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Off Topic: Is the German Beer Purity Law Still Useful?

by Oliver Klimek on April 10, 2010

If you are only here for the whisky, please forgive me for digressing a little. I promise you that off topic articles like this one will be a very rare treat on this blog. But beer and whisky are quite closely related as we know, and most whisky lovers enjoy also enjoy a nice beer once in a while. So I think this might actually of interest to some of you.

I keep reading so many reports and reviews about interesting speciality beers from whisky and/or beer bloggers, but seemingly all are from countries other than my own. Just why is this so?

I am from Germany which is one of the biggest beer producing and consuming nations with a very long brewing tradition. One thing German brewers are particularily proud of is their Beer Purity Law (Reinheitsgebot) which in its oldest manifestation from 1516 stated that beer must be made only from water, malt and hops. Having undergone many modifications, it is now incorporated into the German Beer Law that allows some deviations from the old rule under certain well-defined cirumstances.

From Historical Need to Marketing Gag

A brief look at the history of German beer shows us that in medieval times beer was made from just about any crop that was available. And furthermore it was spiced up by all kinds of herbs an roots an whatnots, often even with psychoactive substances like fly agaric. They sure new back then how to enhance their drinking experience.

But obviously this practice also had its downsides, and this was the very reason why purity laws were instated.

  1. Because of the many famines in that time the crop used for brewing beer should be restricted to barley only.
  2. To avoid the toxic effects of some addtional ingredients, the only additive allowed was hops which helped that the beer kept well for a longer time.

In modern times these understandable regulations have become more a marketing issue than real necessities. Famines in Euroe are a thing of the past, and the physiological effects of any additives are known very well to make a general ban unnecessary.

But still German brewers and politicians defend the law, basically regarding any beer not made according to the purity law as adulterated. Only German beer is pure beer and therefore it must be the best beer in the world.

Of course there are are additives and additives. I honestly don’t want articifial foam regulators, colouring or preservatives in my beer. But why it should be a bad thing to flavour beer with natural non-toxic ingredients is beyond my scope of imagination. Or take the Belgian trappist beers that are made with additional sugar. Is this adultery or a century-old tradition?

Don’t get me wrong here. I love German beer as it is. Many German beers are of very high quality (not all of them, mind you). But the bandwith of German beer is not very wide compared to other great beer nations. And it seems to be getting narrower all the time, converging to a generic standard Pilsner that tastes the same from Flensburg to the Black Forest.

A notable exception that has to mentioned is Bavaria that has managed to defend their own beer tradition against the tsunami waves of Premium-Pils breaking at the Weisswurst-Äquator. And there are of course some regional spciality beers all over Germany. Also many micro breweries have popped up in recent years, but again with a rather limited choice of “more of the same”.

But Bad Marketing it is!

Beer sales in Germany have been continuously in decline for years. As a remedy, German brewers have tried to embrace the Zeitgeist by pushing beer mix drinks and other alcopops onto the market, but this has not been very successful. But there is not much else they can do because of the restrictions imposed by the purity law.

We Need a New Beer Law

So why not do a little brainstorming and think of a way how beer quality can be preseved while broadening the scope of possibilies for brewing.

I would strongly suggest a kind of reglulation that uses a comprehensive whitelist of natural ingredients that can be used for brewing. Any artificial additives should of course remain to be banned. And as long as all ingredients are listed on the label, I see no acceptance problems in the German public. There could still be the option to specially mark beers brewed according to the purity law for those who wish to stick with them. But penalizing beers with other ingredients should be a thing of the past.


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