Reinheitsgebot Day: Celebrate Pure Beer
Commonly known in English as “The German Beer Purity Act,” the Reinheitsgebot was signed in 1516 as a decree to maintain the quality of German beer.
By David Nuttall on Apr. 23, 2018
April 23rd has long been a significant date in brewing. As St. George’s Day, it was often the last day of brewing in the spring until St. Michael’s Day on September 29. Not coincidentally, it is also the date in 1516 that the Reinheitsgebot, commonly known in English as “The German Beer Purity Act,” was signed by Dukes Wilhelm IV and Ludwig X at the Assembly of Estates of the Bavarian Realm in Ingolstadt. As the world’s oldest food regulation, it has had an influence on brewing far beyond Germany’s borders and still impacts beers being brewed today.
The essence of the decree was to maintain the quality of German beer and to keep it from becoming adjunct riddled and undrinkable. To that end, it stated that the “only ingredients used for the brewing of beer must be Barley, Hops and Water.” You may notice that something is missing! Yeast was left out as its properties were not understood at the time. There were several reasons for the act and, in fact, the Reinheitsgebot wasn’t even the first law keeping German breweries in order.
Quality and Taxes
By 1500 AD, beer had been made in Germany for centuries, but as it grew from farmhouse and monastic sized breweries to commercial entities, the quality had begun to drop. So much so, that acts were passed in 1487 in Munich and 1493 in Landshut to clean up brewing practices. Not only were these laws passed to limit the use of grains, but also to keep other plant parts such as roots, barks, and berries or even animal by-products, sawdust, and other less than savoury elements out of the beer. Barley was to be the grain used, with wheat and rye reserved for baking. As royalty controlled all the taxation and distribution of grains, they were not passing these acts for purely altruistic reasons. These laws not only increased the quality of beer, but also the influx of money to those in power.
The Reinheitsgebot has gone through several revisions over time, such as adding wheat as an acceptable grain and later acknowledging yeast, once it was isolated in the late 19th Century. As German boundaries fluctuated through the years, so did the power of the act. While it controlled German beer production, it also prevented foreign beers with more than the four basic ingredients from being imported into the country. As a result, the European Union fought the law as being too restrictive for trade in 1987, and essentially, the Reinheitsgebot was replaced by the less restrictive Vorläufiges Biergesetz (Provisional German Beer Law). However, whatever it now lacks in legal bite, it has certainly maintained its prominence as a marketing tool, as well as a standard for breweries all over the world.
Allegiance to Reinheitsgebot
During its time, some German breweries complained the Reinheitsgebot suppressed the natural development of beer styles, and accounted for the demise of several local or historical styles which did not conform to the act. Today, many of these styles are making a comeback, and breweries are now embracing beer varieties other European nations have long produced, such as fruit beers, especially radlers. While many German breweries and pubs still proudly declare their allegiance to the purity act, there is an acceptance of beers with adjuncts in many places. Today, many craft breweries worldwide pay homage to it, as a way of decrying Big Brewing and their products. So, as you hoist your beer today, drink to the Reinheitsgebot, knowing that over five hundred years ago, the guarantee of beer purity had far reaching influences in both time and scope.
Thirsty for more? Here’s a 5-Part series on Germany Beer Styles from David Nuttall: Tour of German Beer Styles: Intro, Part 1: Pale Beers, Part 2: Amber Beers, Part 3: Dark Beers, Part 4: Wheat Ales, Part Five: Sour Ales
David Nuttall completed the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) in 2012, has served as Epicurean Calgary owner and president since 2002 and is the current Judging Co-ordinator for Calgary International Beerfest. If you’re interested in learning more about beer, you can register for the 4 week ABF Brew Ed course at The Brewer’s Apprentice.
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