water could be used to make beer.  The labels on those bottles of German beer refer to the Reinheitsgebot of 1516.  Does that mean that these modern-day brewers don’t use yeast?  Of course not. In 1516, the brewers just didn’t know they were using yeast.  They started their fermentations with old beer, or with the goo they saved from the bottom of the barrel.  Yeast was first mentioned by name 360 years later.

The law does not, in any of its iterations, list the forbidden products, like the spices and sugars used in Belgium, or the unmalted grains and dark sugars used in Britain, or later, the corn and rice used as fillers in mass production worldwide.  The decree said, and says now, only what brewers could use.  The only grain they could use in beer was barley.  Barley does not make good bread.  It does not have a huge amount of gluten, so does not rise as well as wheat.  Both wheat and barley make good beer.  So no one lost out.  Barley went to the brewers.

Wheat was reserved for baking.  Wilhelm and Ludwig had a somewhat benevolent reason behind the decree.  It took a while to dig this out in my research but I knew it had to be there somewhere.  Some guy out there on the web who really needs a life, researched the agricultural history of the Middle Ages, such as it was.  He compared rainfall amounts throughout Bavaria, probably from monastery records.  His article is not well documented, but quite believable.  He found that there had been serious flooding the year before the decree.  Most of Bavaria, always a rainy area because of its topography, endured six weeks of punishing rains during the summer of 1515.  The crops were pelted into oblivion.  The fields were muddy sloughs.  There was no harvest.  Bavaria looked forward to a bleak winter with shortages of food and grain for man and beast.  They had to survive until the next harvest.

Let me put this into perspective.  Everyone affected by the floods was surviving on the stores from prior years.  Slim pickings at best.  These people couldn’t drive their semi-tractor trailer over the mountain roads to the next village or market.  They couldn’t load up a year’s supply of grain and bring it home.  That sort of excess simply did not exist.  That sort of commerce did not exit.  In 1516 Europe was just coming out of the Middle Ages.  The Renaissance had not yet spread beyond Italy.  Michelangelo had just finished the Sistine Ceiling.  The Industrial Revolution was fully two hundred years down the road.  These people had simple machines that made life a bit easier.  They had the wedge, the screw, the inclined plane.  They had the lever.  They had the wheel and the pulley.  What they didn’t have was any source of power other than wind and muscle to use these machines to any great advantage.  The extent of their world was limited by what a horse could do, or how far a horse could go.  That’s why work energy today is called horse power.  They had no way to make up for the crop failures.  The lost harvest of 1515 was devastating.

The Reinheitsgebot was ultimately about rationing.  It was a decree that rationed the limited reserves on hand after the devastation of the 1515 floods.  Wilhelm and Ludwig needed to make certain that the grain stores that were available were distributed in the best way possible for the good of everyone.  They had to issue their decree before beer production began for the year.  Wheat and rye had to be allocated to keep bread available and affordable for the peasants.  Keep in mind, well-fed peasants don’t revolt.  This was important, but that wasn’t all . . . there was one more thing.

Third, the dukes reserved the right to do all this all over again should the need arise.  The last line of the decree reads:

“WE, the Bavarian Duchy, shall have the right to order curtailments for the good of all concerned.”

This simple decree had many effects.  Without mention, the decree also benefited the ducal coffers.  Barley and hops were already subject to taxation.  Anyone caught brewing with untaxed wheat, or with untaxed gruit – that mix of bitter herbs and hops – suffered the confiscation of their beer and their barrels, “without fail.”  That is one very harsh penalty.  Barrels were an expensive and necessary item.  The beer wasn’t poured into the streets.  The barrels weren’t stove in.  No, the beer was removed to the courts with the barrels intact.  Good beer was not to be wasted.  Wilhelm and Ludwig and their kin would drink it!  They too suffered from the lost harvest.  So, the dukes got their taxes and the confiscated beer.

Curiously, the decree did not forbid the importation of beer.  There was no need.  There was no money.  If someone could afford to import beer, so much the better!  But, there was very little commerce, remember?  At this point they would welcome any import of food.  This issue of regulating inter-village commerce wasn’t really on the horizon yet.  But the decree did have its effect on imports.  The few that did make their way into Bavaria had to comply with the Reinheitsgebot or suffer a heavy tax.  Now think about this.  How would the officials know?  They were probably an uneducated lot.  They had no way of knowing if that law was followed in making the pilsner-style beers of the day.  Would they notice a small amount of wheat in a ceramic stein?  This rule amounted to a tax on all imported beers.  Any German beer that did adhere to the law was not taxed.  Competition was thus discouraged.  Penalties were harsh.  Incentives to follow the Reinheitsgebot were compelling.

Minor changes were made to the law all along.  New ingredients were added on occasion.  In 1876, Louis Pasteur discovered the nature of yeast and its function in the fermentation process.  An earlier scientist who had seen yeast moving under the brand new microscope described what he saw as little “animacules.”  Pasteur proved that they were living creatures that ate and eliminated.  Shortly thereafter the Reinheitsgebot was amended to include those marvelous little beasties on the “exclusive ingredients list.”

It didn’t take long for the law to be modified in light of the demystifying knowledge of yeast and its part in beer.  The differences between bottom-fermented lagers and top-fermented ales were recognized and allowances made.  The 1952 version of the Reinheitsgebot, in the German tax code, states that, in bottom-fermented beers, brewers may use only barley malt, hops, yeast and water.  Specifically, this rule forbids the brewing of lagers containing spices, corn, rice, sugar, un-malted grains, as well as chemical additives and stabilizers.  This wording of the purity law also inadvertently forbids the brewing of wheat-based lagers.  Oops!

For ales, the Reinheitsgebot is somewhat more generous in terms of allowable ingredients, in part to accommodate ancient barley-based ale-brewing traditions in northern Germany, and in part to accommodate the centuries-old, entirely wheat-based Weissbier 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.  Various forms of sugar, as long as they are derived from cane or beets, and sugar-based coloring agents were also allowed — but no chemicals.  Preservatives, artificial ingredients, and other chemicals were still prohibited.  Over the centuries, acceptance of the Reinheitsgebot spread from Bavaria northwards to other German states.  By 1906, it had become the official law in all the realm of the Second German Empire.

With the formation of the Weimar Republic in 1919, the old Bavarian beer ingredients law, now officially named the Reinheitsgebot, became firmly anchored in German tax law.  This happened, in part, because the Free State of Bavaria declared that it would not join the new Republic unless the Reinheitsgebot was enforced in the entire country!  The law survived the upheavals of modern German history, including both World Wars.  It 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.

Alas, all good things must come to an end.  International trade and the global economy finally got the better of the Reinheitsgebot a few decades ago.  It was struck down by the European Court in 1987.  French brewers sued in the Court of Justice, protesting that the law and its application were exclusionary and protectionist.  They protested that it was a restraint of free trade.  The restrictions were held not permissible in the newly integrated European market.  Take note, the ruling applied only to beers imported into Germany.  Within Germany, the Reinheitsgebot stood, and still stands, as law.

Since the ruling, it has been legal to import beers into Germany that are brewed with adjuncts 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.  Prosit!!!

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