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Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Reinheitsgebot, UNESCO, and Beer Culture

Today, NPR did a segment on the recent news that Germans want to put Reinheitsgebot on the UNESCO world heritage list.
It would join the Argentinian tango, Iranian carpet weaving and French gastronomy, among other famous traditions, that are considered unique and worth protecting.
To give the piece a bit of zing, Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson went to  Berlin for a dissenter.
One opponent of the Reinheitsgebot is Johannes Heidenpeter. He brews ales without following the purity law and sells them to patrons at an indoor market in Berlin's popular Kreuzberg neighborhood.  Heidenpeter claims that limiting his brewing to the centuries-old law restricts creativity. He says, "Why shouldn't I include coriander or berries if they improve the taste?"
The requisite copy mounted at Paulaner in Munich.
Germany is a big country, so it's not shocking that Nelson was able to find someone to take issue with Reinheitsgebot--and a young brewer who makes modern, international-style craft beer was not a bad choice.  (“I’m influenced by the American scene in a way.  The problem with the German beer industry is that they always refer to their history. We need to look sideways, not backward.”)

Sometimes you know too much.  There's absolutely nothing wrong with the story.  I don't see a single error.  And yet, I'm aware of some relevant details I wished she'd added.  Like:
  • It's really a Bavarian law.  Brewing traditions differed broadly in the North and South where the peoples resided in different countries.  In Northern Germany, the brewers made really bizarre beers with no fealty whatsoever to Reinheitsgebot.  They stuffed their ales with tons of non-compliant bonus ingredients.  Brewing to rigid standards was a weird thing the lager-makers in Bavaria cared about.  It didn't become a German law until the Bavarians insisted on keeping it during unification in 1871.  Since this is a discussion about cultural artifacts, it's not actually that surprising that a Berlin ale-brewer now feels the law isn't such a hot idea.  That's a cultural artifact itself.
  • It has huge currency among Bavarian brewers.  It's their north star.  I probably walked into a brewery in Bavaria that didn't have Reinheitsgebot mounted somewhere prominently, but I don't recall it.  Brewing traditions emerge by mutual acclaim, and nowhere in the world is there an agreement as universal as Reinheitsgebot.  (I saw it mounted in most of the northern German breweries, too.)  The UNESCO designation is designed to honor culture and tradition and there's nothing in the beer world more deserving than Reinheitsgebot.
  • It has profoundly affected the way beer is brewed.  Brewing to Reinheitsgebot in the modern era is a pain in the ass.  German brewers can't easily fiddle with mash pH, carbonation levels, clarity, and a host of other issues the way brewers elsewhere do.  Take carbonation.  It's not mentioned in the law, so no force carbonating with CO2 from an outside source.  Unless, of course, you harvest the CO2 produced during fermentation--that's part of the beer and so kosher.  You can't unnaturally acidify a mash, so you have to either use a weird process to make your own acid or use acidulated malt.  The list goes on and on.  It is in one sense silly and unnecessary, but in another it's exactly the kind of thing that happens in every country.  British brewers wouldn't dream of using beet sugar--but Belgians do.  Even Germans are abandoning decoction--but Czech brewers must use it if their beer is to be called "Czech beer."  National traditions don't always make sense, but they create the conditions for distinctive beer.  
  • You can brew beer without using Reinheitsgebot.  You just can't call it beer.  And, as Heidenpeters Brauerei illustrates, people do.
I don't actually have a dog in the fight--whether UNESCO calls it a world heritage practice or not, is pretty (sorry) small beer.  But the idea that it is not one of the most important, durable, and influential traditions around?  That just ain't so. It is, and will remain so, whether or not UNESCO gets involved.


  1. Jeff – the word count of your “details I wished she'd added” is over half of her original article and your word count on this post is the same as her original article.

    No wonder it is going to take two years to get your book edited.

  2. re Reinheitsgebot, It's really a Bavarian law
    Explains why Kölsch ale is not kosher.

  3. Shake: it's why I give you the bolded bullet. Because commenters always whinge about SOMETHING, I know too little detail will only provoke snark about unsupported opinion. So I try to give you the upshot while showing my work.

    File under: "things a blogger considers"