this weekGood Libations

April 14, 2005

The Bavarian Purity Law

Beer and tradition

When guests come to our home, we offer them something to drink. We typically have a rather wide range of beverages available—water, milk, coffee, tea, fruit juices, soft drinks, wine, spirits, and perhaps even some Tang—in other words, something for pretty much everyone. I used to tell people, “Whatever you might want to drink, we probably have it,” but this invariably resulted in requests for either beer, which we seldom have in the house, or decaffeinated coffee, which we never, ever have. (We do have to maintain some standards, after all.) It’s not that we have anything against beer, it’s just that we habitually think of it as the type of thing one enjoys in a restaurant or pub rather than at home. I do, however, believe that if you’re going to drink beer, it ought to be a good beer, one made with some care and exhibiting a bit of character. Insipid, generic beers that are consumed by the six-pack with no more thought than cola are not, in my humble opinion, worth drinking.

Several years ago, Morgen and I visited Germany—more specifically, the region in southeastern Germany known as Bavaria. Although Germany ranks third in per-capita beer consumption (after the Czech Republic and Ireland), it is clearly a place where people take their beer very seriously. Bavaria, in particular, is home to the oldest (non-religious) legal standard of food production still in force: The legendary Bavarian Purity Law of 1516, known in German as the Reinheitsgebot.

The Duke of Beers
The short version of this law, which was enacted on April 23, 1516 by Bavarian Duke Wilhelm IV (a.k.a. William IV), is that beer may contain only three ingredients: barley, hops, and water. Ostensibly, this makes the law one of the oldest “consumer protection” regulations, instilling confidence in purchasers that the beer they get will contain no questionable grains or additives. (Among the additives the law sought to ban were some commonly used herbs that had hallucinogenic effects.) But in fact, the bit about beer ingredients was simply one sentence in a much longer ordinance that primarily specified beer pricing regulations. The intention of the law was not only to ensure the quality of the beer and control pricing, but also to guarantee that more valuable grains such as wheat and rye, which were needed for bread and often in short supply, were not used for beermaking. This was not actually the first law of its kind, either—similar ordinances date back as far as 1165—but it was the first to apply to all of Bavaria, and the oldest such regulation still in force today.

Astute observers will note that yeast is not among the three ingredients listed—and without yeast, beer could not ferment. In the 16th century, the existence of microorganisms was still unknown, and beer was sometimes made simply by allowing the ingredients to sit out until some airborne yeast found its way into the vat and fermentation began on its own. Other times, sediment from an earlier batch was used as a starter—but this was not thought of as a separate “ingredient.”

The Yeast You Can Do
During the 20th century, the Reinheitsgebot underwent some significant changes. For one thing, yeast was officially added to the list of allowable ingredients. For another, a distinction was made between beers brewed with “top-fermenting” yeasts and those brewed with “bottom-fermenting” yeasts. For bottom-fermenting beers, only malted (that is, sprouted) barley is permitted; for top-fermenting beers, any malted grain (such as wheat) can be used, as can sugar. There are also a number of exceptions and variations in the law that can be applied under certain circumstances. In some cases you can manufacture a “special” beer that colors outside the lines slightly as long as you clearly identify it as such, and of course you can put anything you want in your beer as long as you don’t actually call it “beer.”

Critics have pointed out that one can follow the Bavarian Purity Law and still produce very bad beer (for example, using poor-quality ingredients or sloppy technique)—and that, conversely, many excellent beers (including some well-known Irish and Belgian varieties) do not and could not conform to this law. (European Union rules, by the way, now stipulate that the Reinheitsgebot can only apply to beers brewed inside Germany, not to imports.) So in a way, what the regulations enforce is “purity” in the sense of values traditional to the region, rather than the absence of contaminants or a guarantee of quality.

German beers that conform to the Bavarian Purity Law get to advertise this fact on their labels, and it’s popularly believed to have a great deal of marketing appeal. So much so, in fact, that the principles have been adopted by beermakers in many other countries as well, right down to local microbreweries in the U.S. and Canada. I must admit that, despite having my own high standards for beer, at this point I think the Bavarian Purity Law is anachronistic and more than a bit gimmicky. Or at least, I did until I discovered that Anheuser-Busch is now selling a beer with caffeine, guarana, and ginseng (not to mention fruit flavors). That is a prime example of a beverage that, whatever its merits may be (and I can barely imagine), should not be permitted to call itself beer. —Joe Kissell

More Information about The Bavarian Purity Law…

To read an English translation of the original 1516 Bavarian Purity Law, see The Brewery.

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