The world’s longest lasting piece of consumer legislation, the Bavarian Reinheitsgebot, which aims to protect the purity of beer recipes, celebrated its 500th anniversary on Saturday, 23rd of April 2016.
The European Beer Consumer Union (EBCU), which speaks for beer consumer groups across Europe, hailed it a major contribution to the concept of protecting beer consumers by setting brewers some basic standards since 1516.
However, EBCU also sounds a note of caution for its future relevance.
“The strict rule that excludes the use of sugar, syrup, starch, maize and rice in beer brewing is still relevant to brewing classic German beer styles like Helles, Münchner, Märzen, Kölsch, Altbier and others” said EBCU Chair Henri Reuchlin, adding, “but the restrictions on the use of alternative ingredients is getting in the way of the German brewers developing their own take on beers from other European brewing traditions. It also has the potential to interfere with the revival of some older, local German beer styles, which is not so helpful.”
EBCU believes that a modern equivalent of the Reinheitsgebot would impose improved standards of beer labelling, by insisting that beer labels in the EU should all list ingredients and state which brewery company made the beer.
The Reinheitsgebot was originally known as the “Surrogate Prohibition”.
It was introduced in 1516 by the then Dukes of Bavaria, Wilhem IV and Ludwig X, as a way of dealing with a price war that had developed between brewers and bakers over the purchase of wheat. It also allowed them to address longer standing concerns that brewers were polluting beers with herbs, root vegetables, fungi and animal products.
It was brought in on St George’s day (23rd April) as this marked the end of the traditional brewing season in much of central Europe, which begins on St Michael’s day (29th September). Before affordable large-scale refrigeration was brought in around 1865, the summer months were deemed too hot for beer to ferment safely.
At that time there were two basic types of beer. Brown beer was made with malted barley and white beer contained a large amount of wheat. The original diktat effectively outlawed the lighter, more summery wheat beer, stipulating that beer could only be made from barley, hops, and water. Yeast was not mentioned, as its nature was not yet understood.
However, the ban on wheat was soon withdrawn in favour of a heavy tax on its use in brewing. This was replaced in 1602 by a licensing system introduced the Elector of Bavaria, Maximilian Wittelsbach, though he faced much criticism when all the licenses were bought by members of his family, who held an effective monopoly for the next two centuries.
As the German states came together under Bismarck, many adopted this Bavarian standard, in doing so outlawing numerous historic local beer styles that used outlawed ingredients such as salt, spices or herbs.
The universal adoption of the Reinheitsgebot in 1919, was made a condition of Bavaria accepting its amalgamation into the new Germany.
The Reinheitsgebot was formally withdrawn in 1988 after the European Union declared it a restraint of free trade, although many German breweries abide by its tenets to the present day, as do most brewers in Austria and many in the Czech Republic. To this day it is accepted as the gold standard, by craft brewers in many parts of the world, especially when making pale lagers.
Industrial lagers, including many of the world’s best known brands, substitute sugar, syrup, starch, maize or rice for malted barley, reducing the amount of background grain flavours featuring in the beer and accounting in part for their relative lack of flavour. These may be and sometimes are substituted for up to a third of the grain bill (the fermentable sugars).