Why You Should Know About Reinheitsgebot, But Don’t Need To Celebrate It

496 years ago today, beer history was made.

In Bavaria, two dukes passed the Reinheitsgebot- or purity ordinance- to impose regulations on the creation and selling of beer. The crux of it, or at least the bit which it’s famous for today, is this:

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.

I know you’re upset by the talk of confiscation of beer, but let’s backpedal for a second.

Barley, hops, water. Nothing else. Anyone who knows a thing or two about brewing (or science) may notice an important ingredient missing: yeast. Now, I don’t know anything about science, but I’ve only heard of yeast because of listening to people talk about beer, so I was curious myself.

The thing is, Pasteur didn’t come along to figure out fermentation until the 1800′s. It was still happening, but completely by accident, as brewers generally used a bit of sediment from the last batch of beer to make the next. Just enough yeast was saved in this sediment to work it’s magic (again, I’m not a science guy) on the beer.

So, that’s cool, right? We care about people caring about beer. And that’s what this “purity ordinance” was. It was people coming together to say, no shortcuts, these are the ingredients that make good beer, so don’t use anything else to make them. Right?

Wrong. According to Wired’s “This Day In Tech: April 23rd, 2010″, it had little to do with beer and more to do with bread. Betsy Mason reports:

Ensuring cheap bread was critical in times of food scarcity, a real problem for 16th-century Bavaria. While barley is not very digestible and consequently does not make for good eating, grains like wheat and rye are great for bread. The Bavarian leadership wanted to head off competition for those grains, in order to keep the price of food down.

So the purity (and let’s be honest- simplicity) of the beer was really a side-effect to the dukes wanting their people to eat well. I can dig that. Bread tastes great, especially when you’ve had a few beers  (“Hey, Julian. What kind of sandwich are you- oh. Okay. You’re just eating bread plain.”)

According to the article’s beer historian Maureen Ogle, the pure beer angle was taken post World War 2, when Germany’s economy was in bad shape. Exporting beer was one of their best bets, and the Reinheitsgebot was an excellent advertising ploy (“OW-AH AH-MEES MAY HAF BEEN INFURIER, BUT OW-AH BEE-AH ISS NEIN!”).

Of course, the other thing about the “purity” of the “purity ordinance” is that sticking to these four ingredients is constricting and not necessarily resultant in a better brew. Especially with the experimentation of American Craft brewers, many adjuncts are necessary to create the fun, limit-pushing beers we enjoy today. Check out this article from Brewpublic which highlights 5 of the best Reinheitsgebot rule-breakers.

BOTTOMLINE: Beer drinkers love to celebrate, so of course you should celebrate the anniversary of the Reinheitsgebot. You should know, however, that it was a moment in history more than a revolution, and that it was not all about the beer. Now who wants to confiscate some beer and eat a bread sandwich?!

~Don Julian

“April 23rd: Bavaria Cracks Down on Beer Brewers” Wired.  http://www.wired.com/thisdayintech/tag/reinheitsgebot/

“Germany’s Purity Law” http://www.brewery.org/library/ReinHeit.html


“Five Beers The Reinheitsgebot Doesn’t Want You To Try… But You Should” Brewpublic. http://brewpublic.com/beer-reviews/5-reinheitsgebot-no-nos/

BONUS READ: http://patto1ro.home.xs4all.nl/reinheit.htm (I really only scratched the surface on this issue. Check out this article on why the Reinheitsgebot is “a load of bollocks”)














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