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The Reinheitsgebot Beer Purity Law

German Beer Laws

“It is our particular wish, that from henceforth, in our towns and markets and in the countryside, no ingredients other than barley, hops and water alone shall be used for beer.”

With these words, first published on St George’s Day – the traditional ending of the brewing season – in 1516, Bavaria initiated the world’s oldest continuously existing food standards regulation. This is the Reinheitsgebot, the world-renowned Bavarian purity law, which decreed that beer could be brewed only from the most essential ingredients: barley, hops, and water. Yeast was only added to the list as the fourth ingredient much later when its role in the brewing process was fully understood.

Before the discovery of yeast, brewing in medieval Germany was understood to be an almost magical – and certainly divine – process. In Germany, priests would bless the brewing process in order to ensure the good will of God so that the mysterious process of fermentation would take place. This was known as the “Rite of Signage,” for which the priest was paid in … well, more German beer. No-one yet understood that yeast was actually making the magic happen.

In the middle ages, most beer in Germany was brewed in monasteries, but by the mid-1500s that was beginning to change. German commoners and nobles were beginning to get into what was a lucrative business. Beer purity became an increasing issue, because beer was considered to be “liquid bread,” an essential part of daily German diet. In medieval Germany, beer was safer to drink than water. Controlling what went into the brewing process was therefore a public health issue. The authorities in Bavaria also wanted ot encourage the public to use barley for beer rather than wheat, which was necessary for bread. Bavarian law therefore discouraged beer drinkers from brewing wheat beer.

All of this is reflected in Duke Wilhelm IV’s Reinheitsgebot, the Bavarian purity law that became the basis for the later German Purity Law. This is the beginning of the worldwide reputation for excellence that German beer continues to enjoy today. The concept of a Reinheitsgebot actually pre-dates the famous Bavarian Reinheitsgebot of 1516. Various German cities had already passed ordinances regulating the brewing and marketing of beer (Augsburg, Nuremberg, and Munich). The Reinheitsgebot passed in Bavaria in 1516, however, was the first major codified legal regulation, and was later adopted by all of Germany.

The original law of 1516 remained in force right up to the 1980s, when it was struck down by the European Court on competition grounds. Germany had been refusing to import beer from other European countries because the fact that they used other ingredients outwith those permitted in the Reinheitsgebot meant they did not fulfill the terms of the purity law. If it wasn’t German beer, it wasn’t beer at all. Even though the purity law is no longer legally enforceable, however, local brewerys still voluntarily adhere to it.

So raise a glass to 500 years of purity in German beer!