German Brewers Seek UN Status for Beer Purity Law

Photograph by Uli Wiesmeier/Corbis

They may be drinking less of it these days, but Germans still take their beer very seriously. On Monday, the Association of German Breweries announced it wants the country’s 500-year-old purity law, or Reinheitsgebot, included on the UNESCO World Heritage List, alongside Egypt’s pyramids and Greece’s Acropolis.

“Germany owes its unchallenged reputation as a brewing nation to the Reinheitsgebot,” said Hans-Georg Eils, president of the association, in a statement. “It guarantees the purity, quality, and digestibility of beers.”

Conceived in 1516, the Reinheitsgebot initially served to protect drinkers from beer made with subpar or even hazardous and hallucinogenic ingredients. It dictates that authentic German beer contain only four ingredients: Water, malt, hops, and yeast. (The dictum, which initially applied only in Bavaria, became national law in 1906.)

The German government must approve the brewery coalition’s application before it can be submitted for inclusion on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. If accepted, the Reinheitsgebot will join the ranks of several other intangible national treasures, including the Argentine tango, French timber framing, and Turkey’s Kirkpinar oil-wrestling festival.

Germany’s 1,300 breweries produce more than 40 types of beer and represent about 5,000 brands. The brewery association’s UNESCO bid comes as the country’s beer producers confront several hardships. In recent decades, the number of brewers has dropped by roughly one half, according to Slate. The Germans even coined a new word to describe the phenomenon: Brauereisterben, which literally means “brewery death.” Meanwhile, some small German farmers who’ve long made a living growing high-quality hops are suffering from falling demand after beverage giant AB InBev (the Belgian company is not required to adhere to the Reinheitsgebot) altered its recipes to cut costs. In August, news also broke that Germany’s government is investigating several top brewers for alleged price-fixing.

The push for UNESCO beer status may help attract positive attention to German beer. No matter the outcome, breweries will have to keep fighting for purity on other fronts. Earlier this year, for example, the association called on Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government to block the tapping of shale gas by hydraulic fracturing. “We are concerned that fracking endangers the brewing water that more than half of Germany’s breweries take from private wells,” a spokesman told Bloomberg in May. “And that it threatens our absolutely pure beer.”

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.