German Purity Laws – ever actually read them?

Munich beer cap claiming the Reinheitsgebot

Germany’s “purity decree”, the Reinheitsgebot, has had American brewers in awe for years.  It is seen as the highest standard for beer, German beer as the purest in the world.  There are some problems with that, which I’ll discuss below.  Have you, the homebrewer, actually read it?  It’s not actually very long.  I’ve included both the German version and English translation below.

The Reinheitsgebot was introduced in 1487, but adopted in 1516 by the Bavarian Duke Wilhelm IV in the town of Ingolstadt. There had been earlier decrees concerning the ingredients for making beer in what is now Germany, but they had been regional, applying only to a particular city or region. The 1516 Bavarian beer purity decree was the first to apply to an entire German kingdom or principality.  When Bavaria became part of Germany in 1871, it inherited the purity decree as well.  The Reinheitsgebot was part of German law until 1987, when a ruling to allow free trade of goods within the EU lifted it (Reinheitsgebot was seen by non-German brewers as a form of protectionism for German breweries).  However, it’s a trademark of German beers, and many German breweries still abide by it.  It was a condition for German reunification.German postage stamp celebrating the Reinheitsgebot

The flip side of the purity decree is that some traditional regional beers in Germany, such as North German cherry or spiced beers, became illegal once the Reinheitsgebot went into effect.  It doesn’t guarantee good beer, only that the only ingredients will be barley, hops, and water.  Wheat beer and many dark beers are in violation of the purity decree.   Yeast wasn’t mentioned as an ingredient.  Yeast wasn’t discovered until Louis Pasteur mapped out the fermentation process in 1857 (now there’s a brewer’s hero for you).  The original 1516 Reinheitsgebot was more of a bread bakers protection law than a beer law, reserving wheat and rye strictly for bread.

The reverse-flip side is that brewers were penalized for using ingredients such as stinging nettles, soot, or fly agaric mushrooms, which are hallucinogenic.

Thanks to “The German Way: Language and Culture in Germany, Austria and Switzerland”  for these versions.  First, in English:

We hereby proclaim and decree, by authority of our land, that henceforth everywhere in the Principality of Bavaria, in the country, as well as in our cities and marketplaces that have no such special ordinance for it: From Michaelmas [Sept. 29] until the Feast of St. George [April 23], a mug [1] or one head [2] of beer is not to be dispensed for more than one Munich penny, and from the Feast of St. George to Michaelmas, the liter mug shall not be dispensed for more than two pennies of the same currency, the head for not more than three Heller [3], by threat of the penalties spelled out below.

However, when one brews any beer (other than Märzenbier), it will under no circumstances be dispensed and sold for more than one penny per mug. Furthermore, we especially decree that henceforth in all our towns, marketplaces and the whole of the countryside, that for no beer shall any ingredients other than barley, hops, and water be used and employed. Anyone who knowingly ignores our threat and violates it, shall be punished by the court of his jurisdiction by having said barrel of beer summarily confiscated, each time it happens.

However, if an innkeeper buys one, two, or three pails [4] of beer from a brewery in our towns, marketplaces, or the whole countryside, for resale to the common people, he alone shall be allowed and permitted to sell mugs and heads of beer for one Heller more than prescribed above. Furthermore, We as the Prince of Bavaria reserve the right to ordain appropriate changes to this decree for the public benefit in the event that severe hardship should arise due to shortages and price increases of grains (since the seasons and the region and the harvest times in our land can vary); in that event, the right to adjust the regulations over the sale are explicitly expressed and established.

[1] mug = (Bavarian “Maß”) 1.069 liters    [2] head = round container, holding slightly less than a Bavarian ‘mug’    [3] Heller = half a Munich penny (Pfennig)    [4] pail = 60 liters

Now, in German:

Wir verordnen, setzen und wollen mit dem Rat unserer Landschaft, dass forthin überall im Fürstentum Bayern sowohl auf dem Lande wie auch in unseren Städten und Märkten, die keine besondere Ordnung dafür haben, von Michaeli (29. September) bis Georgi (23. April) eine Maß oder ein Kopf Bier für nicht mehr als einen Pfennig Münchener Währung und von Georgi bis Michaeli die Maß für nicht mehr als zwei Pfennig derselben Währung, der Kopf für nicht mehr als drei Heller (gewöhnlich ein halber Pfennig) bei Androhung unten angeführter Strafe gegeben und ausgeschenkt werden soll.

Wilhelm IV
Wilhelm IV

Wo aber einer nicht Märzen sondern anderes Bier brauen oder sonstwie haben würde, soll er es keineswegs höher als um einen Pfennig die Maß ausschenken und verkaufen. Ganz besonders wollen wir, dass forthin allenthalben in unseren Städten, Märkten und auf dem Lande zu keinem Bier mehr Stücke als allein Gersten, Hopfen und Wasser verwendet und gebraucht werden sollen.

Wer diese unsere Androhung wissentlich übertritt und nicht einhält, dem soll von seiner Gerichtsobrigkeit zur Strafe dieses Fass Bier, so oft es vorkommt, unnachsichtig weggenommen werden.

Wo jedoch ein Gastwirt von einem Bierbräu in unseren Städten, Märkten oder auf dem Lande einen, zwei oder drei Eimer (enthält etwa 60 Liter) Bier kauft und wieder ausschenkt an das gemeine Bauernvolk, soll ihm allein und sonst niemand erlaubt und unverboten sein, die Maß oder den Kopf Bier um einen Heller teurer als oben vorgeschrieben ist, zu geben und auszuschenken.

Auch soll uns als Landesfürsten vorbehalten sein, für den Fall, dass aus Mangel und Verteuerung des Getreides starke Beschwernis entstünde, nachdem die Jahrgänge auch die Gegend und die Reifezeiten in unserem Land verschieden sind, zum allgemeinen Nutzen Einschränkungen zu verordnen, wie solches am Schluss über den Verkauf ausführlich ausgedrückt und gesetzt ist.

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