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May 12 2021

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Reinheitsgebot: Bavarian Beer Laws

There are more than 8200 craft breweries in the United States. But it is a strange irony of the history of beer that, in sixteenth century Bavaria, the flavorful adulterations of brew common in craft brews were banned in a proclamation that still affects the industry today. The 1516 Reinheitsgebot, or “beer purity law,” deserves to be remembered.

If you ever get to Germany in late September, the Oktoberfest in Munich is an absolute must. There are huge tents with music, singing, dancing, food (the bratworst is awesome), and yes beer, some of the best you’ll ever have. Trust me, ther German beers will spoil you for what passes for beer here in the US.

The Reinheitsgebot (German pronunciation: [ˈʁaɪnhaɪtsɡəboːt] (About this soundlisten), literally “purity order”) is a series of regulations limiting the ingredients in beer in Germany and the states of the former Holy Roman Empire. The best known version of the law was adopted in Bavaria in 1516, but similar regulations predate the Bavarian order, and modern regulations also significantly differ from the 1516 Bavarian version.

The most influential predecessor of the modern Reinheitsgebot was a law first adopted in the duchy of Munich in 1487. After Bavaria was reunited, the Munich law was adopted across the entirety of Bavaria on 23 April 1516. As Germany unified, Bavaria pushed for adoption of this law on a national basis (see Broader adoption).

According to the 1516 Bavarian law, the only ingredients that could be used in the production of beer were water, barley and hops. The text does not mention yeast as an ingredient, although yeast was at the time knowingly used in the brewing process. It is likely that brewers of the time preferred to see yeast as a fixture of the brewing process. Yeast produced in one batch was commonly transferred to a subsequent batch, thus giving yeast a more permanent character in the brewing process. A full understanding of chemical basis of yeast and the fermentation process did not come until much later.

The 1516 Bavarian law set the price of beer (depending on the time of year and type of beer), limited the profits made by innkeepers, and made confiscation the penalty for making impure beer.

The Bavarian order of 1516 was introduced in part to prevent price competition with bakers for wheat and rye. The restriction of grains to barley was meant to ensure the availability of affordable bread, as wheat and rye were reserved for use by bakers. The rule may have also had a protectionist role, as beers from Northern Germany often contained additives that were not present in Bavarian beer.

Religious conservatism may have also played a role in adoption of the rule in Bavaria, to suppress the use of plants that were allegedly used in pagan rituals, such as gruit, henbane, belladonna, or wormwood. The rule also excluded problematic methods of preserving beer, such as soot, stinging nettle and henbane.

While some sources refer to the Bavarian law of 1516 as the first law regulating food safety, this is inaccurate, as earlier food safety regulations can be traced back as far as ancient Rome. Similarly, some sources claim that the law has been essentially unchanged since its adoption, but as early as the mid-1500s Bavaria began to allow ingredients such as coriander, bay leaf, and wheat. Yeast was also added to modern versions of the law after the discovery of its role in fermentation.

The Reinheitsgebot remains the most famous law that regulates the brewing of beer, and continues to influence brewing not only in Germany, but around the world.

Modern versions of the law have contained significant exceptions for different types of beer (such as top-fermented beers), for export beers, and for different regions. The basic law now declares that only malted grains, hops, water and yeast are permitted.

In response to the growth of craft breweries globally, some commentators, German brewers, and even German politicians have argued that the Reinheitsgebot has slowed Germany’s adoption of beer trends popular in the rest of the world, such as Belgian lambics and American craft styles. In late 2015, Bavarian brewers voted in favor of a revision to the beer laws to allow other natural ingredients.

TMC for ek hornbeck