Reinheitsgebot: German beer traditions

Photo by Markus Spiske
Photo by Markus Spiske

Reinheitsgebot: German beer traditions

by Stacy Roman
Stripes Europe

Brewing beer is an art form that has taken shape over the last couple of millennia. In Germany, beer is not just a beverage but also a part of its cultural identity. Known for simple ingredients and traditional flavor, many German brewers adhere to Reinheitsgebot, also known as the German beer purity law.

What is Reinheitsgebot?

In medieval times, the process of brewing the robust beverage was significantly different than it is now. Rather than the sterile, stainless steel tanks used today, beer was brewed in large open-air wooden pots. Many unsavory brewers would add shady ingredients to use as fillers and to keep costs down. These unscrupulous practices often led to consumers getting sick…or worse.

Signed into law in 1516 by Duke Wilhelm IV and Duke Ludwig X in Bavaria, Reinheitsgebot was enacted to help the government regulate the beer-making process. The law gave the state the ability to limit ingredients, ensure quality for consumers, and of course, tax the end product. This legislation initially stated that German brewers could only use water, hops and barley to create beer. Yeast was added to the list of ingredients at the beginning of the 20th century.

For more than four centuries, Reinheitsgebot remained the standard for German beer. Because international brewers didn’t necessarily follow Reinheitsgebot, it was exceedingly difficult to break into the German market. In 1987, the EU Court of Justice struck down the traditionalist law in response to French brewers’ complaints. This cleared the path for imported beer to find its way onto German shelves.

German brewers continued to follow the Reinheitsgebot rules as tradition and as a way to differentiate their beers from their international counterparts. At Oktoberfest in Munich, only six local breweries are allowed to serve beer, all of which follow the traditional law: Augustiner, Hacker Pschorr, Hofbräu, Löwenbräu, Paulaner and Spaten.

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