The German Reinheitsgebot

The German Reinheitsgebot –

the oldest, currently valid consumer protection law in the world

Today we are celebrating a very important anniversary:  the German ‘Reinheitsgebot’ (purity law) is 500 years-old.  On 23 April 1516, the co-regents of Bavaria, dukes Wilhelm IV and Ludwig X, passed a decree that beer may only be made of barley, hops, and water.[i]

Having co-regents was certainly a rather unusual situation. Their father, Albrecht IV, had decreed in 1506 that only the eldest son should succeed in Bavaria.  Albrecht died in 1508, when Wilhelm was 15, and the state was ruled by a council for the next 3 years[ii].  From 1511, when Wilhelm was 18, he ruled independently.  He quickly became unpopular by giving positions to his favourites rather than experienced councillors.  So far, the story has a strong resemblance to that of Henry VI of England.  But while Henry is said to have been more suited to the life of a monk than that of a king, Wilhelm seems to have been too interested in the good life.  He antogonised the States-General, who preferred his younger brother Ludwig, who was also supported by their mother Kunigunde of Austria (a sister of Emperor Maximilian I).  In 1514, Wilhelm and Ludwig agreed to share the duchy, with Ludwig getting a third. In late March and April 1516, they met with a parliament in Ingolstadt[iii] and decided to share the administration of the duchy.  The new statutes were passed on 23 or 24 April 1516.  One of the articles is the ‘Reinheitsgebot’.  Incidentally, the two brothers sharing the reign seems to have worked quite well.

At the time, beer was often brewed in less than hygienic circumstances.  All sorts of ingredients, like henbane, thorn-apple, wood shavings, roots, soot or even pitch, were added to improve taste and give the drink an intoxicating effect.  Clearly the situation was serious enough, to be dealt with in the new set of laws.

The Bavarian law was not the first of its kind, earlier regulations had been adopted in 1156 in Augsburg, in 1293 in Nuremberg, in 1363 in Munich and in 1447 in Regensburg. Wilhelm and Ludwig’s father, Albrecht IV, had passed a similar law specifying the same raw materials in 1487, but this had been limited to Munich.  A similar law had been introduced in 1493 in Lower Bavaria.  It was, however, Wilhelm and Ludwig’s law, which gradually was accepted by other regions.  On 7 June 1906, it was stated by Kaiser Wilhelm II as an Imperial Act and has been valid since then for all of Germany.  The term ‘Reinheitsgebot’ was only coined after 1516.

This is the oldest, currently valid consumer protection law in the world.  It had three objectives:

  1. to protects the citizens from exorbitant prices
  2. wheat was prohibited, as it was needed to make bread, a vital source of nutrition
  3. the only permitted ingredients were barley, hops, and water, excluding any inferior ingredients, some of which were even toxic.

In 1516, yeast had not yet been recognised as an active ingredient, which is why it is missing on the list.  Yeast converts sugar to alcohol and CO2 during fermentation, which influences the flavour of beer.  At the time, beer was brewed in an open process, as shown on a German stamp from 1983.  This meant that airborne yeast, for example from nearby bakeries, was added naturally.  It was only in the 17th century that the role of yeast was discovered, and the law was then amended.

1983 German stamp to commemorate the 'Reinheitsgebot'

1983 German stamp to commemorate the ‘Reinheitsgebot’

In the 1980s, the ‘Reinheitsgebot’ was very much discussed, as it was seen not to be in accordance with European law.  In 1987, the European Court of Justice ruled that beers brewed outside of Germany, which did not comply with the ‘Reinheitsgebot’, were allowed to be sold within Germany.  However, German breweries may still only use the four natural ingredients of water, malt, hops and yeast. Beer brewed according to the ‘Reinheitsgebot’ has been awarded special status by the European Union as a protected “traditional foodstuff” and is highly regarded as a quality product.

Many regional beer varieties have been recognised by the European authorities as part of the “culinary heritage of Europe” and are accepted officially as a “protected geographical indication” (PGI).  The one most familiar to me is Kölsch[iv], which is the beer of choice in the part of the Rhineland where I grew up.  Its PGI states that only beer brewed in a 50 km radius of Cologne may be called Kölsch.  It is a top-fermented beer with a strong aroma of hops and a bright yellow colour.  It has been around since 874.  An office supervising its quality was first introduced in 1250.  In 1396, the Cologne Brewers Corporation was founded.  The PGI for Kölsch was applied for in 1986.  At present, there are 23 breweries which may make Kölsch, including alcohol-free and light varieties.

Today’s important anniversary is certainly a reason to celebrate tonight, with a beer of course.  Unfortunately, I haven’t got any Kölsch, only some Bavarian beer, but that isn’t bad either.  Prost!

Notes:

[i] For the history see: ‘The Reinheitsgebot as a Guarantee of Quality’, Unser Reinheitsgebot – German Brewers’ Association.  URL:  http://reinheitsgebot.de/en/home/the-reinheitsgebot/ [last accessed 23 April 2016] (the text is in English); Brian Handwerk, ‘Celebrating 500 Years of German’s Beer Purity Law’, Smithsonian.com (22 April 2016).  URL:  http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/celebrating-500-years-germans-beer-purity-law-180958878 [last accessed 23 April 2016].

[ii] Riezler, S., ‚Wilhelm IV., Herzog von Baiern, Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie, 42 (1897), pp.705-717 Available at URL: http://www.deutsche-biographie.de/pnd118632868.html [last accessed 23 April 2016]

[iii] Eichmeier, R., ‘Ingolstadt 1516: Ein turbulenter Landtag und eine Hinrichtung‘, Radio Bayern (24 April 2016).  URL:  http://www.br.de/radio/bayern2/bayern/land-und-leute/ingolstaedter-landtag-1516-bier-reinheitsgebot-eichmeier102.html [last accessed 23 April 2016]

[iv] ‘Kölsch’, Unser Reinheitsgebot – German Brewers’ Association.  URL: http://reinheitsgebot.de/startseite/biervielfalt/bierstile-in-deutschland/bierstil-im-portrait/bier/koelsch/ [last accessed 23 April 2016] (only in German)

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