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Craft Brewers Won't Play By Germany's 500-Year-Old Rules

  • On the law's anniversary, some brewers question its relevance
  • The Reinheitsgebot is 'a limitation that should be abolished'

Bavarian brewer Tilman Ludwig has long adhered to Germany’s “Reinheitsgebot,” a rule that allows only four ingredients in beer: water, malt, hops and yeast. As the 500th anniversary of the rule approaches this month, he’s celebrating by breaking the law.

Ludwig’s 3Brew has prepared 300 cases of an ale called “Extra Pure.” Though he made it with the basics called for in the Reinheitsgebot -- the world’s oldest food regulation, which translates as “purity commandment” -- it violates the rule because it also includes ginger, lemon verbena, peppermint and basil.

“There is a chance authorities will ban the sale, but that’s a risk I’m happy to take to make a statement,” says Ludwig, 31. “The Reinheitsgebot is not my enemy; I’m just in favor of more diversity and openness. I want the consumer to decide if a beer is good or bad, and not some public authority.”

Ludwig’s small act of defiance highlights a growing debate over the relevance of the law governing brewing in a place that’s almost synonymous with beer. Germany’s 1,400 breweries produce more of the stuff than any other country in Europe, and Munich’s Oktoberfest draws 6 million visitors every year from all corners of the globe. To mark the anniversary of the Reinheitsgebot, enacted by two Bavarian dukes on April 23, 1516, the German postal service has issued a special stamp and Chancellor Angela Merkel will stop in at a three-day “beer purity” festival in Ingolstadt.

Germany’s biggest breweries say the Reinheitsgebot is a guarantee of quality for the country’s $9 billion beer industry. Yet at a time when craft brewers are winning new customers with raspberry ales and cocoa lagers, a growing number of commentators in newspapers and on television are asking whether the law has outlived its usefulness.

Mythic Importance

The Reinheitsgebot was created mainly to prevent supplies of wheat and rye from being diverted to brewing from bread-making, and to defend Bavarian beer against northern German competition, says Gunther Hirschfelder, a professor at the University of Regensburg who studies the history of beer. Over the years, the ingredient list has changed somewhat, he says; Early on, coriander was allowed, for instance, while yeast wasn’t yet part of the mix.

Since the turn of the 20th century, the law has been interpreted more strictly, and after World War I it was invoked to “protect German brewers against very progressive English competitors,” Hirschfelder says. “Today, it’s a marketing tool” that has been imbued with an almost mythic importance.

The Reinheitsgebot rule allows only four ingredients in beer: water, malt, hops and yeast.
The Reinheitsgebot rule allows only four ingredients in beer: water, malt, hops and yeast.
Source: Getty Images

The German Brewers Association -- a group that represents everyone from microbreweries all the way up to global giants such as Anheuser-Busch InBev, which owns the German Becks brand -- says the Reinheitsgebot doesn’t hinder creativity. The dozens of different kinds of malt, hops and yeast allow for more than a million possible variants, the group says. Moreover, the law sets German beers apart by prohibiting ingredients such as sugar, food coloring or artificial aroma.

The law “is and will remain the key quality feature of German beer,” says Hans-Georg Eils, president of the industry group.

Creative Workaround

The law, though, is applied inconsistently at best. Foreign brewers can make beer outside Germany with other ingredients and face no penalties when they import it. And for those who want to get more creative, there’s an easy workaround: In most states, it’s not hard to get a license to add extras and call the product “special beer” as long as the brewer makes no claims of purity under the Reinheitsgebot. Though anyone breaking the law theoretically risks a year in jail and a fine of 20,000 euros, the German Brewers Association said it can’t recall any prosecutions.

Craft beer is sweeping Germany in much the way it has the U.S. The number of micro-breweries has increased by 37 percent in the past decade to 717 last year, according to the Brewers’ Association. While their output represents less than 1 percent of Germany’s total beer production, the industry’s giants are seizing the trend with craft-like brews and fruity offerings called “beer mixed drinks.”

That said, beer consumption in the country has been declining for decades. Germans drank an average of 107 liters in 2014, down from 142 liters in 1992, the Bavarian Brewers Association says. The rebels say a more liberal interpretation of what defines the drink we call beer would help stem that decline. 

With so many micro-breweries creating innovative new products, they say, it’s time the law be adapted to the realities of 21st-century brewing. While few call for an outright revocation of the Reinheitsgebot, they want to be able to choose whether to follow the rules, with those who do given the right to use a special logo on their labels.

“The purity law is not an advantage, but a limitation that should be abolished,” says Sebastian Sauer, a brewer based near Cologne who exports most of his beer. “Of course you have a lot of possible combinations under the law, but many are so similar that you can’t taste the difference. So why restrict yourself? Putting natural spices or fruits into beer doesn’t make it bad.”

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