When it comes to beer, “German” isn’t just a category of geographic origin, it’s an implicit stamp of quality and style, thanks in part to their Beer Purity laws. Maybe it’s because our Bavarian cousins take the art of brewing so seriously, and have been at it for so long, but most of us associate German beers with a certain colour, taste, and clean flavour. We hold them up to a standard that we wouldn’t expect many other beers to meet.
In the background of these impressions – or perhaps holding them up – are the legendary German Beer Purity Laws, or Reinheitsgebot. Dating back five centuries, they require brewers to hold themselves to certain impeccable standards… or so you’ll occasionally hear.
As it turns out, most craft beer enthusiasts don’t actually know what’s stated in Germany’s Beer Purity Laws, or if they are even real in the first place. So, we did a little bit of digging, and want to share a couple of facts and myths. The details we learned shed a little bit of insight into what it means to brew and drink beer in Germany, and make for some great cocktail party chatter.
Fact: There are Real Beer Standards in Germany
Let’s start by acknowledging that Reinheitsgebot is a real thing. Enacted in 1516, the laws state that only water, barley, hops, and yeast can be used to make beer in Germany. However, while the popular belief is that these rules were put into place to ensure the quality of beer in a place where quality is so closely monitored, the reality is a bit different.
Myth: They Were Devised to Protect Beer Quality
Actually, German Beer Purity Laws weren’t put into place to protect beer at all – they were enacted to stop crops (like wheat) that were needed to make bread from being turned into beer. In times when food was scarce, leaders worried that many would go hungry while nutritious grains were being used in new brews.
Over time, the myth and legend of the laws, along with the high standards German brewers held themselves to, meant that people came to associate them with quality.
Fact: Most German Brews Still Adhere to the Old Standard
The majority of German beers on the market today do still adhere to the guidelines set forth in the Purity Laws. However, it’s important to note that brewers regularly bend the guidelines to achieve a specific effect.
For example, hops can be grown and cultivated in a number of different varieties, some being more aromatic and flavorful than others. So, a German brewer might choose one with an acidic, flowery, or citrus-like taste to achieve a brew that is very similar to one with coriander, wheat, or lemon.
In that way, they can adhere to traditional German standards while experimenting with different flavor profiles. It’s probably not for the reason you might think, though.
Myth: There are Penalties for Breaking Beer Purity Laws
Contrary to popular belief, German brewers won’t be fined or otherwise penalized for deviating from the traditional standards. Most do as a point of pride, but even that can be a controversial stance.
Many brewers and beer-lovers in Germany think of Reinheitsgebot as an interesting relic that doesn’t have much use in the modern world. That’s because restricting the ingredients that can be used in beer limits creativity. And, arguably puts German brewers at a disadvantage to the rest of the world.
Also, numerous small exceptions have been added to the list over the years, meaning that it’s relatively easy for companies to adhere to old purity standards based on a technicality more than fact.
So, are German Beer Purity Laws Still Relevant?
The question of whether Reinheitsgebot is still relevant (beyond being interesting beer trivia) in today’s world is an open one. Certainly, it’s a great tradition, and a part of history that comes to life every time you sip a lager and get that clean, distinctive German beer taste.
And yet, being the fan of creativity that I am, I hate to see anyone restrict themselves from thinking outside the box just because preserving wheat was a priority in the 16th century. There will always be room for the classics, but things change and the world gets better every time brewers find a new combination of ingredients that works. So for me, it might be time to move on.
Do you think it matters whether German brewers still adhere to old Purity Laws? I’d love to get your feedback in the comments or in social. And, we’d sure appreciate you subscribing to this blog. As fans of the craft, we’d love to connect!