Reinheitsgebot – Purity at the Expense of Innovation

If you hang around beer geeks enough, you may hear the term “Reinheitsgebot”, pronounced rine-HITES-geh-boat. Some will speak of it with reverence, as the first attempt to define and insist upon beer quality, while others will speak of it with eye-rolling contempt, as the enemy of innovation. Both are partially correct.

The Reinheitsgebot was decreed by Duke Wilhelm IV in Bavaria in 1516. While the complete translation shows that the Reinheitsgebot was focused more on taxes than on beer, the portion most cited by brewers stated, “Furthermore, we wish to emphasize that in future in all cities, markets and in the country, the only ingredients used for the brewing of beer must be Barley, Hops and Water.” No wheat, no cherries, no rice, no pumpkin, not even any yeast. Yeast which is the agent responsible for changing malty-sweet water into beer was not even identified until the Louis Pasteur fired up his microscope in the 1800s. In 1516, brewers typically used some of the prior batch as a “starter”, much like sourdough bakers continue to do.

Despite the Germanic reputation for strict compliance with rules, the Reinheitsgebot was always more of a guideline than a rule. Bavaria has long been the home of astounding wheat beers, for example, and Duke Wilhelm IV was not going to deny himself and his friends a frothy mug of hefeweizen brewed with wheat. Instead, in a classic case of “It’s Okay If You’re A Ruler”, wheat beers were restricted to brewers who catered to the nobility. Reinheitgebot applied only to the rabble, and was intended to make sure enough wheat was available for bakers to stay in business.

Along the way, the famed Reinheitsgebot has been amended to allow for the broader use of wheat, as well as sugar and yeast. Further, Germany’s entrance into the EEU made the restrictions inapplicable to imports, and now German brewers are allowed to brew as they please, though many continue to claim compliance with the Reinheitsgebot’s provisions as a marketing gimmick. (None that I know of comply with the original 1516 provisions capping beer prices, though, which would lower beer prices to under a dime for a case of beer. Let me know if you find any exceptions.)

Now, back to the debate about the impact of the Reinheitgebot. Did it raise the quality of German beers, or did it squelch innovation? The short answer is “yes”. Back in the 1500s, beer was made of a wide variety of crazy materials, and those ingredients were often added with an eye toward producing a cheaper beer rather than a better beer. Local weeds could substitute for hops, rotten apples could substitute for malt, and so forth. Insisting on barley and hops really did cull out the more nasty experiments being sold as “beer”, and may have protected the consumer.

The impact on innovation was substantial, though. On the one hand, the Reinheitsgebot encouraged the Germans to fully explore the permutations of all-barley beers. From doppelbock to helles, Germans have produced an impressive range of wonderful barley beers.

On the other hand, the imagination reels at what might have been developed through the years had German brewers had free reign to innovate. Just to the north, Belgium became laboratory of creative brewing, an inspiration to brewers to this day. Even in France, styles incorporating unmalted wheat and spices helped bring refreshment to the world.

Was Duke Wilhelm IV a patron saint of pure beer, or a sinner killing the development of German beers? Again, the correct answer is to avoid the “either or” linguistic trap, and appreciate the good that came from his law.

2 Responses to “Reinheitsgebot – Purity at the Expense of Innovation”

  1. les says:

    The Duke knew the deal. Keep the faith, brewers. Who could have expected that the nobility would sacrifice for the commoners, keeping the wheat out of the taverns.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Stick to beer idiot not politics you are good at that.

Leave a Reply