In Part I of my examination of the German Beer Purity Law of 1516, I discussed the history behind the order and hopefully answered the question, “What is the Reinheitsgebot?”
Today, if you ask a German the same question, you may receive a different answer. German purists or those ignorant to the matter may tell you that if a beer is brewed nach dem bayerischen Reinheitsgebot, it means that the beer is of higher quality, being “purer” than other beers that don’t follow the outdated ruling. But that still begs the question: What makes a beer brewed according to this law better or more pure than any other beer?
The answer here lies in perspective.
The terms of the Reinheitsgebot moved beyond the confines of Bavaria when the state insisted upon its application throughout Germany as one of the terms for unification. It would seem that this was, at least in part, an attempt to limit competition from other beers that included ingredients other than those listed in the purity law. The requirements effectively killed off many indigenous beer styles, and kept out beers from other countries that did not comply with the terms, such as those from Britain and Belgium, both of whose beer traditions involve the use of such adjuncts as sugar and molasses.
Limitations set forth in the Reinheitsgebot were incorporated into the country’s Biersteuergesetz, or Beer Tax Law, and remained in place until 1987 when the European Union ruled that the law be lifted, as it constituted a barrier to trade. Still, the 1993 Vorläufiges Deutsches Biergesetz, or Provisional German Beer Law, held the restrictions to all bottom-fermenting (i.e. lager) beer, though top-fermenting beer may contain extraneous sugar sources, such as cane, beet, and invert sugar.
The question of adhering to the Reinheitsgebot in today’s world becomes, as said before, one of perspective. To many, keeping in line with such a tradition displays an act of cultural preservation. German brewers and brewers outside of Germany label their beers as being brewed in accordance to he centuries-old law as a code of honor, providing the consumer with the knowledge that the beer is unadulterated and not dumbed-down with body-thinning sugars that serve merely to raise alcohol levels while decreasing costs.
There is, of course, another side of the coin: brewing traditions that go back much further in history than 1516 allow for other ingredients to be added to beers. Many of those traditions survive today in countries rich in brewing heritage, such as Belgium, as well as in America’s craft brewers, who seek to maximize the variances in their beers in all aspects, from color to aroma to flavor and beyond. Restricting ingredient use to hops, malted barley, water, and yeast thereby restricts creativity, and it is that creativity that consumers of today’s ever-expanding beer culture have come to expect. Not to mention the culture that surrounds light lagers, the brewing of which would not be possible without the use of adjunct grains such as corn and rice.
Luckily for Germans, many wonderful brewing traditions and beer styles easily survived the Reinheitsgebot intact — Altbier, Bockbier, Kölsch, to name a few. Even some beers that verged on extinction have survived and are beginning to flourish once again, such as Berliner Weisse and Leipziger Gose.
For those living in Germany with more of an adventurous side, they are lucky to be living where they are. The Reinheitsgebot gives them a specific sort of pride that cannot be had elsewhere, and their location surrounds them with rich brewing traditions that break the mold of the four-ingredient-rule. Austria has no such restrictions, and the many brewers in the country today are brewing a wide variety of styles using all sorts of ingredients; just across the border in France, such age-old styles as Bieres de Garde survive today; Belgium, with its rich brewing heritage, lies just to the north; and countries with blossoming microbrewing cultures lie easily within reach, such as Denmark, Norway, and Italy.
And homebrewers have long been free from the Hopfen-Malz-Wasser rule.
So the next time you open up a bottle of German beer brewed in accordance with the Reinheitsgebot, remember that there is no simple, singular meaning behind the label. Just immerse yourself in the experience, and figure it out just what it means to you.