Melissa Cole calls out Germany’s famous brewing ‘purity law’


The obsession with the Reinheitsgebot is something I’ve never, ever understood.

Yep, I know, dangerous territory here but let me set out why it’s such a red herring, bust some of the myths around it and make clear what is, and isn’t, allowed under the so-called ‘Purity Law’ and why.

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Firstly, let’s bust one of the most pervasive myths about it: it was not, by any stretch of the imagination, the first law to protect food and drink production.

There are references to food protection laws and edicts in ancient Greek, Chinese, Hindu and Roman writings and, if you think about it, we are probably all aware of food safety ‘laws’ handed down in various religious texts, the Old Testament being a clear example.

And, when it comes to booze, we’ve always been pretty keen to make sure that our supply is alright, a notable reference being in Cato the Elder’s De Agriculture, where he hands down some wisdom on spotting watered down wine.

Second, it’s worth noting that no-one in the world, including the beer makers of 14th century Germany, brews to the original Reinheitsgebot of 1516, because it didn’t include any mention of yeast, stating clearly that “the only ingredients used for the brewing of beer must be Barley, Hops and Water”.

Sure, there was a dearth of microbiology and microscopes in those days, but anyone claiming to brew to the original law is probably someone whose beers you want to avoid if you’re looking to get a buzz on. Related to this, the idea that adjuncts weren’t allowed is also false; as early as the mid-1500s, the law was evolving to allow bay leaf and coriander, although that would wax and wane over the centuries.

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Next up is some of the ‘why’, and it’s almost certainly a lot to do with religious conservatism, and wanting to forbid the production of beers with ingredients known for their use in ‘pagan’ rituals. For example, it’s recorded that one of the traditions to be stamped out was the use of fly agaric mushrooms in the brewing process. I don’t know about you, but I was always told not to eat ‘the red ones’ particularly after reading Alice in Wonderland for the first time because, while there are very few recorded human deaths from eating these mushrooms, they are pretty toxic.

However, par-boiling breaks down the toxicity of the mushroom and releases its psychoactive properties (don’t try this at home kids) and the use of these mushrooms is widely documented in societies as far back as the Bronze age. From Siberia to Mexico, many compelling arguments have been made that the easily-identifiable, red-capped Amanita muscaria fungus has played a key role in the foundation of all the world’s religions, but this is more than a little controversial so I shall leave that there.

The next part of the ‘why’ element of the whole equation is that, in essence, the Reinheitsgebot is more of a bread law than a beer law. It was originally designed to preserve the use of grains for food, thus preventing grains like rye and wheat being used in beer instead of bread. It’s also worth noting that, while this applied to the hoi polloi, it did not apply to the nobility, which continued to brew with wheat, although lost interest in doing so in the mid-1800s. It was only through the tenacity of George Schneider, who believed wheat beer to be incredibly important, that the right to brew with ‘alternative’ grains moved to the masses.

But, that’s enough of history, let me bring you up to date on what the Reinheitsgebot means today. Essentially, it’s a set of out-dated handcuffs for brewing creativity and does absolutely nothing to protect the consumer, and never has.

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The very idea that this is some sort of guardian angel for the people drinking the beer is, at best, a result of that religious puritanism I mentioned earlier. There is nothing in the law requiring, for example, a lager to actually lager and mature in the brewery. Not a jot is mentioned about spoilage or how there have to be strict controls on the quality of the beer. It’s also rarely advertised that finings, stabilising agents and artificial sweeteners are allowed. And, as long as it’s not being sold in Germany, brewers can do whatever they like.

However – and to go back to why I believe this is a form of terrible restraint for the craft brewing community within the German borders – if you want to add, say, some citrus peel or maybe even a few peppercorns to your brew, you can kiss goodbye to calling it beer.

And this is why I believe the Reinheitsgebot is, at best (in the immortal words of beer historian Ron Pattinson) ‘a load of old bollocks’. Because, I don’t know about you, but I’d rather have a peck of pepper in my beer than some unknown artificial sweetener any day.

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