04 November 2008


I'm drinking Weltenburger Hefe-Weißbier Dunkel - a fine beer brewed near Regensburg. The label on the back of the bottle reads, 'Brewed according to the German Purity Law of 1516'. I would have expected more honesty from the Benedictines, but at least their claim brings to light the truth about the Reinheitsgebot - it's all about advertising.

Confused? Let me attempt an explanation. German brewers - and Bavarian brewers in particular - are very proud of the Reinheitsgebot. Originally promulgated in 1516, but based on older rules, the law specifies that only barley, water and hops may be used in the brewing of beer.

German beer advocates claim that this was a fine piece of consumer protection legislation, preventing brewers from covering up the foul taste of beer that had spoiled with herbs and spices. In fact, it is clear from the text (reproduced below in an English translation) that, while there was an element of what we would describe today as consumer protection, it was not aimed at maintaining the purity of beer.
We hereby proclaim and decree, by Authority of our Province, that henceforth in the Duchy of Bavaria, in the country as well as in the cities and marketplaces, the following rules apply to the sale of beer:

From Michaelmas to Georgi, the price for one Mass or one Kopf, is not to exceed one Pfennig Munich value, and

From Georgi to Michaelmas, the Mass shall not be sold for more than two Pfennig of the same value, the Kopf not more than three Heller.

If this not be adhered to, the punishment stated below shall be administered.

Should any person brew, or otherwise have, other beer than March beer, it is not to be sold any higher than one Pfennig per Mass.

Furthermore, we wish to emphasize that in future in all cities, markets and in the country, the only ingredients used for the brewing of beer must be Barley, Hops and Water. Whosoever knowingly disregards or transgresses upon this ordinance, shall be punished by the Court authorities' confiscating such barrels of beer, without fail.

Should, however, an innkeeper in the country, city or markets buy two or three pails of beer (containing 60 Mass) and sell it again to the common peasantry, he alone shall be permitted to charge one Heller more for the Mass of the Kopf, than mentioned above. Furthermore, should there arise a scarcity and subsequent price increase of the barley (also considering that the times of harvest differ, due to location), WE, the Bavarian Duchy, shall have the right to order curtailments for the good of all concerned.

The law is primarily designed to control beer prices, specifying the price that brewers may charge for specific beers in specific circumstances. The secondary purpose is to limit brewers to barley in order to preserve supplies of wheat and other grains more suited for baking.

Furthermore, while I an not able to state this definitively (and am open to correction if someone can prove to the contrary) the word 'reinheitsgebot' does not appear anywhere in any part of the original text. This appellation was only applied much later - possible as late as the 19th century.

The Law, which originated in Bavaria, eventually came to be applied in a modified form to the whole of Germany. This was one of the conditions set out by the Bavarian state at the time of German unification. Today, the Bavarian brewers would have us believe that this was their magnanimous gift to German consumers. In fact, it was a pre-emptive strike against other German brewers who brewed according to different, equally ancient, traditions.

It would be easy to dismiss the Reinheitsgebot as a piece of marketing fluff. Unfortunately, though, the Law has had some very negative consequences for the consumer. The emphasis on doing things how they have always been done stifles innovation and creativity. Thus the brewers can continue to churn out the same beers in the same styles - good as it is - year after year. The emphasis on 'purity' - with the implication that non-German beers are impure or, at best, less pure - stifles competition as consumers are reluctant to try anything different. This, of course, suits the brewers very nicely.

At the heart of the Reinheitsgebot's negative influence is the false assumption - encouraged by, for example, the Bavarian Brewers Federation - that purity equals quality. It does not. Give me hops, barley, yeast and a home brew kit and I could brew beer that would meet the requirements of the Reinheitsgebot, but I wouldn't want to drink it and nor would you.

Beck's, for example, is brewed according to the Reinheitsgebot, and as fizzy lager goes it is perfectly acceptable. But would any beer drinker really choose Becks instead of, say, a Chimay Red or De Koninck Triple or any number of fine English ales, or, indeed, Guinness - all of which are considered under the Reineheitsgebot impure?

(Technically, Guinness would be acceptable under the original Reinheitsgebot since that Law only required the use of barley. However, Germany's most recent redaction of the beer laws, the Vorläufiges Deutsches Biergesetz (Provisional German Beer-law of 1993) requires the use of malted barley. Guinness uses both malted barley and roasted -non-malted - barley.)

The anti-competitive and restrictive nature of the Law brought it to the attention of the European Commission. In a judgement in 1987 the Commission ordered Germany to revise the law on the grounds that it banned the import of beer from other EU countries that were not brewed according to the Reinheitsgebot.

(As a concession, beer brewed in Bavaria according to the Reinheitsgebot, was granted the status of a protected geographical appellation by the European Union in 2001. Showing that they had learned a thing or two from their ancestors about how to deal with competition the Bavarian Brewers Federation then sued Bavaria NV, a Dutch brewery that has been trading under that name since 1925.)

As a result of the EU's 1987 ruling I can, in theory, buy good British, Belgian or any other kind of beer here in Munich. In practice, though, the words 'snowball' and 'hell' come to mind.

Enough for now, though. Next time, a look at the 'big six' - the brewing cartel (informal of course) that has this city stitched up.

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