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It was 1620 when the Pilgrims began to call these American shores their home. So here in the U.S., it will still be 104 years before we [white people] can legitimately celebrate the 500th anniversary of anything.
But in places like Germany, cinquecentennials are considerably less rarified. And one of those cinquecentennials is being celebrated today. It’s das Reinheitsgebot, a stringently conservative beer purity law that just may have kept Bavarian beers, for all these centuries, in their lofty heights of being counted among the world’s best.
Like we moderns who scrutinize ingredients labels in the grocery store for allergens, artificial preservatives, and sweeteners which happen not to be on the ever-changing approved list (is Stevia hot or not this year?), people in medieval times—or at least some of them—were concerned about what the heck was in their food and drink.
They had reason to worry. Iniquitous, penny-pinching brewers of “the world lit only by fire” were adulterating their beers with sawdust, ashes, darnel ryegrass (which is poisonous), even psychoactive fly agaric fungus. Some of the reasons for this was to stretch their supply or make stale beer more palatable (and sellable). Occasionally the adulterations were for dubiously “medical” purposes. We are talking Middle Ages technology, here, people.
Two Bavarian noblemen—Dukes Wilhelm IV and Ludwig X—decided to do something about it. They issued their brewing “purity command” on April 23, 1516, at a meeting in the city of Ingolstadt of the German Assembly of Estates. What the dukes put in writing and gave the force of law that day remains “one of the oldest examples of product regulation known to man.”
From that point forward, beer in Bavaria could only be legally made with water, barley (and not, for example, wheat), and hops. Well… Yeast was involved too. But nobody in 1516 quite had a handle on the world of microscopic organisms just yet. So that ingredient was left out.
The Reinheitsgrebot eventually spread to the other German states, and became Imperial law in 1906. It remains on the books today.
If, in Germany, you’re some craft-style brewer who would like to add tiny amounts of adjunct, a little lemon peel, or some invert sugar to your recipes to see what happens, you cannot label your end product “beer.” You are instead obligated to go to market with the highly compromised “mixed beer beverage” label instead.
Some have contended that the Reinheitsgebot is therefore keeping Germany stuck in the past and unable to take part in the creative, freewheeling, American-style brewing now taking much of the rest of the globe by storm.
To produce a Reinheitsgebot, you arguably already need to have a society where drinking and enjoying beer is a high priority. But the 1516 brewing code also had the effect of cementing Bavarian beer as a patriotism-infused cultural artifact. A beer locals could believe in, take pride in, and expect reliability from year in and year out.
Since beers like Cologne’s kolsches couldn’t contain preservatives or low-cost alternate ingredients, they accrued a positive reputation abroad. German beers could fetch premium prices on the export market.
And not only that. The Reinheitsgebot was also effectively a protectionist racket. Brews made without its exacting ingredients were legally banned from entering the country, which meant that the Czech, Danish, English, and American brews couldn’t be sold in Germany. Heck, Bavaria didn’t even allow beers from other parts of Germany until the 1950s.
When, beginning in that same decade, the EEC or European Economic Community began to integrate the economies of Western Europe, the Reinheitsgebot was in for a challenge. In the 1980s a French exporter took the German Federal Republic government to court, alleging that the Reinheitsgebot was an illegal impediment to free trade. The Germans put up a stiff fight. Their lawyers even argued that lifetimes of drinking the purest beer available would put Germans especially at risk of harm by an influx of foreign chemical preservatives and artificial flavors. But a 13-judge panel in Luxembourg was not sympathetic.
Domestic German beers today must still hew to the strictures of Duke Wilhelm IV. But the “bad guy” beers can be legally sold.
Not that it matters much. Imports still only make up less than 10 percent of beer consumed in Germany.