Attacking Beer Purity The Twilight of Germany's Reinheitsgebot
Germany's beer purity law celebrates its 500th birthday this weekend. The strict brewing rules are world-famous, but they also limit experimentation. With a rise of craft brewers and the loss of key legal battles, does the proud tradition have a future?
Earlier this year, it appeared that Germany's world-famous beer purity law, the Reinheitsgebot , had been expanded by one ingredient. In addition to water, hops and malt, the Munich Environmental Institute discovered traces of the herbicide glyphosate in numerous beers.
A German myth seemed to be faltering. After the VW emissions scandal and corruption in the awarding of the 2006 soccer World Cup, was beer next on the list of tainted German legends?
Beer drinkers the world over were relieved when it emerged that someone would have to drink thousands of liters of beer a day before consuming a toxic dose of the chemical. A few columnists expressed their relief over the news in the German press, and the story faded away.
The halo of the world's most famous food rule had come away unscathed once again.
Still, the incident raises a number of questions. If the concentration in beer was so low, how high was it in the barley used to make the beer? Why does the grain have to be treated with chemicals anyway? And what good is a purity law that apparently also makes it possible to whitewash ingredients that aren't entirely clean?
Of course, this seems like an inopportune time to ask these questions given that the famous purity law turns 500 this weekend. The occasion is being celebrated across Germany with exhibitions and government-subsidized drinking fests, all to celebrate the fact that a certain Duke Wilhelm IV of Bavaria decreed, on April 23, 1516, that nothing more than "only barley, hops and water" were to be used to make beer -- thereby immortalizing both himself and the purity of German beer.
Seal of Quality?
The law has remained in effect to this day, more or less. It has survived attacks by the European Union and the criticism of ambitious brewers, who believe that good beer can also tolerate other flavoring ingredients. It is considered a seal of quality, even though it often results in major German breweries using the label as an excuse to relax and produce large volumes of mass brews.
But 500 years after its decree, the purity law is the subject of a greater debate than ever before, and not just between foreign beer producers and German brewers. The dispute now extends into the German brewing industry itself.
For Herbert Frankenhauser, honorary president of the German Institute for Pure Beer, the purity law is a bulwark against incompetents and all the ills foreign beer allegedly entails: herbs, headaches and consumer deception. He believes the purity law is "the world's first consumer protection law."
Hamburg brewer Oliver Wesseloh has a different take on the purity law, which he calls "one of the best and most long-lived marketing campaigns that ever existed." But, he adds, it also borders on "consumer deception."
Consumer protection? Consumer deception?
At any rate, the purity law, as codified in the Provisional Beer Law of 1993, does not protect against questionable ingredients. For example, tiny particles of a synthetic polymer, polyvinylpolypyrrolidone, are used to bind suspended matter in unfiltered brew. The substance doesn't have to be listed on the label, because it is no longer detectable in the finished beer, except for "technically unavoidable amounts" that slip through filters.
Brewers have long used hops extract, a green, viscous mass pressed out of hop pellets using solvents, instead of the real thing. Diatomaceous earth, which is also used on chickens to protect against parasites, can be used as a filtering agent. In fact, many things are allowed, as long as they do not enter into a chemical reaction with the brew.
A Lack of Originality
On the other hand, beer regulators can be very strict when a brewer wants to experiment a little with beer, literally Germany's cultural heritage. One reason to do so is to improve taste, as Oliver Wesseloh likes to do.
Wesseloh was a typical German brewer, who had been indoctrinated in school to produce a uniform Pilsner and cut costs wherever possible. At some point, however, he decided to break the mold. He went to the United States, where he discovered small craft breweries, which stress good craftsmanship and a lot of hops. He learned the ropes, returned home, became a beer sommelier world champion and is now in charge of the small Kehrwieder Brewery in Hamburg. Wesseloh embodies the contradiction between craftsmanship and mass production, and between small to medium-sized companies and large corporations. He's in no way a fanatical opponent of the purity law. But if you're going to bother to have one, he argues, then it should actually require that brewing be done "without all the artificial additives and other nonsense."
Wesseloh has just applied for an exception permit to brew a Gose with coriander and salt, a type of beer that was popular in Leipzig around 1900. Whether he will get the permit remains to be seen. He says that no one has been able to tell him what goes into the decision to issue exception permits. In Bavaria, for example, a Gose would be prohibited.
This is the other, at least equally absurd side of German purity fetishism. It condemns German brewers to a lack of originality -- purely out of tradition, but not to protect consumers.
Already back in 2005, Germany's Federal Administrative Court questioned the legality of the purity law, arguing that maintaining a tradition does not require banning all deviations from it as efforts to water it down. The purity law, said the judges, interferes with a brewer's basic right to freedom of occupation. Besides, they added, its purpose is to maintain tradition, not to protect the health of consumers.
Plaintiff Klosterbrauerei Neuzelle, a brewery in the eastern state of Brandenburg, had applied an old tradition and sweetened its bottom-fermented beer, Schwarzer Abt, with a pinch of sugar syrup. While adding sugar is perfectly legal with the top-fermented Kölsch style of beer from the Cologne region, the Brandenburg brewery was not even permitted to call its product beer. The brewery's lawsuit is considered a historic victory over the purity law.
The next blow came in 2013. The German Brewers' Association had forged ahead and tried to have the purity law recognized by UNESCO as part of the world's cultural heritage. The selection committee rejected the request, arguing that beer production has now become very industrial and that man, as a bearer of knowledge about the brewing tradition, seems to be increasingly playing a secondary role.
The UNESCO verdict hit home, as it was partly aimed at large breweries like Hasseröder, owned by the world's largest brewery group, Anheuser-Busch InBev (AB InBev), and Radeberger, which is part of Germany's Oetker Group. These companies sometimes sell beer at prices as low as the price of sparkling water. Their pursuit of profit has led to a uniformity of taste, to interchangeable beers that the consumer can no longer distinguish on the basis of taste, but merely on the basis of TV advertising images.
There are hundreds of different malts on the market, more than 200 hop varieties and more than 200 types of yeast. There is plenty of room for achieving a variety of taste while remaining within the confines of the purity law, and yet hardly anyone takes advantage of these opportunities. Nowadays, the brewer spends much of his time sitting in a chair in front of a computer-controlled brewing system -- producing uniformity.
The big TV beers now contain largely identical ingredients and bitterness units. Again and again, blind taste tests show that even practiced brand drinkers are hardly able to recognize their brand. For many beer aficionados, the limits of good taste have long been exceeded.
- Part 1: The Twilight of Germany's Reinheitsgebot
- Part 2: The Slow Demise of the Purity Law?