On April 23, 2016, breweries all over Germany and particularly in the Free State of Bavaria will celebrate the 500 year anniversary of the enactment of the Bavarian Reinheitsgebot (beer purity law); a regulation that mandates which ingredients are allowed for the brewing of beer. The Reinheitsgebot is one of the oldest food regulations in the world that is still in effect and it has played a crucial role in establishing German beer’s worldwide reputation for taste and quality. In part because of the rising popularity of craft brewing, this centuries-old law is still being discussed today.
In 1516, the Dukes of Bavaria, the brothers Wilhelm IV and Ludwig X, decreed a new general ordinance for all of Bavaria at a meeting of the Estates of Bavaria. The section of the ordinance titled “Wie das Bier Sommer und Winter auf dem Land soll geschenkt und gebraut werden” (How beer shall be served and brewed in summer and winter in the countryside) stipulated that only barley, hops, and water could be used to brew beer. This came to be known as the “Bavarian Reinheitsgebot”. Yeast was not yet used for fermentation and therefore was not added to the list of allowed ingredients until 1906.
The rationale behind the enactment of the Reinheitsgebot is not quite clear. Different theories are discussed, among them the effort to prevent competition for grains that were used for bread making in order to keep the price of food down, or the preservation of public health by making the brew less diluted.
The original German text of the Bavarian Reinheitsgebot is as follows:
Ganz besonders wollen wir, dass forthin allenthalben in unseren Städten, Märkten und auf dem Lande zu keinem Bier mehr Stücke als allein Gersten, Hopfen und Wasser verwendet und gebraucht werden sollen.
Wer diese unsere Anordnung wissentlich übertritt und nicht einhält, dem soll von seiner Gerichtsobrigkeit zur Strafe dieses Fass Bier, so oft es vorkommt, unnachsichtig weggenommen werden.
In particular we decree that henceforth, in our towns, markets, and in the countryside, nothing but barley, hops, and water shall be used to brew beer.
Anyone who knowingly violates this decree shall be punished by the court by having each of these beer barrels removed from his possession.
Official Law in the German Empire and the Federal Republic of Germany
Over the years, more and more kingdoms, states, and regions in Germany adopted the Bavarian rule, but it was not until 1906 that the Reinheitsgebot was applied to all of Germany. In 1906, the German Empire enacted the Gesetz wegen Änderung des Brausteuergesetzes (Act to Amend the Beer Brewing Tax Act) which in section 1, paragraph 1 listed the ingredients that were allowed for the production of beer. The provision set different standards for top-fermented and bottom-fermented beers.
For bottom-fermented beers, only malted barley, hops, yeast, and water were permissible. For top-fermented beers on the other hand, the Act allowed other malts besides malted barley, technically pure cane sugar, beet sugar, invert sugar, and starch sugar, as well as glucose and colorants made from the aforementioned sugars. Furthermore, according to section 2, paragraph 2, derogations could be granted for the manufacture of “specialty beers” and beer intended for export only. “Specialty beers” are beers for which additional ingredients besides the ones mentioned in paragraph 1 are necessary. The additional ingredients are not substituted for the basic ingredients in the brewing process but added at a later point in order to give the beer a particular flavor.
The Act was amended numerous times over the years, but the list of permissible ingredients remained unchanged. The current version of the German Reinheitsgebot is codified in section 9, paragraphs 1 & 2 of the Vorläufiges Biergesetz (Provisional Beer Act). The Beer Ordinance provides in section 1 that only products that adhere to the standards laid down in section 9 of the Provisional Beer Act may be sold as “beer”. Paragraph 2 of the provision clarifies that products from another EU member state which contain additives not listed in the Reinheitsgebot may be imported and sold as “beer” in Germany if the products have been properly authorized in the member state in question.
Stricter Standards for Bavaria
One of Bavaria’s conditions for joining the German Empire in 1871 and the Weimar Republic in 1919 was that the stricter Bavarian Reinheitsgebot would not be superseded by the German Reinheitsgebot. Accordingly, the use of sugars, glucose, and colorants was not allowed in Bavaria even for top-fermented beers. (Act by which the Free State of Bavaria and Baden Joined the Beer Tax Community of the Weimar Republic in 1919, § 2, para. 2)
Even after the establishment of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1949, the stricter standard for Bavarian beer remained in place. (1983 GVBl. Bayern at 1013, annex at 117).
Ruling of the Imperial Court of Justice of the German Empire (Reichsgericht)
Despite Bavaria’s insistence on its stricter Reinheitsgebot, in 1893, the Bavarian Higher Regional Court of Nürnberg acquitted a brewer who was charged with selling spoiled beer. During the brewing process, the brewer had dropped a cat into the mash tun which was killed and almost completely dissolved. The Bavarian court stated that it was legally irrelevant that the consumption of such beer might cause disgust.
On appeal, the Reichsgericht (Imperial Court of Justice) reversed the Bavarian court’s ruling and held that the beer was spoiled. (23 Entscheidungen des Reichsgerichts 409). It stated that the lower court could determine what constituted spoiled beer only if it defined normal beer, and that it should have inquired whether cat residue is a normal ingredient in beer. It sarcastically questioned why the lower court cited testimony from an expert witness who claimed that the boiling of animals such as rats and mice was commonplace and unavoidable if it did not mean to suggest that animals are usual ingredients of beer.
Fortunately for beer lovers, dissolved animals did not become a standard beer ingredient.
European Court of Justice Ruling
In 1984, the European Commission sued Germany in the European Court of Justice (CJEU) because of the application of the Reinheitsgebot to beers imported from other member states. The CJEU held in 1987 that the German law provisions prohibiting the import of beers that do not conform to the Reinheitsgebot constituted a barrier to the free movement of goods according to Article 30 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU). Furthermore, the prohibition was not justified on grounds of the protection of public health under Article 36 TFEU due to a lack of proportionality.
As a result of the ruling of the CJEU, importers from other EU member states may sell their beer as “beer” in Germany even if it does not adhere to the Reinheitsgebot. German brewers on the other hand are still obligated to follow the stricter standard, because EU law does not prohibit reverse discrimination of a country’s own nationals. However, most German brewers use it as a marketing technique and label their beer as “Brewed according to the Reinheitsgebot”. The Bavarian Brewers’ Association has even registered the trademark “Bavarian Beer” (search for trade mark number 009103367) with the EU Trademark Office.
UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage
Bavarians take pride in brewing their beer according to the Reinheitsgebot and see it as a sign of tradition and quality. That was the reason why the German Brewers Association decided in 2013 to nominate the original text of the Reinheitsgebot as an intangible cultural heritage under the UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage. Germany became a state party to the Convention in 2013.
The Convention defines “intangible cultural heritage” as “practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, skills – as well as the instruments, objects, artefacts and cultural spaces associated therewith – that communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals recognize as part of their cultural heritage.” (Intangible Cultural Heritage Convention, art. 2). The Bavarian Reinheitsgebot has been included along with twelve other traditions on the list of intangible cultural heritage of the state of Bavaria. The Bavarian list was submitted to the German UNESCO Committee which in turn will compile a final national list and present one candidate to the UNESCO every two years.
So next time you happen to drink a beer from Germany, remember you are taking part in a 500-year old tradition.
Prost to that!