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500 Years of the Reinheitsgebot, the German Beer Purity Law

It’s the foam-topped pride of a beer-loving nation. The German Reinheitsgebot, or purity law, which is the world’s oldest food safety law still in existence, celebrates its 500th anniversary this year. The statute limits German beer brewers to just four ingredients: malt, hops, yeast and water.

The original 1516 Bavarian law governed that the only ingredients allowed were malt (germinated, dried barley), hops and water. The properties of yeast were unknown at the time, but it was later allowed, as was wheat, which was initially reserved for baking bread.

The law was enacted because unscrupulous brewers would use unsavory and even dangerous ingredients to adulterate and stretch what was then seen as a basic foodstuff. The regulations were later adopted across Germany, and have survived numerous iterations since.

All traditional German beers are brewed within the law. Some exceptions are made for regionally historic styles, though according to the Brauer-Bund, the German brewery association, these exceptions “merely prove the rule.” Such beers include the slightly sour Berliner Weisse and witbier from Thuringia that use orange peel and coriander seed.

Marc-Oliver Huhnholz of the Brauer-Bund says that 89% of Germans are aware of the beer purity law, 85% support it and 79% deem it “worthy of protection” and “precious.”

Huhnholz says that this “puts beer ahead of wine and even milk in Germans’ minds. The law may be old, but has lost none of it relevance.”

“It stands for transparency, clarity and purity,” he says. “Artificial aromas, colorants, stabilizers, enzymes, emulsifiers or preservatives are not allowed. German brewers must master the art of brewing from four natural ingredients alone. This takes knowledge and skill.”

With annual exports of in the neighbourhood of 400 million gallons, Germany sends more beer to the world than most other countries produce.

“The art of creating around 6,000 different German beers from merely four ingredients inspires people across the world,” says Huhnholz. “Brewers from around the globe flock to Germany to train here.”

Beer flight
A wide world in four ingredients / Getty

The law may be famous and popular, but it’s not without its critics. Bernhard Vötter, head brewer at Privatbrauerei Waldhaus in the Black Forest, doesn’t like the overwhelming and widespread use of hop extracts and pellets. Processed from nothing but hops, these follow the law but lead to rather homogenous, predictable flavors. Waldhaus only uses dried, natural hop umbels.

“This takes more experience and intuition,” says Vötter. ”Beer lives off its wonderful diversity, and a lot of that has been lost by using such standardized [derivatives]. That’s a huge pity.”

Germany boasts approximately 1,350 breweries, but like elsewhere, consolidation has fueled the desire for individual styles. Philipp Brokamp of Hausbrauerei Hops & Barley, a microbrewery in the hip Friedrichshain district of Berlin, was a trailblazer when he opened in 2008.

“Back then, nobody was interested,” says Brokamp. “Initially, people wanted classic styles like pils and weizen. Now there’s real demand for unusual beers.”

When it comes to the purity law, he lets out a rueful sigh.

“That’s a difficult subject,” says Brokamp. “I’ve come to view it as a kind of restriction. I have colleagues who demand a law of natural ingredients. Lots of synthetic processing aids, say for filtration, are used in brewing, even within the purity law, but they don’t counts as ingredients. I think the Reinheitsgebot needs a revision.”

Beers brewed with more ingredients cannot legally be called bier. Thus, Brokamp avoids the term. He stays on the right side of the law with descriptively named “Lemon Drop Ale” and “Orange Mojito.”

In the U.S., brewmaster John Maier at Rogue Ales in Oregon has used Sriracha, coffee and chipotle peppers in his beers.  As you might imagine, he finds Germany’s purity law restrictive.

“You can do a lot with those four ingredients, but we have a ‘dare, risk, dream’ philosophy at Rogue,” says Maier. “The German purity law is antiquated and needs to go away or be updated. It’s like brewing with handcuffs!”

Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head Brewery in Delaware (winner of Wine Enthusiast‘s 2015 Wine Star award for Brewery of the Year) sees the purity law as a kind of “art censorship.” If forced to work under it, he says, “I think my inclination would be to get as innovative and experimental as possible with the four allowed ingredients.”

But he also credits the Reinheitsgebot. While it only is enforced in Germany with its domestically produced beers, it created a worldwide brewing ethos. Calagione’s reason for opening Dogfish Head was to make beers outside these widely respected rules.

“When I started out in the very underdeveloped craft-beer market of the 1990s, my reaction to the law was hatred,” he says. “Today, it’s a sense of fondness for something I could rebel against.”

Many German craft brewers might feel the same. Huhnholz, however, sees no need for change.

“Around 98% of so-called craft beers are brewed according to the purity law anyway,” he says. ”Creativity is in no way restricted. There is huge diversity within four ingredients.”