The Reinheitsgebot as a Guarantee of Quality
Beer enthusiasts both in Germany and abroad are united in their appreciation for the term Reinheitsgebot. It is understood as a quality guarantee. Adopted in 1516, it is recorded as the oldest, currently valid consumer protection law in the world. Prior to becoming the law of the land in the Middle Ages, some very dubious ingredients were regularly mixed into beer, such as henbane, thorn-apple, wood shavings, roots, soot or even pitch. It didn't really matter, as long as the appearance, flavor and the intoxicating effects were convincing enough. At times, serious blunders were also made in the selection of some of the more intensely aromatic and flavorful additives. If a brewer miscalculated with some of these ingredients, at the very least, his guest might have been overcome by malaise; at worst, the sip of beer would become his last. To be sure, such practices encouraged the development of a law protecting consumers. Such a law also, by its very nature, eliminated brewers who never really took their craft very seriously, allowing those who did to flourish by brewing beer to the best of their knowledge and intentions.
The decree known today as the Reinheitsgebot was issued in 1516 in the city of Ingolstadt in Bavaria. It represented the culmination of decades of legal development. For the respective authorities and the other parties involved, of greatest significance was to effect positive change in the quality of the beer produced at that time, because it was a principle source of nutrition in the general population's diet. The original version stipulated that beer was only to be brewed using water, malt and hops. Because yeast was not known as such in the 16th century and therefore its exact role in the brewing process had not yet discovered, it was not initially viewed as an ingredient, but was explicitly added at a later date.
On April 23rd 1516, the Bavarian Duke Wilhelm IV, along with his brother Duke Ludwig X, issued a decree, now referred to as the Reinheitsgebot, which pertained to certain details of beer production. Originally, three objectives concerning health and safety constituted the core of the document:
First, safeguards for the citizenry against exorbitant beer prices were written into the law. Second, utilizing wheat as a brewing grain was prohibited, because it served as a vital source of nutrition for the general populace in the form of bread. Third, ingredients, which may impart rich flavors or even intoxicating or hallucinogenic effects were banned, because they were viewed as inferior to hops and malt and were often, in fact, toxic. Unfortunately, prior to the purity law, there were those who adulterated their brews with poisonous ingredients like thorn-apple, soot or deadly nightshade.
Protecting the citizenry against toxic ingredients or those otherwise detrimental to their health was a central theme which had already appeared in older, provincial laws governing production (e.g. Augsburg 1156, Nuremberg 1293, Weimar 1348, Weißensee/Thuringia 1434, Munich 1363).
As the Bavarian rulers extended their sphere of influence, the Reinheitsgebot of 1516 took on a greater significance for brewing in other regions. Convinced by the quality of Bavarian beers, which were brewed according to the purity law, other provinces (Baden 1896, Württemberg 1900) later stipulated that their brewers comply with the Reinheitsgebot. The purity law became mandatory for the Norddeutsche Biersteuergemeinschaft (Northern German Society for Payers of Tax on Beer) by the Imperial Act of June 7th 1906 and therefore for all of Germany. It has been valid across the land ever since.
German beers produced using regionally distinctive brewing practices are now safeguarded by the European Union as part of the "culinary heritage of Europe" and are known officially as a "protected geographical indication" (PGI), and among them are Bavarian beer, Bremer beer, kölsch and Munich beer. Each of these beers is unique to their respective regions but their production methods owe much to the fundamental practices outlined in the Reinheitsgebot. These beers echo the craftsmen’s techniques developed over centuries by the brewers in each region – inimitable variety well worth preserving. Moreover, the EU has the awarded German beer, brewed according to the Reinheitsgebot, special status as a protected "traditional foodstuff". Since 1994, this significant milestone has been celebrated every year on April 23rd as the Day of German Beer.
Since 1987, as a result of a lawsuit brought to the European Court of Justice, beers brewed outside of Germany not in accordance with the Reinheitsgebot may be offered for sale within the country. However, German breweries are still required to brew according to the purity law, that is, only using the four natural ingredients of water, malt, hops and yeast.
Historical Antecedents of Today's Reinheitsgebot
Early precepts regulating the quality and price of beer had already, for example, been adopted in 1156 in Augsburg, in 1293 in Nuremberg, in 1363 in Munich and in 1447 in Regensburg. In the second half of the 15th century and the early 16th century, regulations concerning beer pricing and production began to appear in a number of regions. Concrete specifications regarding raw materials were stipulated for the city of Munich on November 30th 1487 by Duke Albrecht IV ("the Wise"). He decreed that the only ingredients allowed in beer production were water, malt and hops. However, the duke’s pronouncement only applied to Munich. The immediate forerunner of the Reinheitsgebot of 1516 was written into law in Landshut in 1493 in the Duchy of Lower Bavaria, which was under the rule of Duke George ("the Rich") at the time. He passed the so-called Biersatzordnung, a law that limited the production of beer to the raw materials of malt, hops and water. All of these official pronouncements clearly demonstrate the essential role that beer played in the culture at that time and continues to occupy today, and likewise since medieval times, it has been deemed as worthy of official protection.