Reinheitsgebot: The 16th Century German Beer Purity Law

Posted on September 24th, 2009

A copy of the 1516 Germa beer purity law, the Reinheitsgebot

A copy of the 1516 German beer purity law, the Reinheitsgebot

Today beer is commonly defined as containing four main ingredients: Water, barley, yeast and hops, but  there are plenty of exceptions to this definition.  There are the folks at Dogfish Head Brewery who have been known to throw everything from juniper to strawberries into their world class beers, and on the other end macro-brewers like Anheuser-Busch who use corn and rice to make their cheap lagers even cheaper. Despite these outliers beer has generally stuck to these basic four ingredients. Although there are many contributing factors, beer’s adherence to these rules can largely be traced back to the Reinheitsgebot, the German law enacted by Wilhelm IV of Bavaria on April 23, 1516 stating:

The only ingredients used for the brewing of beer must be barley, hops and water. Whosoever knowingly disregards or transgresses upon this ordinance, shall be punished by the Court authorities’ confiscating such barrels of beer, without fail.

The wording of this law of course omits the all-important ingredient of yeast, but that was because folks at the time weren’t aware of its existence. Yeast as well as wheat were later added to the list of acceptable ingredients and the law remained in effect until 1987. Because this rule applied to not only beer made in Germany but beer sold there as well the law ended up dictating the habits of brewers not just in Germany but all across Europe as no one wanted to be excluded from the profitable German market.

There were two main reasons for enacting this law. The first was an issue of health. Back in the 16th century much of the water available, especially in more urban areas, was not fit for drinking; beer was what folks drank morning, noon and night. With so many people relying on their daily share of beer for basic hydration, this law esured that the beer was made with only safe and trusted ingredients.

The second reason the purity law was put into effect was a matter of economics. The land’s barley fields were owned by the aristocrats of the land, and making it illegal to brew with anything else meant that the wealthy land owners were basically able to guarantee themselves a virtual monopoly on the grains bought for brewing.

Although the Reinheitsgebot certainly stifled a great deal of creativity among brewers it also ensured that beer would become a consistent and lasting part of Western culture, so in many ways it’s a mixed blessing, but one that I’ll toast to either way.