The purity law

<< 2005-09-17 16:55 >>

One thing I found very interesting in Germany was the attitude to the famous German purity law for beer (or Reinheitsgebot in German). German beer is famous world-wide for quality, and for being made without additives, and a lot of this stems from the purity law. Germans take great pride in this law, but their relationship to it can be a little puzzling at times, and the law is not only positive.

The law has a long history, but it's generally the version of the law enacted in Bavaria in 1516 that's know as the purity law. This version states that the only allowed ingredients in beer are water, barley malts, and hops. The point of this was to ensure that brewers did not add cheaper, and poorer, ingredients to the beer to save money, thus screwing the consumers. You'll often find this described as "the oldest law in the world still in force", as many claim that this law is still followed in Germany today. So far, so good.

Purity law poster, from pub in Nürnberg

You'll find lots of German (and foreign) beer brewers stating proudly on posters, beer labels, web sites, etc that they brew according to "the purity law of 1516". The strange thing about this is that it's not true. Note that in the list of the three ingredients there is something missing. You're not allowed to add yeast! So, in fact, the only brewers in the world following the original purity law must be the lambic brewers, who get natural yeast bacteria from the air. Until yeast was discovered in 1800, this was the only known way to make beer ferment, so all the beer in the world before 1800 was really lambic.

In the Bavarian Brewing Museum in Kulmbach there was a section on the purity law, with the original text, and a translation into modern German. It then went on to say how important this was for German brewing, and how it guaranteed the quality of beer. Startlingly, the text did not comment on the fact that yeast was not on the list of ingredients, and nobody seemed to find this in the least puzzling. (Except me, that is. :-)

Not only do modern brewers sin against the law by using yeast; the weissbier brewers also use wheat malts, which are not allowed, either. And the few producers of roggenbier violate it by adding rye malts. Then there are the "dinkel" beers, which use spelt.

So, is the purity law all nonsense? Well, not really. It turns out that there is a modern version of the law, called the German Beer Tax Law. This has been updated to allow yeast, and for top-fermenting beers other cereal malts are allowed. So the brewers do indeed follow a purity law, they just don't follow the original from 1516.

And what about the quality of the beer? Well, here the record is more mixed. The law clearly does guarantee a kind of minimum quality, since practices common among big breweries all over the world, such as using maize, rice, sugar, and other cheap ingredients, are not allowed at all, and thus avoided. However, it doesn't allow spices, and it doesn't allow fruit. These two elements contribute to making Belgian beers so individualistic and interesting, and in Germany both are conspicuously missing, and to some extent I believe they contribute to making German beer more boring than it needs to be.

At the same time, the limitations on the ingredients have made German brewers come up with some interesting inventions in order to avoid getting too boring. Some examples of this are:

Barley malts

Still, the purity law means that German brewers cannot produce a weissbier like Hoegaarden, because they are not allowed to add spices like orange peel and coriander. It's hard to see how that can be purely an advantage.

Another consequence of this is seen with Berliner Weisse, which is a special kind of weissbier produced with lactic bacteria as yeast (doesn't sound pure to me!), which gives it a quite sour flavour. It's very common to mix this with fruit syrup to get something quite like the cheaper Belgian fruit lambics, where fruit syrup is also used. However, with Berliner Weisse you must add the fruit syrup yourself, since for the brewer to do it would violate the purity law. That's not really a big deal, but it does mean that German brewers can't make a high-quality fruit Berliner Weisse by brewing it directly from fruit (as for example Cantillon does with their fruit lambics).

So, I guess, this is what happens when you try to use the law to guarantee the quality of beer. You get a certain minimum quality, but lose in other regards. The alternative, to rely on the market power of consumers to guarantee quality, seems to ensure that you get a market dominated by crap lagers below that minimum line. Except in Belgium, that is.

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Jeff - 2006-01-12 22:49:03

I have read that the Reinheitsgebot was passed not to guarantee beer purity, but to keep wheat out of the hands of brewers and in the hands of bakers. There was some sort of shortage at the time.

Roger Lambert - 2006-06-24 01:14:10

I have now begun a boycott of all german beers sold here in Canada. Since the "purity law" allows the U.S. to sell the "almost" beer Budweiser in Germany for the 2006 world cup, it appears that purity doesn't mean a pinch of barley when the price is right. What abunch of phoneys. roger

ken macson - 2006-09-01 02:26:46

I can say this is that the German Ales and Lagers taste so much better than the american brews in the states and I live in the states. You have to search some to find a good american beer that's not producted by Budweiser or Miller to find a good hoppy lager or ale. Coors has Blue Moon which is ok, besides that you have to look to a Micro brewery in America to find anything that taste as good as a German beer. Sam Adams being the acception.

Jolyne - 2006-11-02 16:01:57

I work for a micro brewery in Ontario Canada and for our founders series beer we follow the purity law. Now, as for the yeast. Yeast is not added for taste, yeast is added to make a reaction that makes the CO2 in the beer. I beleive you are reading way into this. They are not lyars of any kind. It's not an ingredient added to a receipe it's an ingredient added to finish the beer. Yeast is then filtered out. Maybe learn more about beer if you're going to pretend you are a professional!

Lars Marius - 2006-12-19 12:00:28

Well, Jolyne, I think the main purpose of including yeast is the production of alcohol. Of course, it produces CO2 as well, but I think most people would consider that a secondary goal.

The point is, though, that you don't have to add yeast. The lambic brewers of Belgium, for example, ferment their beers without adding yeast, because they get bacteria from the air.

As for calling people liars, I didn't do that. When people claim that they follow the 1516 version of the purity law, but add yeast, I don't think they do it with any kind of intent to fool people. I think very few people reading those beer labels know that the purity law doesn't actually allow yeast, and I think they would be very unhappy indeed to find lambic in the bottles. So this thing with yeast is more of an amusing historical curiosity than anything else.

swag - 2007-12-03 12:14:01

In fact, the purity law has nothing to do with consumer protection and a lot to do with taxes. By limiting the ingredients allowed to make beer they could tax the sales of hops and barley to be breweries.

Roger Lambert - 2007-12-17 15:37:53

Its been a while since my response to the 07 worl cup and the phony beer (Budweiser U.S.) the Germans got paid off for.

I'm still maintaining my stand on not buying any German beer here in Canada and have since found many wonderful brews made right here (Ontario)to take the place of the yankee bought & paid for Germans. roger

Bolverk - 2008-02-07 18:19:50

Lighten up Roger, you can always drink Moosehead.

Lars Marius, yeast is not a real ingredient, it is the generally filtered out in most cases. Besides, your picking nits.

ken macson, I never have problems finding good beer in California. Besides, I am going to go back to brewing my own again.

Thank you Jolyne, nice to see someone using common sense. Toast.

Lars Marius, you too are picking nits. The production of CO2 is not a secondary goal. How in the world do you thing beer is carbonated? Except mass produced beers of course, which do not have fine bubbles.

Lars Marius, the simple fact is this, Lambic is not a German Beer, it is from Belgium. And, if you are aware, Belgium is a rather unique place, with twelve square miles of brewing territory that has natural yeast in the air. Even Lambic contains yeast for fermenting, but it does not have to be added, since it occurs naturally. I know this because I worked for a beer distributor, and one of our top people was from Belgium. No yeast, no alcohol.

Roger Lambert, take a chill pill.

Bill - 2008-05-27 20:51:06

Look, the purity law was written in 1516. No one at that time had the slightest clue what yeast was - it took several hundred more years to figure that out (think Pasteur). But if you think German brewers from the 16th to 19th centuries didn't take the sediment from one batch and add it to the next to jump start fermentation, then you are hopelessly naive. No modern brewer "sins" against the purity law by adding yeast - to suggest such a thing to a professional German brewer would likely get you laughed out of the country. And let me be clear, it doesn't matter that the yeast is often filtered out, otherwise how can you explain Weizenbier?

As far as the "limitations" of the purity law, cultures all around the world have long recognized that art is not limited, but rather encouraged by establishing boundaries to the artist's freedom of choice. It is often simply more interesting to see what the artist can achieve when faced with such limits rather than having complete and utter freedom.

Nevertheless, it is pointless to argue that Belgians make better beer than Germans, or vice-versa. You already admit that the Germans have unique beers such as Steinbier and Rauchbier, but you forget to include such unique styles as Kolsch, Alt, Weizen, Doppelbock and Schwarzbier. And most importantly, you fail to acknowledge the real value of the purity law - by adhering to it, the German brewers demonstrate that chemical additives are unnecessary to produce a beer with all the positive characteristics one could want - clarity, long lasting foam, freshness of flavor, reasonable shelflife, etc. The German example has encouraged brewers worldwide to keep their products unadulterated by questionable additives and this can only be seen as a positive influence on human health as well as the brewer's art.

Finally, you should be careful when claiming that both Maisel's Dampfbier and Anchor's Steam beer are "produced using steam in the brewing process". Maisel's Dampfbier (steam beer) is so named due to the long history of using steam power (for mechanical operations) in breweries during the 18th and 19th centuries, but you seem to imply that the steam was somehow part of the beer itself. While it is true that there are a few breweries using such methods (for complicated reasons), Maisel's choice of the name "Dampfbier" is completely unrelated. Furthermore, Anchor's use of the term is thought to have originated due to the appearance of wispy clouds of "steam" when fermentation vessels were opened in the unique climate of San Francisco, and certainly has nothing to do with the brewery using steam in the process.

Taken as a whole, your arguments and wild claims indicate that you know just enough about brewing to be dangerous. I suggest you study a bit more before pretending to be an expert on the subject.

Phil Power - 2008-09-28 07:20:43

As a passionate lover of Bavarian Beers I was interested in the original article which stimulated the discussion. Regardless of who is right or wrong on the technical or legal sides of the arguments I think the fact that The Beers are free of additional Chemicals is the end result of the Purity Laws. One disappointing comment was the referance to somebody being a "liar" because he may ( Or May not) have been mistaken in something he said Other than that I thank all of you for interesing comments and arguments put forward

Gary McGrane - 2009-07-01 10:25:36

Any idea where I might purchase a frameable copy of the Purity Law(in German of course)?Thanks, Gary McGrane

Claudia - 2012-10-12 23:48:00

Well who ever commented about Budweiser being sold in Germany.. Budweiser which is sold in Germany is the ORIGINAL Budweiser from Budweis{czeck republic) and has NOTHING to do with the Anheuser Bush Budweiser! : an origin BUD is a real BEER! Anheuser/Bish only stole the name!

Shaun - 2013-01-13 07:14:11

Well said Bill. All of this arguing over yeast?!?! I am no expert, but I do enjoy expertly crafted beers (especially those originating from Germany). And whether one, two, etc. extra ingredients are added, beers brewed using the 1516 purity law as a guideline still reign supreme over the mega-brewery domestics here in Norh America. I admire quality, taste, and simplicity; Not flashy commercials selling me a watered down "beer" with god-knows how many ingredients. Just be thankful that we aren't restricted to exclusively buying Labatt's or Anheuser-Busch and have access to these foreign beers in Canada and the US. In short, Drink up! Cheers!

Ramon - 2020-11-15 19:06:34

Nice to read the older articles as I finished the recent ones :)

Lars Marius Garshol - 2020-11-15 19:15:00

@Ramon: I find these older pieces slightly embarrassing, to be honest, but it feels wrong to delete them, so they stay up.

Mason Storm - 2022-05-31 04:04:42

It's less than "purity" if the ingredients in question are not organic gmo free and pesticide free. I've yet to find any conclusive evidence organic ingredients are being used. Anybody have any leads on this?

Lars Marius - 2022-05-31 07:58:35

@Mason: Purity I guess is all relative. Back in 1516 when this law was enacted everything was organic. Today the law is no longer on the books anywhere, but when people claim to follow it they mean what it says here: simply that they use barley, hops, water (and yeast). There are organic breweries that produce certified organic beers, but those are then marked as organic, and may or may not follow the purity law.

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