Hop-Ed: Deciphering The Reinheitsgebot

Four of Weihenstephaner's core beers, each brewed under the German Purity Law of 1516. Photo by Alex Wilking.
Written by Alex Wilking

By Alex Wilking
BU News Service

This past Saturday marked the 500th anniversary of The Reinheitsgebot, an archaic beer law clouded with mystery and too many syllables.

Often just referred to as the German Beer Purity Law of 1516, this declaration states that beer can only contain four ingredients — water, barely, yeast, and hops. This isn’t really practiced anywhere in the world but Germany, especially Bavaria, but they take it seriously over there. Beers brewed under these regulations are surprisingly complex given the lack of adjuncts, and they’re easy to find. A few notable breweries still brewing under the purity law are Weihenstephaner and Hofbraeu. Weihenstephaner even released a new beer called “1516” this month to commemorate the anniversary,  which I had the pleasure of drinking on draft the other night (it was crisp and super rad).

Many breweries in Germany are forced to brew this way, too. According to Bloghaus, the German Purity Law grants courts the right to confiscate barrels of beer that don’t adhere to the law.

IMG_3724But from what I’ve observed, most Germans are proud of this system. The law gives all German beers a consistency and benchmark to strive for. It instills a pride in German brewers as their beers are distributed throughout the world. A consumer can see the label and know to expect nothing short of quality under that bottle cap. After all, the law was originally enacted to ensure no one was cutting corners in their beer production.

For such a strict law, there are a surprising number of beer styles that fit the bill too — Weizenbocks, lagers, and pilsners to name a couple.

But the rest of the world has started to depict these “pure” beers as trendy and lacking creativity. Some of Germany’s top breweries have admitted that labeling their beers as being brewed under these sanctions has increased sales overseas and created a sort of desirability around them. Many also argue that the purity law has suppressed European beers from achieving the barrel-aged-strawberry-spiced-grapefruit-pineapple-coffee nonsense the rest of the world makes.

“There are small breweries and craft beer producers who would like to experiment, to embark on more daring creations,” Stefan Hempl, a spokesman for Hofbraeu Munich, told Yahoo! News. Thanks to the rules, these more experimental brews have to be called “mixed beer beverages.”

If that’s not depressing enough, The Reinheitsgebot’s integrity has been under a lot of scrutiny this year. In late February, an environmental group in Germany found traces of weed killer (Glyphosate) in 14 different beers brewed under the purity law. There’s no need to panic — the study found that someone would have to drink about 264 U.S. gallons of the beer each day to see adverse effects — but it still raises questions as to the actual purity of the purity law.

Of course, breweries were quick to raise their voices against these findings, citing that the sample sizes weren’t big enough to yield any concrete evidence. Becks, Hasseroeder, and Erdinger were three German beers largely cited for containing Glyphosate, and all of them refute the results.

So should we continue to stand by The Reinheitsgebot? I say yes. At face value, it may seem like a novelty, or a marketing tool to dupe dull Americans into buying one-dimensional beer. But I love that The Reinheitsgebot remains the same authoritative force it’s been all these years. It guarantees a fantastic drinking experience, coupled with a dose of historical depth. The law carved Germany’s place in the world’s beer industry over the past 500 years, and we should embrace that in our own brewing community. Cheers to another 500 years of pure, German beer.

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