Before the German beer purity law, or Reinheitsgebot, came into force in 1516, the additives used to flavor brews read like a witch's shopping list, and some were downright poisonous. It was even known to cause hallucinations.
The Reinheitsgebot initially applied only to the region of Bavaria, and became part of national law in 1906. It is the world's oldest nutritional law still in force, and states that beer must contain only water, malt, hops and yeast.
The body representing the country's 1,300 brewers announced on Monday it wants the law to be given World Heritage Status by UNESCO, to underscore its tremendous impact on Germany's renowned beer culture, and on the development of the drink that brings such joy to so many.
"Germany owes its unchallenged reputation as a brewing nation to the Reinheitsgebot," said the president of the Federation of German Brewers, Hans-Georg Eils in a statement on Monday. "It guarantees the purity, quality and digestibility of beers."
The Federation said its application was based on two independent studies by the University of Bayreuth and the Munich Technical University, both in Bavaria, home to around half the country's breweries.
Professor Franz Meussdörffer, a biochemist who is the author of the Bayreuth University study, said he was confident the Reinheitsgebot would make it onto the list.
"It ensured that beer as a foodstuff could be trusted in Germany. The Reinheitsgebot created a huge framework in which this enormous German variety of beers could develop. It also led to Germany focusing heavily on the raw materials and spawned an academic culture in this field that is unique worldwide."
Germany permits the import of foreign beers not brewed under the purity law. But all beer brewed in Germany must adhere to it, unless it's meant to be exported to nations with less exacting standards.
Other Countries Ahead in Culture Race
Until recently, the United Nations assigned World Heritage status only to locations and monuments. But it's now also possible to include traditions, knowledge and arts under the so-called Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage which went into effect in 2006.
Germany only ratified it this year and is playing catch-up with countries such as Spain, which had Flamenco included on the list in 2010, or France, which in 2009 succeeded in gaining World Heritage status for French timber framing, a complex, three-dimensional construction method used in France since the 13th century.
Further examples that made it on the list include Belgium's Krakelingen and Tonnekensbrand, the end-of-winter bread and fire feast in Geraardsbergen, and Tonga's Lakalaka dances and sung speeches.
The purity law is among up to 34 traditions Germany plans to present. They include miners' processions in the Ore Mountains region or the Staatskapelle Dresden orchestra founded in 1548.
The applications have yet to receive government approval before being submitted to UNESCO, which is expected to spend some two years considering them.
If successful, it could be added to the world heritage list in 2016, on the 500th anniversary of the law that came into force on the order of two Bavarian dukes, Wilhelm IV and Ludwig X.
"Even in 1516, consumer protection was an important aspect," said the federation. "The Reinheitsgebot was meant to protect beer consumers from the use of cheap and in some cases health-harming ingredients and to ensure that only high-quality raw materials were used."
Bavaria was the first region to adopt beer purity standards. A number of cities in Germany had already done so long before. Before additives were banned, the seasoning used makes unappetising reading: ox gall, poisonous henbane, oak rind and juniper leaves to name but a few.
However, Professor Meussdörffer said it would be wrong to condemn all brewing techniques that predated the law.
"I refuse to say everything before it was bad. Many of the ingredients used are today known to be poisonous, but people in the Middle Ages had much greater knowledge of these ingredients, for examble hembane. It's rightly classified as extremely poisonous, but Hildegard von Bingen found applications for it." Medicine was among the many skills of Saint Hildegard, a Benedictine abbess who lived in the 12th century and was hailed as a philosopher, visionary and writer.
In addition, the yarrow plant, a further additive used before the Reinheitsgebot, had medicinal qualities as well. It is also know as Achillea, because the soldiers of Achilles treated their wounds with it.
The brewing federation is no doubt looking forward to the publicity boost that world heritage will bring it. It said the law had led to the development of a brewing art of global repute over the centuries.
"Every day, more than 1,300 German breweries create a globally unique diversity of more than 40 different types and some 5,000 individual beer brands," the federation gushed.