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German beer subject of world’s oldest consumer law

reinheitsgebot-300x251If you have ever had a mug of a German beer, you know that it can be a transcendent experience. Known for their exceptional lagers, Germans reign supreme as the world’s top beer brewers. But, the road to that supremacy began more than 500 years ago when the Duke of Bavaria, Wilhelm IV, issued the original decree that led to what is now known as the German Purity Law. The Reinheitsgebot (pronounced: rine-hites-geh-boat) reigns as one of the oldest consumer protection laws still enforced.

In 1516, Duke Wilhelm IV sought to protect his subjects from unscrupulous brewers and tavern owners by stipulating how much could be charged for beer and what it could contain. Geographic boundaries were set for pricing beer and the law provided for fluctuations in pricing if economic circumstances warranted. By restricting the price publicans could charge for beer, the Duke made it more accessible to his subjects and limited price gouging.

The good Duke was also concerned about the purity of the beer being produced for consumption by his subjects, so he included in the decree a restriction on the ingredients. Many beers of the time were routinely brewed by irresponsible brewers with ingredients like ash, sawdust and even roots – some of them poisonous – to bring down the cost of production and maximize profit. To combat this, the original decree stated, “…in all our towns, marketplaces and the whole of the countryside, beer shall have no other ingredients than barley, hops, and water.”

While the new law put an end to beer made with dangerous additives, it was also intended to help the bakery industry by limiting brewers to the use of barley. This increased the supply of wheat and rye for baked products and insured that both bread and beer would be plentiful. The law also made it illegal to use ingredients like gruit – a mixture of herbs like sweet gale, mugwort, yarrow, horehound and heather – that religious conservatives believed were used in pagan rituals.

Through the years, the original Purity Law underwent several changes, but the spirit of the law remained. It formed the basis of beer laws that spread throughout Germany and contributed to the extinction of several Northern German beer styles such as spiced and cherry beers. As Germany entered the Industrial Age, Bavaria insisted upon the Purity Law be applied throughout Germany as a condition of unification. This met with heavy opposition from brewers in the north, but the law was eventually enacted with heavy taxes placed on outside ingredients rather than an outright ban.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the law was first referred to as Reinheitsgebot and was finally applied consistently throughout Germany as the law governing beer production. Curiously, as the tumultuous events of the 1900s ground on, brewers and even consumers began to embrace the law. The purity of German beer became of pride and an important marketing tool. It became so deeply rooted in tradition that no self-respecting German would think of drinking anything other than a Reinheitsgebot-compliant beer.

Now, 500 years later, the craft beer revolution is taking Europe by storm. As a younger generation of beer-drinkers seeks styles that do not comply with the Purity Law, the law is being called in to question. Whether the Reinheitsgebot can survive is yet to be seen. But, the superiority it brought to German beer can never be denied.

Here are some traditional, Reinheitsgebot compliant German beers you can try locally:

Spaten Dunkel

Founded more than 600 years ago, the Spaten brwery has adhered to the since its inception. The brewery’s Dunkel is a malty, dark departure from the typical German light lager. This brew is highly recommended as an accompaniment with rich meats and stews.

Weihenstephaner Pilsner

Crisp and highly-carbonated, this brew is a standard of the German Pilsner style. It is especially refreshing when served very cold and enjoyed with the afternoon sea breeze.

Gaffel Koelsch

While most German beers are lagers, Koesch is an ale. Brewed only in the German city of Cologne, this style is slightly fruity with a crisp, hoppy finish.

 

 

 

 

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Posted by on June 21, 2017 in Beer, Beer history

 

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German beer purity law to celebrate 500 years

Reinheitsgebot TrademarkWater, barley and hops; as most beer aficionados know, these are the three main ingredients – along with yeast – that makes up the basis of the world’s third favorite beverage. These are also the only three ingredients allowed in beer according to the famous German Beer Purity law known as Reinheitsgebot (pronounced Rhine-Hites-gaBoat). This year the often misunderstood law celebrates 500 years of legislating German beer production.

Originally, the law was a ducal decree issued by Duke Wilhelm IV and his brother Duke Ludwig X on April 23, 1516. The two Bavarian dukes introduced the law at Ingolstadt during a meeting of the assembly of the Estates of Bavaria. It was proposed as a means for the government to regulate the ingredients, processes and taxation of beer produced. At first, the law only covered the southern regions of the Germanic world, later it was adopted by the entire German Empire. The true intent, though, was to keep beer “pure” and safe and keep cheap, sometimes dangerous, ingredients out of beer that was sold to the general public.

In medieval times, unscrupulous brewers often added unhealthy ingredients to beer in order to produce the beverage more economically. Often items such as roots, rushes, mushrooms and animal by-products would be added to the brewing process – sometimes leading to batches of toxic brew.

To fight this practice, the Reinheitsgebot limited the brewers to using only three ingredients in beer – water, barley and hops. Yeast was not listed in the original law because it had not yet been discovered; it was added to the law later after Louis Pastor documented the part the organism plays in fermenting liquids. The law applies to bottom-fermented or lager beers leaving room for top-fermented German ales like Kolsch and Alt to use other grains.  The law provides for German ales to contain other malted grains including wheat for Weissbier as well as various forms of sugar derived cane or beet and sugar-derived coloring agents. Chemicals or other processed compounds were still expressly forbidden.

Over the centuries, the law stood the test of time and, though it was struck down by the European Court in 1987 as a restraint of free trade, many German breweries still proudly follow the law. These traditional breweries proudly announce on their labels that they still adhere to the purity law and have no intention of wavering.

At 500-years-old, the Reinheitsgebot stands as the world’s oldest consumer protection law. It is a testament to how a law once thought to be constraining actually served to spark creativity and innovation. Today, there are scores of German beer styles that adhere to the law in a dizzying array of strengths and flavors. More than enough to keep beer-lovers busy tasting the many brews still conforming to the law.

 
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Posted by on January 22, 2016 in Beer, Beer Education

 

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