The “Reinheitsgebot” is one of the longest standing purity laws on the books. Or at least that’s what our German friends would like you to believe. In reality, it’s one of the greatest historical sleight of hand tricks turned into an international marketing sensation. Now don’t get me wrong, I drink a metric tonne of German beer and love every bit of it. If there’s a German beer available in the Pacific Northwest, chances are I’ve tried it.
We also have to remember that Germans are really good at selling things to people. Must I remind you of the made-up word Fahrvergnügen that Volkswagen trotted out to advertise their cars in the 1990’s? Yes, I do realize that the German language allows you to make up new words pretty easily by slamming some other words together. Hell, Volkswagen itself was a great marketing creation of the 1930’s: The People’s Car. German marketing genius can even be seen in the current Euro crisis with Angela Merkel selling austerity to the rest of Europe. Although the Greeks seem to be having some serious buyer’s remorse on that one. So how did the “German Beer Purity Law” become the fahrvergügen of 16th century? Well, as with all things, let’s start at the beginning.
First of all, the original title of the law was the Bavarian Beer Ingredient Law. It wasn’t known as the “Reinheitsgebot” until the early 20th century when it was re-branded to become the German Beer Purity Law. The telling factor is in the title “beer ingredient law.” In actuality, the bread makers of Bavaria were concerned about the increasing popularity of wheat beer which was driving up the price of wheat. All rulers are very cognizant of food price stability when it comes to their desire to keep order.
Thus in 1516, Duke Wilhelm IV declared that only BARLEY malt, water and hops could be used in beer. Of course, they didn’t know about yeast at this point, so they didn’t include that in the law. This put an end to the use of wheat and rye malt in Bavaria. Wheat beers did manage to survive thanks to a decree by the Bavarian dukes giving the Degenberg family exclusive rights to wheat beer. They probably didn’t think it mattered much at the time. However, the Degenbergs made good use of this and began to make some serious income selling wheat beer. This lead to the 1567 prohibition on making wheat beer by anyone. Unfortunately, feudal law still allowed the Degenbergs to keep their rights. Fortunately for the Dukes, the Degenberg family died out in 1602. The Dukes, seeing the popularity of wheat beer, declared themselves the only legal brewers of wheat beer and even required all bars to carry the beer. Despite the claims of beer purity, the real reasons where profit and bread price protection.
That’s not to say the Dukes didn’t care about the quality of the beer brewed in their land. There are countless decrees and laws regarding beer standards. They required brewers to dispose of bad batches instead of selling them (or they could give them to the poor(1156 CE)). They outlawed brewing during the summer months when spoilage was high(1447 CE). Consequentially, this created a situation where lager yeast beers became the norm. They required beer to be aged at least 8 days before being served (1420 CE). The Munich city council took on the duty of inspectors (tough duty) and made sure the beer being served was of good quality (1363 CE). You can’t fault the Bavarians for putting a great deal of care into making sure good beer was produced; they’ve put more legal effort into making sure good beer was being produced than probably any other country. But when you label a weisse beer “Reinheitsgebot,” you’ve turned centuries worth of effort into an inaccurate marketing gimmick. Especially since the Reinheitsgebot isn’t even in force now. The Germans have added several more laws to supplement and supplant it.
The problem comes when you use the word beer “purity.” I’ve seen this attitude with German beer bloggers and extreme German-ophiles that beers not brewed to the Reinheitsgebot are inferior. This attitude goes into hyper-drive when you come to beers with adjuncts. I think it was a mortal wound to German pride when the European court forced Germany to allow beers not brewed to their law to actually be called by and sold under the term “beer.” There’s nothing wrong with being proud of your beer culture, but to denigrate and judge other’s beer cultures as somehow less than yours is the height of snobbery. Here in the Pacific Northwest, I see this with people that will only drink Oregon beer. It doesn’t matter how poorly made the beer may be in reality, it certainly MUST be better than that California beer. When in reality, all beer cultures are capable of producing great beer, mediocre beer and bad beer, no matter what the geography or “purity” laws say.