Sadly, Oktoberfest is over, but I realized that we talk a lot about the Reinheitsgebot, aka the German Beer Purity Law, but we’ve never talked about what it means.
In short, it means that only four ingredients are allowed when brewing beer: water, malt, yeast and hops.
The purpose of the Purity Law was threefold: to guarantee quality, to guarantee price and ensure that wheat and rye crops that were used for making bread and not beer, as otherwise the price of bread would have skyrocketed.
In the Middle Ages, Northern Germany had a great reputation with their beer, as their beer guilds had strict control over the brewing process and they were backed up by city law. However, in Southern Germany and in other countries the cost varied widely, as did the ingredients used to brew beer. Much like some of our macro brewers today, many brewers of the time chose to go the cheaper route with their ingredients, which not only produced a wide range of taste, but also intoxicating effects; some combinations were also so dangerous that people got sick.
Reinheitsgebot was put into effect on April 23rd, 1516, but attempts at beer manufacturing laws stretch back all the way to 1156, when Ausburg passed a similar one. Nuremberg also passed one in 1293, Munich in 1363 and Regensburg in 1447. However, it was Duke Albrecht IV of Munich that declared on November 30, 1487 that only three ingredients should be used for beer: water, malt and hops. Yeast was added centuries later when scientists discovered its value in fermentation. Note, however, that these laws applied only to their city or region, not to the entire country.
After Bavaria was reunited, a meeting was held in April of 1516, in Ingolstadt, Bavaria with nobility, representatives from the city and members of the Church. On April 23rd, Duke Wilhelm IV proclaimed the law and it became the first purity law to be applied across an entire German kingdom. The nobility was stronger in Southern Germany and their influence and control allowed Reinheitsgebot to take effect quickly across their principalities, though they faced resistance for decades and decades outside of Bavaria; the Purity Law didn’t take effect in Northern Germany until 1906.
In 1871, when Bavaria joined Prussia to form the German Empire, they insisted that they would not join unless Reinheitsgebot were the law of the land. They began taxing the use of any other ingredients, and thus many of the traditions and recipes of Northern Germany began to go extinct.
When World War I ended and the Weimar Republic was founded, Bavaria again refused to join unless Reinheitsgebot was made law everywhere and then in 1952, it was written into the beer tax laws.
In 1987 the laws were weakened when a European Union court forced Germany to change the law in regards to imported beer, as it was seen as protectionism and a barrier to free trade. In 1993, the laws were changed so that they only applied to bottom-fermented beers, and also included the use of ground hops or hops extracts and stabilization agents. And in 2005 the law was weakened again when a court ruled that more ingredients could be used, as long as it’s not labeled, “beer.”
Though the law is no longer on the books as it once was, there are still brewers that adhere to the standard today. Many brewers still have a strident belief and pride in it, while naturally others are just looking for a marketing angle; I’ll let you figure out who’s who.
Sources: Brewery.org, About.com, NPR