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Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Reinheitsgebot RIP?

I am currently finishing up a print article for All About Beer on the subject of Reinheitsgebot--which as many of you know, turns 500 next year. By one of those strange coincidences of the universe, Stone brewing yesterday released its first Berlin-brewed beer. I don't want to step on the thesis of my article, but all this did get me thinking. As I talk to German and German-American brewers about the legacy and significance of Reinheitsgebot in its native land, everyone seems to agree that something's gotta give.

There is a current of change running through the center of the beer industry that is not only changing the way beer is made (in small batches to be sold locally), but the kinds of beer (vivid flavors in place of blander, industrial ones). Germany has been somewhat immune to these forces, both because it already had a robust network of local, small-batch breweries and because Germans have long been proud of the quality and superiority of their beer--thanks largely to the marketing success of Reinheitsgebot. But it hasn't been entirely immune, and small breweries have been opening and making what other countries call "craft beer," often in styles not native to Germany. The introduction of Stone beer will only accelerate the process.

None of this spells the death-knell of Reinheitsgebot necessarily. I've spoken with brewers who feel that it's due for an upgrade for the 21st century. The notion of "purity" isn't impossible to police, but the definition may need tweaking; brewers aren't using henbane quite as much as they used to, and cherries and coriander seem fairly wholesome. There may be some wiggle room. In any case, I guess the upshot of all this is that at exactly the moment we're celebrating this wonderful, weird artifact from the early 16th century, there may be some hard discussions about how much longer it should be embedded in the German tax code.

No doubt we'll come around to this topic again soon enough--


  1. The Reinheitsgebot hasn't been a law for about 30 years, and German brewers, if the feel like it, came make anything they well damn please (or pretty much), as they stuff made by not few German micro brewers attests (not to mention Gose).

    The only ones who still stick to that thing are the Bavarians, but only hafl-assedly, as the original letter of the law did not allow for wheat to be used.

    In any case, and even if we took the Reinheitsgebot at face value, (forgetting all that other stuff about prices, which was more important than ingredients), brewing with water, malt, hops (and yeasts) shouldn't be any real constraint for someone who knows how to work with those ingredients.

  2. In a sense, the Reinheitsgebot is not really a huge difference from the rules about hygiene where food and drink are prepared today. Of course, originally, it referred to the technology of the 16th century. Nevertheless, I was in Cologne two weeks ago, which is not in Bavaria, and the Kölsch tasted and looked just as it always tasted and looked over the last 10-20 years.

    I spent the day with an old friend of mine (he's not old, but I've know him at least 10 years) who is making "crafty" beer for the local market. While he doesn't mind drinking the stuff, if he lived in Bavaria, I imagine he'd be going to his favourite breweries (making delicious Reinheitgebot-compatible beers) and loving it. Why does he make "crafty" beers in Cologne? For the money. Simple.

  3. Interesting thoughts for sure. This got me thinking... what if a popular American craft brewery were to create a new series of beer focused on the Reinheitgebot?

    Would it work and something amazing be developed in the process, or would it be too limiting for our current "Craft beer standards" and fall flat?

    What do you all think?

  4. Yeah, Pivní is 100% correct. The RHGB was scrapped--legally--a long time ago. Mostly at the request of Belgians at the EU.

    It more or less died with the Reich; It was enacted throughout Imperial Germany as an olive branch to Bavaria, and Bavaria was not looking too hot politically in the late 20th century.

    The old RHGB prohibition on wheat use was to protect the interests of Munich breweries who got an exception. German brewers have had no problems tossing that. There are little bits of geographical protection left. Only Cologne can make Koelsch, only Munich breweries can use "Octoberfest", though most don't anyway. (All those Becks and Warsteiner "Octoberfests"? Made for export)

    In turn, Germans boldly ignore Czech's requests that Pilsner be a geographically protected name. It's the circle of life.

    Right now, breweries who claim RHGB are mostly doing it to signal tradition, kind of like Real Ale. Traditional german brewing is doing better than Real Ale in the UK though.

  5. No, the Reinheitsgebot hasn't been scrapped. The change was that it doesn't apply any longer to beer brewed outside Germany. It's still in force for German-brewed beer.

    And traditional Germna brewing isn't doing better than Real Ale, it's doing much worse.

  6. I think there's some misunderstanding about Reinheitsgebot. It does still exist, as Ron notes. Reinheitsgebot was originally--and critically--a Bavarian rule; it only applied to the domain of Duke Wilhelm IV. Lager-brewing was already well underway there, so it did not radically alter local brewing. (A hundred years later, as weissbier became popular, it was placed in a wholly separate category; brewers could only make it by direct ducal authorization.) For three and a half centuries, it just guided the brewers in Bavaria, the only brewers in the world making lagers. The original law, we should acknowledge, had several elements and only one had to do with ingredients. It was mostly a pricing regulation, and the ingredients thing had two goals: to get the dangerous crap out of beer, but also to protect the wheat supplies for bakers (which also kept bread prices more stable).

    At unification in 1871 it was sort of applied nationally, but breweries making ales in the north were exempt. This was made explicit in 1906 and then, following WWI, Bavaria made the inclusion of Reinheitsgebot a condition of joining the Weimar Republic. The law drafted in 1919 and placed inside the tax code was for the first time called "Reinheitsgebot" (purity law). It was basically two laws, one for lagers and one for ales. At this point in German history, lager-brewing was ascendant (Berliner Weisse, if I recall my history from Ron properly, was already basically dead). Weird, niche ale styles made with bizarre ingredients were grandfathered into the second law, with some restrictions (wheat had to be malted, etc.).

    That law is still the basic framework, still lodged in the tax code and regulated under the provisional beer tax law, Biersteuergesetz. What can be called "beer" is defined by that law. When I was speaking to Florian Kuplent at Urban Chestnut for my AAB piece, he cited a recent case of a milk stout (I think--had lactose, anyway) that was forced off the market because it violated the law. Ales are still treated more liberally, but obviously do not have carte blanche. (I could not find evidence of the case he cited.)

    Ron also points out another element of confusion. In 1987, the European Court sued Germany, arguing that the law was a protection for local breweries that kept foreign products out. They won, and now it's legal for non-compliant beers brewed elsewhere to be sold in Germany. (That seems mainly to have assured German drinkers of the superiority of their own beer, though.)

  7. German history is perhaps a foreign subject for many, but before 1871 (when Germany for the first time became a nation), it consisted mainly of city-states, dukedoms, principalities, and other forms of local governance.

    The Reinheitsgebot belongs to a German class of ordinance called Brauordnung (or Brauordnungen). These regulations existed in many city-states and were not always the same. The earliest examples of Brauordnung go back at least three hundred years before 1516.

    During the Middle Ages, beer qualty was not what it is today. Many of the Brauordnungen were designed to improve the quality of the beer. Brewers could actually be fined or otherwise punished for producing sub-standard beer.

    IAC, the Reinheitsgebot as it is now practices does not actually forbid anything. It simply describes what is acceptable for German brewers to produce a beverage that can be called "beer." A brewer in Bavaria could make some bizarre concoction that violates everything in the Reinheitsgebot, and could still sell it in Germany, but not as beer.

  8. "That law is still the basic framework, still lodged in the tax code"

    No, it's in the "Vorläufiges Biergesetz" since 1993 when tax and food rules have been separated from each other.

  9. "IAC, the Reinheitsgebot as it is now practices does not actually forbid anything. It simply describes what is acceptable for German brewers to produce a beverage that can be called "beer." A brewer in Bavaria could make some bizarre concoction that violates everything in the Reinheitsgebot, and could still sell it in Germany, but not as beer."

    That is a common misinterpretation of § 9 VorlBierG in conjunction with § 1 Bierverordnung. It is true that it's not allowed to label a product as "beer" which is not conform with § 9 VorlBierG. But § 9 VorlBierG does not permit manufacturing anything against the law - regardless how it's called later - in case it's beer (read § 18 VorlBierG). "Beer" in this case means anything made from malt or malt surrogates by fermentation which looks and tastes like beer - and not a product labelled as beer.

  10. Anon 9:31am.

    I'd love clarification on that, because I have often seen reference to the "biersteuergesetz" rather than "biergesetz." It's hard enough to navigate references when I don't speak German, but digging around government documents in German has been impossible.

    Beer law or beer tax law. I'd love help.

  11. You can find the 1993 version (there were some minor modifications in ~2001) of the Vorläufiges (=preliminary) Biergesetz here [1]. But don't be confused - the law was repealed in 2005 when German food law was re-ordered. That's why it's hard to find the last version online. But the regulations are still in force until new directives have been put in place (not by a formal [parliamental] law/bill like the Vorläufiges Biergesetz but by a so called "Rechtsverordnung" by the food ministry). But there is no new directive yet. Rules regarding allowed additives where moved from the VorlBierG to the Zusatzstoff-Zulassungsverordnung (ZZulV) [2].

    A complete separate topic from the preceding manufacture rules is the protection of the declaration "beer" in the Bierverordnung [3]. The later was necessary to exclude beverages which aren't beer (i.e. a beverage made by malt or herbal malt surrogates which looks and tastes like beer) and are therefore not covered by the production rule (now) § 9 VorlBierG - like Ingwerbier (ginger beer). A later side-effect was the protection of the German beer market by foreign beers not conform with national production rules until the verdict of the EuGH.

    Regarding the tax there is a new Biersteuergesetz [4].


  12. BTW: It is possible to get a exception from the manufacture rules in all states except Bavaria when you don't use other non allowed ingredients as surrogates for "besondere Biere" (of course enzymes etc. aren't allowed). Bavarian federal state law (which is still in force) modifies § 9 VorlBierG but no one can tell you whether the rules could be applied or not. They don't keep the pace with the modifications of the Biersteuergesetz and VorlBierG (they point to wrong paragraphs and, since 1993, to the wrong law Biersteuergesetz instead of Vorläufiges Biergesetz). There's no court decision about this issue yet (and don't expect one soon). Public authorities in Bavaria apply the law, although it looks like some are quite relaxed in this case. According to that law the use of sugar in top fermenting beers is not allowed in Bavaria and home brewers are stick to the Reinheitsgebot as well (i.e. using sugar in the bottle for a second fermentation is formally not allowed but nobody cares).
    Baden and Württemberg had similar strict rules until 1995.

  13. Wow, thanks Bob. That was a comprehensive clarification.