What Does It Really Mean?
by Steve Holle and Manfred Schaumberger
The Reinheitsgebot (“Purity Law”) enacted in Bavaria in 1516 restricted the ingredients in beer to barley, hops, and water. Almost 500 years later, this simple regulation is still the basis for laws governing beer production in Germany, and beer drinkers worldwide view it as an assurance of quality. In fact, the Reinheitsgebot is recognized as the first and most well known consumer protection law still enforced in Germany and probably the World.
But what does it really mean? Science, technology and the industrial revolution have changed the process of brewing dramatically over the last 5 centuries – most noticeably through the discovery of yeast which has been added as a fourth ingredient to the modern edition of the Reinheitsgebot. Modern breweries now use sophisticated new equipment like ion exchangers, trub flotation tanks, and yeast propagators, and dose beer with various materials such as diatamaceous earth (“DE”) and PVPP (e.g. Polyclar) to filter and clarify it. But, how do German brewers reconcile these new methods and materials with the Reinheitsgebot, and how do they determine what is in contradiction? Furthermore, has this new technology made the Reinheitsgebot obsolete? If the majority of the beer worldwide is not brewed in accordance with the Reinheitsgebot, are Germans kidding themselves by believing that quality beer can only be brewed by their standards? To answer these questions, it is important to understand the historical, social and political his article will explore these questions in light of historical and current circumstances that have influenced the codification of modern laws that regulate German brewing ingredients and methods.
A brief history of the Reinheitsgebot provides insight into its interpretation today and the lengthy German tradition of regulating beer quality. Monasteries, under privileges granted by the feudal lords, were primarily responsible for brewing in Germany because they were the main providers of food (including beer) and shelter to pilgrims and other travelers, and the monks learned that strong beer sustained them during their frequent fasts. As the power of the secular lords increased along with commercial brewing profits of the tax-exempt monasteries, the lords revoked the clergy’s exclusive right to brew beer and established court breweries (Hofbraeuhaeuser) which were operated by the lords or by secular brewers under license for a fee. However, the royal brewers were apparently not as skilled as the learned clergy, and the quality of beer suffered. As early as 1156, Frederick I issued the Justitia Civitatis which decreed that any brewer in Augsburg who brewed bad beer or poured an unjust measure would have his beer destroyed, be fined, and possibly have his licensed revoked. Other cities such as Nuernberg and Erfurt passed similar laws including Munich which issued an ordinance in 1447 that would become the forerunner of the Reinheitsgebot which stated that brewers may only use barley, hops and water (for a more complete history, see Dornbusch, 1997).
On April 23, 1516 the co-rulers of Bavaria, the brothers Wilhelm and Ludwig Wittelsbach, issued the Reinheitsgebot which they enforced across feudal Bavaria. It is interesting to note that only one sentence in the document actually describes how beer should be produced: “We would especially like that hereunto throughout our cities, markets, and in our countryside no beer be brewed with any ingredients other than barley, hops, and water.” . The majority of the document describes how beer could be distributed and sold. In fact, some historians question whether beer quality and consumer protection were the only motives for instituting the Reinheitsgebot and suggest that economic reasons may have also played apartbeen the larger concern. Several of these economic reasons include: The protection of barley farmers (Vogel, 1996, p.16); the maintenance of reasonable prices to support beer consumption and provide a steady flow of tax revenues to royal coffers (Dornbusch, 1997, p. 40); and the omission of wheat as an ingredient to insure that enough wheat was available to supply adequate amounts of bread to the people (Bayrischer Brauerbund, 1998). Yet whatever factors originally influenced the Bavarian rulers to issue the Reinheitsgebot, it survives today because German brewers and consumers cherish it as a standard of quality and an assurrance that their beer is an unadultered product without additives.
Readers familiar with Weissbier, Altbier or Koelsch might ask why Germans are then permitted to brew these beers since they include wheat as an ingredient. The exception for wheat dates back to the inception of the Reinheitsgebot when the Wittelsbachs allowed the continuance of the existing feudal wheat beer brewing privilege exclusively held by the Degenberger family. This exclusive right controlled by the Wittelsbachs not only maintained a secure market for the new barley beers, it also created a monopoly for wheat beer brewing. Some suggest that the “privilege” which was sold or leased from time to time to certain selected brewers afforded the rulers yet another source of royal revenue. The modern Bavarian Brewers Union (Bayrischer Brauerbund) even suggests that malted “grain” would have originally been used in the Reinheitsgebot had it not been for such economic reasons and, consequently, the modern inclusion of malted non-barley grains for top fermented beers today is consistent with the Reinheitsgebot’s original intent. The Degenbergers continued to brew wheat beer until their line died out in 1602, and the lucrative right to brew and sell wheat beer again was exclusively controlled by the Wittelsbachs . Thereafter, the Wittelsbachs brewed wheat beer from 1602 until 1802 when they leased the royal brewing privilege to private brewers. In 1855, George Schneider became the tenant of the royal wheat beer brewery in Munich, but by 1872 , Schneider was clever enough to realize that the Wittelsbachs had run out of room at the adjoining lager beer Hofbraeu, so Schneider traded his brewery lease for the unconditional right to brew wheat beer which opened the way for privatization of wheat beer brewing (Warner, 1992, pp. 13-16).
The Reinheitsgebot survived in Bavaria and grew in importance in modern times throughout Germany. In 1906, the Reinheitsgebot became the official law of the German Empire and ended the previously permitted practices in northern Germany of using adjuncts such as rice or even potato flour. Following WW1 and the establishment of the Weimar Republic, the Reinheitsgebot become the basis for the new federal beer tax law, in part, because Bavaria would not join the new republic unless the Reinheitsgebot was enforced throughout the whole country. Prior to March 12, 1987, any fermented malt beverage not conforming to the Reinheitsgebot was prohibited from being sold in Germany as “beer”. However, the European Union ruled that the Reinheitsgebot was a restraint of trade, and as a member, Germany was forced to allow non-conforming beers to be sold in Germany, although these beers are required to list all non-conforming ingredients on the label. Not surprisingly, German law still requires that German brewers continue to steadfastly adhere to the Reinheitsgebot for beers sold inside Germany.
Today the Reinheitsgebot is contained in section 9.1 of the regulation entitled Bekanntmachung der Vorlaeufigen Neufassung des Biergesetzes which has expanded the Reinheitsgebot by adding yeast to the original three ingredients of barley, water and hops and defining barely more narrowly as malted barley: “For the preparation of bottom fermenting beer, …, only barley malt, hops, yeast and water may be used.”. However, for a German beer to be labeled as “brewed in accordance with the Reinheitsgebot”, it must comply with numerous other regulations contained in the German brewing laws. Consequently beers brewed with just these 4 ingredients may still not be Reinheitsgebot compliant if other than permitted practices are used. For purposes of this article, Reinheitsgebot compliant beer means those beers meeting all the requirements under Germany’s federal brewing laws. All commercial German brewers are subject to these federal laws for beers sold in GermanyThese restrictions, however, the regulations do not apply to all commercial German brewers, but does not apply to experimental brewing for research or beer sold outside of Germany (8.1 section 9.7) and homebrewing (8.1 section 9.8) which has been exempted since December of 1985. However, homebrewing is still more regulated in Germany than the US. Hops, malt, and yeast may be sold separately, but not as a “package” or “a kit” (Vogel, 1996, pp. 12-16). Furthermore, homebrewers are required to send a notice to the tax authority before they brew and a tax declaration form after they brew, although no tax is due if less than 200 liters/year is produced.
As already stated, malted barley is the only permitted grain based on the original Reinheitsgebot, which in its strictest sense is applicable only to bottom fermented beer (lager beer). However, top fermented beers like Weissbier, Altbier and Koelsch may use other malted grains (8.1 section 9.2) such as wheat and rye. Rice, corn, and any other unmalted grains are specifically prohibited (8.2 section 17.4), including roasted and/or flaked barley in stouts or unmalted wheat in Belgian wit beer. Surprisingly, sugar may even be added to top fermented beer, but the use of sugar is not practiced because by law this adjunct must be noted on the label and a despised ingredient such as this would taint the beer’s image in the eyes of German consumers. It is interesting to note that Bavaria and Baden-Wuertemberg prohibit the use of sugar in any form and also ban the production of non-conforming beer even if it is for sale outside Germany (8.2 section 3).
However, German brewers and maltsters have developed techniques to accomplish technical compliance while gaining the benefits of prohibited ingredients. One such example is Kurzmalt or Spitzmalt which are technically malts, but because they are undermodified due to a very abbreviated germination period, they provide the same positive contributions to mouthfeel and head retention provided by unmalted grains (Kunze, 1994, p.150). However, artificial germination (8.1 section 9.3) through the use of gibberellic acid or potassium bromate, the use of artificial enzymes, or malt that is not milled in the brewery (8.2 section 17.3), including malt extract, are not permitted. Although previously prohibited, high gravity brewing may now be employed, but is seldom practiced. Another innovative product Germans use to color beer is Farbebier, meaning colored beer (8.1 section 9.4). Farbebier is brewed from dark barley malt wort that undergoes fermentation with bottom fermenting yeast and is then concentrated by vacuum evaporation. Because it is fermented, Farbebier qualifies technically as beer and can therefore be added for coloring at any point during the brewing process from the kettle to the lagering tank.
The German Trinkwasserverordnung (water quality law) essentially governs the preparation of water for general consumption and brewing and provides for numerous modern methods to provide safe, good tasting drinking water (8.2 section 19). For example, German brewers may use sedimentation, aeration, mechanical filtration with DE or sheet filters, distillation, ion exchangers, reverse osmosis, slaked lime, chlorination, ozonation, and UV light (Kuhlmann, 1993). Brewing liquor may be treated with gypsum and calcium chloride, but these salts can only be added to the brew water, not the mash. By treating the water with these naturally occurring mineral salts, these salts become a part of the “water”. If the salts were added to the mash, they would be another ingredient. These various treatments and mineral additives may be viewed with suspicion as deviations from the Reinheitsgebot, but it is apparent that legislators recognized that safe, good tasting water is not available everywhere and for reasons of safety and practicality, water treatment is necessary and therefore permitted.
Although German brewers can employ most water treatments commonly found in breweries worldwide, acidification is strictly restricted to the use of lactic acid naturally derived from malt. In earlier times, breweries soured the mash by mashing in at low temperatures and letting the mash stand over night to activate naturally occurring lactobacillus. However, it is more common today for German brewers to biologically propagate the lactic acid bacteria in a propagator fed with wort much as one would propagate yeast. The propagator allows for more controlled dosing of acidified wort which can be added to either the mash or the brew kettle. German maltsters also produce a Sauermalz (sour malt) that is produced from dried malt that is soaked in water at 45 to 50 C until naturally occurring lactobacillus produce 1% lactic acid. The malt is then slowly dried at 50 to 60 C before kilning during which time the lactic acid concentration increases to 2% to 4% (Kunze, 1994, p. ). Mich. Weyermann Malting Company indicates that they speed up the process by spraying the dried malt with biologically derived lactic acid before kilning (Brauwelt, Vol. 136, No. 5, 1996). Sauermalz can be included in amounts up to 10% of the malt bill. Proper lowering of the pH in the mash and kettle is especially important for German lagers since it ensures the light color, noble hop bitterness, and rounded flavors that are characteristic of these beers. A low wort pH is also important for low alcohol beers since less extensive fermentation does not provide for sufficient lowering of the beer’s final pH.
German beer may be produced from hop powder, pellets and even extracts so long as these forms are derived solely from pure hops. Solvents to produce extracts must be derived from non-poisonous solvents such as ethanol, CO2 and even supercritical CO2 (8.1 section 9.5). However, isomerized extracts are prohibited because isomerization of the alpha acids must occur in the kettle. In fact, the addition of hops can only occur in the brew kettle. First wort hopping is permitted, but dry hopping or the addition of hops to the whirl pool are not. These restrictions help explain the noble, delicate bitterness and aroma typical in German Pils as compared to the more assertive herbal character of dry-hopped British and American ales. Although hops could technically be added immediately before the end of the boil and transfer to the whirlpool, hops are generally boiled at least 5 to 10 minutes before the end of the boil to drive off unpleasant flavors.
German brewers may plate pure yeast strains on agar, but when propagating the yeast to pitching volume, no additives or nutrients may be directly added; however, creativity can again provide alternative solutions. One German brewer has suggested propagating yeast in cooled wort that was dosed with yeast cells prior to boiling as a way to add nutrients without violating the Reinheitsgebot. Zinc cannot be provided directly by addition of ZnSO4 or ZnCl2, but running the wort through piping or over lauter screens containing zinc can provide the needed trace amounts. Acid washing is also prohibited because the repitched yeast would contain a quantity of the acid used in washing, and the addition of acid to wort is prohibited. However, some German brewers have proposed that if the yeast slurry is returned to its natural pH before repitching, technical compliance would be maintained.
Although lager beer can only be brewed with malted barley, some wheat beer brewers prefer to employ lager yeast for bottle conditioning which may be added after primary fermentation because it settles and clarifies better and is less likely to autolyze. However, brewing regulations place a limit on the amount of lager yeast that may be added to bottom fermented beer to a quantity of yeast slurry not to exceed 0.1% of the original wort volume or kraeusen not to exceed 15% (8.2 section 22.1). Since the kraeusen contains lager yeast, the wort must be produced from malted barley, and although the law does not state what proportion of wheat must be contained in the wort, German consumers expect that wheat beers contain at least 50% wheat (Warner, 1992, p.56). Therefore, brewers must take notice that the addition of kraeusen does not drop the percentage of wheat below 50%.
A central precept determining what may be used to clarify or condition beer is that only substances that are non-toxic, odorless, tasteless and that can be completely removed after contact with the beer may be used as mechanical filters or adsorbents, e.g. fining agents (8.1 section 9.6). Therefore, agents such as DE and cellulose filters and fining agents such as silica gel, bentonite, and PVPP (Polyclar) may be employed to enhance colloidal stability. Kettle finings such as Irish moss are not allowed, presumably because the carbohydrates, proteins and other substances in the Irish moss would be extracted into the wort. Isinglass finings are permitted, but only in top fermenting beers and then only in the conditioning tank and not after packaging, i.e. in the bottle or keg (Warner, 1992).
German brewers typically carbonate their beers naturally in the conditioning tank either through the addition of kraeusen or closing tanks when fermentable extract of approximately 1.0 to 1.5 Plato remains. Forced carbonation is permitted if the CO2 is recaptured from fermentation (8.3 section 4.1). However, recapturing CO2 is a costly process and, therefore, only justified in larger breweries. CO2 and nitrogen derived by other means may be used to move or serve beer, but these gases may not be used to adjust the carbonation levels (8.3 section 4.2).
Biermischgetraenke (“beer mixed drinks”) are drinks combining beer and Zitronenlimonade which is a lemon/lime soda like 7-Up or Sprite. Two of the most popular mixed drinks are the Radler and Russ’n. A Radler is a mixture of Helles beer (a blond, malty lager) and Zitronenlimonade. The German word for bicycle is Rad, meaning wheel, and a Radler is a person who rides a bike. As the story is told, a large number of bikers (totaling about 13,000) descended on a enterprising Bavarian innkeeper named Franz Xaver Kugler during the summer of 1922. Realizing that he did not have enough beer, he mixed the beer with lemon/lime soft drinks. Thereafter, the drink became a popular alternative that allowed the imbiber to quench his thirst and still ride home. The Russ’n is a mixture of wheat beer and Zitronenlimonade. The name is attributed to the hyper-inflation and shortage of brewing materials that occurred in Germany following WW1 and led to the production of less abundant and weaker beer. A means to extend the limited beer supply and improve the diminished taste was to add lemon/lime soft drinks, and wheat beer seems to have been most compatible for dilution. Because this sweet mixture was especially popular with Russian workers that frequented the Munich Mathaeser-Keller where the drink was probably first mixed, it became known as a Russ’n. Another mixed drink brewed in Berlin is a wheat beer produced with lactic fermentation known as Berliner Weisse. The lactic fermentation produces a sour taste that is offset by the addition of a Schuss, which is a sweetener typically made of raspberry or woodruff. Although such drinks are still mixed by bartenders at the time of dispensing, it has been legal since January 1, 1993 for the mixture to be concocted in the brewery and marketed as a reduced alcohol drink. (Bayrischer Brauerbund, 1998)
Unfortunately, the Russ’n may have contributed to the American misconception that Germans serve their wheat beer with lemon slices. Like lemon-lime soda, lemon slices may have been employed in the past to mask bad-tasting wheat beer, but wheat beers in Bavaria are not served with lemon slices, and the practice is specifically rejected by brewers, including the Bayrischer Brauerbund, because the lemon juice not only adulterates the taste, but the lemon oil causes the beer foam to collapse.
Significance Of The Reinheitsgebot
Beer occupies a more significant place in German culture than in the United States, and the evidence is plentiful. Germans count beer as a basic nutritional staple (Grundnahrungsmittel) and not merely as a social drink as it is often construed in American culture. The fact that German monks still carry on the brewing tradition and Martin Luther (himself a lover of beer who married a former nun and brewer) who has had his portrait displayed on bottles of his beloved Einbecker Bockbier attest to the acceptance of beer in even the most pious segments of German society. (For perspective, try and imagine Pat Robertson’s or Jerry Falwell’s portrait on a beer bottle.) Even the manner in which Germans consume beer denotes the lofty esteem in which they hold their national beverage. A German is perfectly content to wait several minutes for the bartender to draw a Pils by repeated splashing into the center of the glass to produce its characteristic rich head, because a creamy head is considered a trademark of a well made beer. German glassware is often more elegant than wine glasses and typically provided by breweries to each tavern serving their beer so that even draft beer brands are recognizable by their logo. And each beer style has its own designated glassware: stemmed glasses for Pils; tall, wide rimmed vases for Weissbier; tumblers for Helles and Maerzens; and small straight sided glasses for Altbier and Koelsch. The Germans are also more likely to practice proper beer drinking etiquette by toasting each time a new round is served, and God help the ingrate that is so rude as to toast without looking his colleagues in the eye or to commit the unpardonable gaffe of setting his glass down before drinking. Germans as a whole also appear to be better informed about what constitutes good beer. While the vast majority of American brewpubs filter their beer, German brewpubs advertise unfiltered Naturtrub (naturally hazy) beer because Germans consumers recognize that unfiltered beer is more natural, fresher, and perhaps healthier. Likewise, Germans would be very skeptical of the trend in American taverns to carry as many as 100 to 200 different beers because there is no way for so much beer to be kept at the peak of fresh.
Germans take national pride in the quality of their beer. They not only talk the talk, but they walk the walk, as demonstrated by the fact that since non-Reinheitsgebot beers were allowed into Germany in 1987, imports have not gained significant market share. Who knows if the Reinheitsgebot has created and protected the quality of German beers or if it is the devotion of the German culture to beer that sustains the authority of the Reinheitsgebot. Even though foreign brewers may dispute the effectiveness of practices that may seem outdated, expensive, impractical and restrictive, few can dispute that German brewers are successful in producing a wide variety of beer styles with a consistently high level of quality that is demonstrated from region to region and brewery to brewery.
Beer and the Reinheitsgebot are integral parts of German culture, and nothing is perhaps more closely associated with Germany than beer, in much the same way that baseball is associated with American culture. Like beer and the Reinheitsgebot, baseball is something ingrained in American culture that has endured from generation to generation. Baseball fans may have seen good ball games that were played at night, in air-conditioned domed stadiums, on artificial turf, by teams wearing powder blue, double-knit uniforms. But if most fans could choose the perfect circumstances to view the national pastime, it would probably be the same way their fathers and grandfathers viewed it: an afternoon game under God’s sunshine, on a manicured field of cool, green grass, in a quaint old ballpark, between teams in white and gray flannel. Perhaps that’s what the Reinheitsgebot represents – an assurance, even as times and brewing methods change, that the critical factors that insured the quality of German beer for half a millenium are protected and preserved for future generations in a manner that differentiates German beer from the rest of the World and makes it uniquely German.
Bayrisches Staatsministerium fuer Ernaerhrung, Wirtschaft und Forsten. Bayrischer Brauerbund Worldwide Website: www.stmelf.bayern.de. 1998.
Weyermann, Thomas Krause-. Interview in Brauwelt. “Special malts for special beers”. Nuernberg: Fachverlag Hans Carl GmbH & Co. KG. Volume 136 (1996), No. 5, pages 213-216.
Dornbusch, Horst D. 1997. Prost: The Story of German Beer. Boulder: Siris Books (a division of Brewers Publications).
Hlatkey, Michael and Reil, Franz. 1995. Bierbrauen fuer Jedermann. Stuttgart: Leopold Stocker Verlag.
Kuhlmann, Manfred. Brauerei-Forum. “Verfahren zur Wasseraufbereitung und Wasserhaertung”. Berlin: VLB. February, 22, 1993. pages 39-41.
Kunze, Wolfgang. 1994. Technologie Brauer und Maelzer. Berlin: VLB.
Warner, Eric. 1992. German Wheat Beer. Boulder: Brewers Publications, a division of the Association of Brewers, Inc.
Vogel, Wolfgang. 1996. Bier aus eigenem Keller. Stuttgart: Eugen Ulmer GmbH & Co.
The following are references from the German regulations controlling the production of beer.
8. Lebensmittelrechtliche Regelungen beim Inverkehrbringen von Bier
8.1 Bundesrepublik Deutschland. Bekanntmachung der Neufassung des Vorlaeufigen Biergesetzes. 29 August 1993. BGBI. I S. 1399.
8.2 Bundesrepublik Deutschland. Bekanntmachung der Neufassung der Verordnung zur Durchfuehrung des Vorlaeufigen Biergesetzes. 29 July 1993. BGBI. I S. 1399.
8.3 Bundesrepublik Deutschland. Bierverordnung. 2 Juli 1990: BGBI. I S. 1332. Geaendert 23 November 1993: BGBI I S. 1912 Geaendert 7 Dezember 1994: BGBI I S. 3743.