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.
The Slow Demise of the Purity Law?
At the same time, the faintheartedness of the powerful also increases the prospects of small brewers. While production is shrinking at large breweries, the brewing specialist segment is growing. The movement has not gone unnoticed by the Bavarian Brewers' Association. Its management board met in early December 2015 and voted for a "restructuring of the beer law." It was intended to provide legal certainty for beers that are "made while using other natural ingredients than those stipulated in the purity law."
It was a bomb for the purity law -- and coming from Bavaria, no less! The resolution hasn't been published yet, apparently because the brewers' association wanted to wait until after the festivities. Is this the beginning of a gradual departure from the purity law?
For marketing professionals, the purity law is already a disaster. It isn't easy to be creative and imaginative with a product that contains four ingredients, which, with the exception of water, are relatively unfamiliar to most people. This constraint has turned brewers into master illusionists. Flensburger Pils, for example, is supposedly brewed with "coastal barley" and Krombacher with "mountain spring water." These are make-believe ingredients, like the so-called Piedmont Cherry in Mon Cheri chocolates. Krombacher has even registered its supposed mountain spring water as a trademark.
Competitors that use similar terminology to market the water they use stand the chance of being sued by Krombacher. In reality, there is no mountain spring, a fact that even Krombacher admits in the small print. Instead, its gets its water from 40 wells at the base of the Rothaar Mountains.
At least the water doesn't have to be softened using ion exchange technology. Water treatment in itself represents a subversion of the purity law, given that water-softening processes didn't exist in 1516.
Malt, which is germinated and dried barley, is considered the body of the beer. For many large breweries, however, it's merely a step along the way. They have little interest in where it comes from, as long as the quality and price are right. According to a former employee at Beck's, a subsidiary of AB-InBev, the company long used inexpensive winter barley, which is normally used as forage. Because of its six-lined, irregularly growing grains, winter barley is not ideal for brewing. An AB-InBev spokesman confirms that "minimal" amounts of winter barley are used to this day, although that amounts to up to 15 percent of the barley used in the group's German breweries.
The concept of purity is also questionable when it comes to hops, the soul of beer. The herbaceous vine is considered the secret to beer's success. Its bitter compounds not only provide beer with its bitter taste, but also improve shelf life. Hops stabilize the foam and, as a natural sedative, the tempers of beer drinkers.
Today, hops are usually compressed into small pellet or, in a further step, extracted with ethanol or carbon dioxide. German hops are usually from the Hallertau region. The so-called hops triangle, between Munich, Nuremberg and Regensburg, was long a test laboratory of sorts for pesticides. All kinds of agents, some of them not even licensed, were sprayed to combat funguses and lice. And many hops farmers were so aggressive in their use of artificial fertilizer that some wells in the region had to be shut down because of excessive nitrate levels.
A Growing Craft Beer Segment
But Hallertau hasn't been the only source of hops in German beer for a long time now. Large hops dealers like Barth-Haas and HopSteiner were also known to use Chinese product during earlier shortages.
"We buy hops and sell alpha acid. That's the business," says Joachim Gehde of HopSteiner. He's referring to the alpha acid in pellet and extract form that the company produces in Germany. The amount of alpha acid determines a beer's bitterness, and for a long time that was all many brewers cared about. The fact that certain types of hops can do a lot more, such as provide an aroma of mango or lime, didn't matter. Once again, simplicity was the name of the game, so that hops were generally cultivated for alpha acid content. But because beers became increasingly mild over time, brewers also managed to save money on ingredients. A hectoliter (100 liters) of mass-market Pilsner can be brewed today with hops worth 50 to 60 cents.
"The period from the 1990s until around 2005 was a scary, uncreative time," says Stephan Barth of Barth-Haas. "The sole objective was to get bitterness in beers as cheaply as possible. The crisis wore us down to the bone."
The Nuremberg-based Barth-Haas Group handles about 30 percent of global hops trading. In the crisis years, Barth kept asking himself: "How can we stay relevant, and how can we become experts worldwide instead of just serving as logistics kings?" Barth decided to grow hops in the United States and develop new varieties, as well as to begin brewing, testing hops varieties and developing beers in Germany. The first test facility was built in 1997, "and we have been building like crazy since 2010," he says. Barth is a partner in the Munich-based craft beer company Crew Republic.
He believes that the craft segment has what it takes to turn the industry around. It already accounts for 12 percent of the market in the United States, or roughly 25 million hectoliters (660 million gallons). "That may not seem like much, but that 12 percent of brewers use more hops than the remaining 88 percent." Companies like AB InBev have taken notice and have started buying up craft breweries. Even Radeberger has a craft subsidiary, Braufactum. Even though the craft segment is still growing slowly in Germany, the boom is unmistakable in other countries. The number of craft breweries in the United States grew from 1,400 to 3,400 in the last 10 years, and in Italy from about 100 to almost 600.
This development, says Barth, has given brewers a voice once again. As with wine, beer connoisseurs now discuss brews in terms of terroir. And experts aren't the only ones discovering new dimensions of taste.
On a February evening, the German Hop Museum in the Bavarian town Wolnzach, in the midst of the Hallertau hops mecca, is hosting a beer tasting event. Three of the guests are men in their mid-60s, with some experience under their belts. One is attending this veritable adult education event for the third time.
Craft brewers, explains museum director Christoph Pinzl, need up to 10 times as much hops for their beer as corporate breweries. He serves a Pils from Schönram, a small Bavarian brewery. The brewery's traditional crest doesn't necessarily suggest that this is a craft beer. Schönram has been making beer since 1780, adhering to the purity law, of course. But Eric Toft, an American, has been in charge of the brewing kettle for the last few years. For the Pilsner, he only uses aromatic hops varieties with a particularly intense flavor and softer bitter compounds than conventional bitter hops varieties. In 2014, Toft's Pilsner won the World Beer Cup in Denver, where professional tasters praised the pale lager for its fresh notes of citrus and its floral aroma, which they likened to "Grandma's flower bed."
The three men in the museum nod attentively. But they aren't exactly fans of craft brewers. The small ones, says one of the men, "just make sugar beers." Yes, says the second man, "they are subverting the purity law with rice and shit." It's a miracle, says the third, that the purity law has lasted for so long: "Just four ingredients: water, malt, hops and yeast."
However, there was neither a mention of malt nor yeast in the 1516 decree, because yeast was only known at the time as "stuff" that had to be incorporated into the fermenting brew. Somehow the miraculous transformation into beer succeeded, but no one could explain it.
Trying Times for Purity
A survey conducted last year by K&A Brand Research shows how little Germans really know about beer. Although 76 percent of all consumers said that the purity law was an important factor in their purchasing decisions, many had no clue about all the things that are now allowed, after repeated amendments to the beer laws.
In 1516, bad beer was hardly the reason for the purity law, as the brewers' association has long claimed. Wheat, an important ingredient in bread, was to be reserved for bakers, which is why barley was specified as the grain to be used in brewing beer. The Wittelsbach monarchy later created lucrative special permits for wheat beer. And already by 1551, the Bavarian purity law was softened once again -- for the benefit of coriander and bay leaf.
But there's another stumbling block to the deification of the law: Purity wasn't its primary focus. There wasn't even mention of a "purity law" at the time. The term was only introduced in 1918, when it was used by a member of the Bavarian state parliament.
The conflict culminated in the 1980s with a successful EU complaint against Germany. Germans wanted to ban use of the word "beer" on brews imported from other EU member states under open market rules that used additives banned under the German purity law. These additives included things like ascorbic acid or sulfur dioxide to improve shelf life, for example. Today the EU's additives law permits more than a dozen dyes and emulsifiers in import beer, which is usually recognizable by the E numbers on the label.
German beer drinkers' brand loyalty stems from the days of brainwashing about alcohol. Despite an overall decline in beer consumption, the entire brewing industry still generates annual sales of about 8 billion and employs 30,000 people.
But who is aware that German breweries like Beck's and Franziskaner are actually owned by Belgian brewery giant AB InBev? Who is aware of the fact that the Radeberger Group controls the vats at the old Hansa brewery in Dortmund, where it produces lines of Pilsners with brands like DAB, Brinkhoff's, Kronen and Stifts? Although Radeberger prides itself in adhering to the purity law, its lineup includes the Spanish beer Estrella, which, according to the label, contains rice, corn and the stabilizer E 405 (propylene glycol alginate).
German brewers had long fought such "chemistry beer." There was much at stake. After the expulsion of Adam and Eve, predicted Franz Josef Strauss, a Bavarian politician who until his death in 1988 was also one of the country's most famous, Germany was running the risk of a "second loss of Paradise."
Then the judges brought the Germans down to earth again. In its 1987 ruling on the EU complaint, the European Court of Justice found that risks to the general health, as claimed by the German government, did not exist. After all, the judges argued, the controversial additives in foreign beers were allowed in other German food products.
The degree to which beer has become a tipple of choice for foodies is on full display at the Doemens Academy in Munich, which trains beer sommeliers. Today there are more than 1,000 beer sommeliers in Germany alone. "Attending the course," says Georg Schneider, "was the nicest two weeks of my life." Schneider, aka Georg VI, is the sixth-generation head of the Schneider Brewery in the Bavarian town of Kelheim.
Schneider is the president of the Free Brewers, an association of family owned companies that have turned their independence from corporations into a brand. Like many other brewers, Schneider also experienced his catharsis in the United States. In 2007, he made a bet with an American brewer he knew that the influence of ingredients on beer was so small that it couldn't be tasted. "I lost miserably," says Schneider. "He brewed us a wheat beer with Cascade hops. Unbelievable."
Since that experience, Schneider has been in the process of remaking his company. He is sticking with wheat beers, but he is now brewing a variety of beers in Barrique barrels and charging 13 a bottle. "We're gradually feeling our way into the market," he says. Sometimes a barrel explodes. But specialty beers already make up 20 percent of the company's sales.
On this particular morning, he has invited Wolfgang Stempfl to give his master brewer some sensory training. Stempfl heads the Doemens Academy. He's one of the main figures behind the growing interest in beer in Germany.
"Here in Germany, a lot of knowledge becomes obfuscated behind the purity law," says Stempfl, whose seminars even attract Chinese brewers who want to learn "craft" from him. Götz Steinl of Camba Bavaria, one of the breweries most amenable to experimentation, was also trained by Stempfl.
Steinl took his plea for variety more seriously than most people. The brewery in Bavaria's Chiemgau region has already introduced more than 50 different beers. It was named "Craft Beer Brewer of the Year," and it is the first brewery where food inspectors appeared one day to ban a beer. "They shut down our Milk Stout the year before last," says Steinl. Lactose is used to make the traditional British beer, which is why Steinl deliberately called it a "mixed beer beverage." But the food inspectors felt it was misleading and that the product couldn't be sold as beer. The stout had to be poured out.
A Coffee Porter currently in the tank could suffer the same fate. Steinl is mystified, saying the situation is grotesque. If he had the stout produced in Austria, a few kilometers away, he could easily import it into Germany, but he is not allowed to brew it in Bavaria. An "absolute" purity law applies in the region.