Contrary to what you may believe, the Reinheitsgebot, the famous German beer purity law, was no trailblazer. Almost thirty years earlier there was the Statuta Thaberna in Thuringia (see map). I’ve had a lot more trouble finding the exact text for the Statuta than I did for the Reinheitsgebot (though I have a cunning picture of some of it), but at least in translation the principle was the same. Article 12 of the “Statuta Thaberna” stated that the only ingredients to be used for beer production were water, hops, and malt. Similar requirements were accepted in Munich in 1447 as well, though they don’t seem to have a catchy name like Statuta Thaberna or Reinheitsgebot. Both the Statuta and Munich law were local, and didn’t have the grand proclamatory force that having two kings sign a law into being before an entire regional electoral body did. So the Reinheitsgebot is the famous one, still widely commemorated and oft celebrated. Still, the Statuta is the earliest known German law on beer purity.
Fragment of the Statuta Thaberna (in Middle German, got some way to translate?)
So back in 1434 the Thuringian city of Weissensee (which I think is also the home of weisswurst) codified their beer purity along with laws on behavior in pubs. The bit of legal language I did find translates something like “to brew the beer you intend…in it is otherwise given as hops, malt and water” (“hophin Malcz and water”). Discovered only in 1998, the city of Weissensee has an annual beerfest to celebrate its own purity law. I think the entire law is probably pretty interesting, maybe even entertaining to read – the fifteenth-century Germany thought inappropriate pub behavior, for example.
So, in 1516, when Wilhelm IV and Ludwig X signed the Beer Purity Rule in the Ingolstadt Landtagum (the regional electoral body of bourgeous Germany) in Bavaria, it became national law and set the tone forever after. Though not all German breweries follow it today, it is still much celebrated, the subject of bottle caps and postage stamps. The Germans are rightly proud of their beer.
A few thoughts on these laws…for one, they don’t mention yeast. Now, we knew they knew how to use and keep yeast, though they didn’t know exactly what it was; there were all sorts of workarounds, like adding a bit of bread or toast to the vat (we have recipes that are very clear on that point). There’s no mention in the laws of being allowed to add anything to get your beer going, so maybe their fermentation came from yeast-impregnated barrels, or maybe tossing in a slice of toast wasn’t considered adding an actual ingredient. I don’t know. I am intrigued by how a world without microbiology thought about its yeast vats. We know all sorts of places had them, particularly the big commercial production facilities (home brewers were advised to, well, use toast). We have records of whole towns knowing their yeast had become infected, cleaning out all their vats and getting new yeast from a neighboring town, so clearly they knew how to tell what it was supposed to be like and how to clean out a vat sufficiently so as not to infect the next batch.
One medieval German name for yeast is “God is good”. Seems like a reasonable way to express gratitude for something you don’t understand but know needs to be there to make your beer go.
I see lots of modern explanations about why there came to be purity laws, some of which don’t ring quite historically true to my ear. After all, they didn’t occur until the fifteen and sixteenth centuries. Having a state structure stable enough to support such a law is certainly a consideration. Trade – trying to break abbey monopolies, trying to make a better product and/or undersell a competitor, that sounds exactly like medieval thinking. These were pragmatic people who traded on large regional levels.
I can imagine there were years when malt got terribly expensive, after bad harvests or during wartime, when brewers might have tried to stretch their grain bill with whatever they could find.
However, modern writers put forward as fact that there was concern over public health that the herbs people often put into their beer might be hazardous. That does not ring right to me, and someone would have to show me written proof before I believe it. First of all, the practice of putting herbs in beer was common all over Europe, though by no means exclusive – beer wasn’t always made with herb combinations added to the wort (these herb recipes collectively called “gruit”). Remember that hops were sometimes added to beer, sometimes not, and were sometimes one of many herbs and spices added in a beer recipe (hops grow like weeds if you let them and were apparently easily found growing wild in places). While we have no existing complete gruit recipes (yet – we know it existed and we know some of the herbs commonly used), I have lots of medieval beer and mead recipes that seem to use every wildflower they could get their hands on in a day’s walk -several list 15-20 plants for a batch of beer, in addition to malt and water! Remember medieval Europe was a largely agricultural world where you could still walk or ride outside a city and find meadows and farm fields; plants like elecampane, myrtle and hops grew wild in the hedgerows and woods.
Certainly some plants treated in some ways are harmful. Most toxic plants have benign parts as well (think rhubarb leaves versus the stalk), and in some cases only become toxic if prepared certain ways – but surely knowing your local plants would be pretty common knowledge. I can imagine unscrupulous brewers using inferior, cheaper ingredients, and some making just plain inferior beer. Actively poisoning mead, honey, and beer in time of war and leaving it for your enemy while you beat a hasty retreat is known to have happened any number of times, But if there were widespread problems with unscrupulous brewers putting toxic ingredients in their beer, probably because they were cheaper than malt, and selling it as good, I am not aware of it. I think that’s modern thinking (we don’t know so much about plants) overlaid on medieval practice (gruit) we don’t know much about.