The Reinheitsgebot - One Country’s Interpretation of Quality Beer


by Stephen R. Holle and Manfred Schaumberger (Brewing Techniques)

The Reinheitsgebot - One Country’s Interpretation of Quality Beer


Germany, where The Reinheitsgebot was made.


This 500-year-old edict still governs brewing in Germany, and brewers everywhere feel its influence. The authors trace the history of the Reinheitsgebot and explore how brewers use modern technology within the edict’s constraints.



The Reinheitsgebot (“Purity Law”), enacted in Bavaria in 1516, restricted the ingredients in beer to barley, hops, and water. Almost 500 years later, this simple regulation is still the basis for laws governing beer production in Germany, and beer drinkers worldwide view it as an assurance of quality. In fact, the Reinheitsgebot is recognized as the first and best-known consumer protection law still enforced in Germany and probably the world.

But what does “purity” really mean? Science, technology, and the Industrial Revolution have dramatically changed the process of brewing in the past five centuries, most notably through the discovery of yeast, which was included as a fourth ingredient in the modern interpretation of the Reinheitsgebot. Modern breweries use sophisticated new equipment such as ion exchangers, trub flotation tanks, and yeast propagotors, and use materials such as diatomaceous earth (DE) and polyvinylpolypyrrolidone (PVPP) to filter and clarity beer. But how do German brewers reconcile these new methods and materials with the Reinheitsgebot, and how do they determine what does not comply with the standard? Furthermore, has this new technology made the Reinheitsgebot obsolete? If the majority of beers worldwide are not brewed in accordance with the Reinheitsgebot, are Germans kidding themselves by believing that quality beer can only be brewed by their standards? To answer these questions, it is important to understand the circumstances that have influenced the modern laws that regulate German brewing ingredients and methods.


A History of the Reinheitsgebot


In the Middle Ages, monasteries, under privileges granted by the feudal lords, were primarily responsible for brewing in Germany. The monks were the main providers of food (including beer) and shelter to pilgrims and other travelers, and they learned that strong beer sustained them during their frequent fasts.

As the commercial brewing profits of the tax-exempt monasteries increased, so did the power of the secular lords. In time, the lords revoked the clergy’s exclusive right to brew beer and established court breweries (Hofbräuhäuser), which were operated by the lords or by secular brewers under license for a fee.

But the royal brewers were apparently not as skilled as the learned clergy, and the quality of beer suffered. As early as 1156, Frederick I issued the Justitia Civitatis, which decreed that any brewers in Augsburg who brewed bad beer or poured an unjust measure would have their beer destroyed, be fined, and possibly have their license revoked. Other cities such as Nürnberg and Erfurt passed similar laws. Munich issued an ordinance in 1447 that would become the forerunner of the Reinheitsgebot; it stated that brewers could use only barley, hops, and water.

On 23 April 1516, the co-rulers of Bavaria, the brothers Wilhelm and Ludwig Wittelsbach, issued the Reinheitsgebot, which they enforced across feudal Bavaria. (See box on page 38 for a translation.) It is interesting to note that only one sentence in the document actually describes how beer should be produced: “We especially wish that, from this point on and everywhere in the countryside as well as in the towns and marketplaces, nothing is to be added to or used in beer other than barley, hops and water.” The majority of this short document describes how beer could be distributed and sold. In fact, some historians question whether beer quality and consumer protection were the only motives for instituting the Reinheitsgebot and suggest that economic reasons may have also played a part. Several of these economic reasons include: The protection of barley farmers; the maintenance of reasonable prices to support beer consumption and provide a steady flow of tax revenues to royal coffers; and the omission of wheat as an ingredient to ensure that enough wheat was available to supply adequate amounts of bread to the people. Yet whatever factors originally influenced the Bavarian rulers to issue the Reinheitsgebot, it survives today because German brewers and consumers cherish it as a standard of quality and an assurance that their beer is an unadulterated product, without additives.

What about wheat? Readers familiar with Weiβbier, Altbier, of Kölsch might ask why Germans are permitted to brew these beers because they include wheat as an ingredient. The exception for wheat dates back to the inception of the Reinheitsgebot, when the Wittelsbachs allowed the continuance of the existing feudal wheat beer brewing privilege exclusively held by the Degenberger family. Controlled by the Wittelsbachs, this exclusive right not only maintained a secure market for the new barley beers, it also created a monopoly for wheat beer brewing. Some suggest that the “privilege,” which was sold or leased from time to time to certain selected brewers, afforded the rulers yet another source of royal revenue. The modern Bavarian Brewers Union (Bayrischer Brauerbund) even suggests that had it not been for such economic considerations, malted “grain” would have originally been specified in the Reinheitsgebot, and consequently, the modern use of malted grains other than barley in top-fermented beers is consistent with the Reinheitsgebot’s original intent. The Degenbergers continued to brew wheat beer until their line died out in 1602, and the lucrative right to brew and sell wheat beer was once again exclusively controlled by the Wittelsbachs. The Wittelsbachs brewed wheat beer from 1602 until 1802, when they leased the royal brewing privilege to private brewers. In 1855, George Schneider became the tenant of the royal wheat beer brewery in Munich, but by 1872, Schneider was clever enough to realize that the Wittelsbachs had run out of room at the adjoining lager beer Hofbräu, so Schneider traded his brewery lease for the unconditional right to brew wheat beer, which opened the way for privatization of wheat beer brewing.



The Reinheitsgebot survived in Bavaria and grew in importance in modern times throughout Germany. In 1906, the Reinheitsgebot became the official law of the German Empire, ending the former practice in northern Germany of using adjuncts such as rice or even potato flour. Following World War I and the establishment of the Weimar Republic, the Reinheitsgebot become the basis for the new federal beer tax law, in part because Bavaria would not join the new republic unless the Reinheitsgebot was enforced throughout the whole country. On 12 March 1987, the European Union ruled that the Reinheitsgebot was a restraint of trade, and as a member, Germany was forced to allow nonconforming beers to be sold in Germany. These beers are required, however, to list all nonconforming ingredients on the label. Not surprisingly, German law still requires that German brewers adhere to the Reinheitsgebot for beers sold inside Germany, with even more stringent restrictions imposed on breweries in Bavaria and Baden–Württemberg.


The Scope of Modern German Regulations


Given the long tradition of the Reinheitsgebot and Germany’s history as a highly socialized and regulated political state, it is not surprising that brewing is highly regulated. Today the Reinheitsgebot is contained in section 9.1 of the regulation entitled the Biersteuergesetz (Beer Tax Law), which has expanded the Reinheitsgebot by adding yeast to the original three ingredients of barley, water, and hops and defining barley more narrowly as malted barley: “For the preparation of bottom-fermented beer … only barley malt, hops, yeast, and water may be used.” For a German beer to be labeled as “brewed in accordance with the Reinheitsgebot,” however, it must also comply with numerous other regulations contained in the German brewing laws. Consequently, even beers brewed with just these four ingredients may still not be Reinheitsgebot-compliant if prohibited practices are used. In other words, “brewed according to the Reinheitsgebot” is a designation or claim that brewers can print on their labels only if they have complied with all the requirements in German brewing regulations necessary to achieve this designation, much as American food companies must adhere to certain requirements to label their products “fat-free.” All commercial German brewers are subject to these federal laws for beers sold in Germany. These restrictions, however, do not apply to experimental brewing for research or beer sold outside of Germany.

Home brewing has been exempted from the brewing laws since December 1985, though it is still more regulated in Germany than in the United States. Hops, malt, and yeast may be sold separately, for example, but not as a “package” or “kit”. Furthermore, home brewers are required to send a notice to the tax authority before they brew and a tax declaration form after they brew, although no tax is due if they produce less than 200 L (53 gallons) in a year.

Modern statutes interpret the Reinheitsgebot to prohibit certain ingredients and procedures, which we will now describe.

Malt: Malted barley only in lagers. Malted barley is the only grain permitted by the original Reinheitsgebot, which in its strictest sense is applicable only to bottom-fermented beer (lager beer). Top-fermented beers, such as Weiβbier, Altbier, and Kölsch, may use other malted grains like wheat and rye. Rice, corn, and any other unmalted grains are specifically prohibited from all beers, including roasted and/of flaked barley in stouts or unmalted wheat in Belgian witbier.

Controls on malting. The malting process is also controlled by law, but German brewers and maltsters have been able to develop techniques to comply with regulations while gaining the benefits of prohibited ingredients. For example, they use Kurzmalz or Spitzmalz, which are technically malts, but because they are germinated for a very short period, they are undermodified and therefore provide the same positive contributions to mouthfeel and head retention provided by unmalted grains. Artificial germination through the use of gibberellic acid of potassium bromate is not allowed, nor is the use of artificial enzymes.

On-site milling, no extract. Malt that is not milled in the brewery, including malt extract, is not permitted.

Sugar allowed only in ales. Surprisingly, sugar may be added to top-fermented beer, but German brewers do not use sugar because by law this adjunct must be noted on the label, and such a despised ingredient would taint the beer’s image in the eyes of German consumers. Bavaria and Baden–Württemberg take the law even further and not only expressly prohibit the use of sugar in any form but also ban the production of nonconforming beer even if it is for sale outside Germany.

Colored beer allowed. Although malt extract is banned, German brewers are allowed to color their beer with Farbebier, which means colored beer. Farbebier is brewed from dark barley malt wort that undergoes fermentation by bottom-fermenting yeast and is then concentrated by vacuum evaporation. Because it is fermented, Farbebier qualifies technically as beer and can therefore be added for coloring at any point during the brewing process, from the kettle to the lagering tank.

High-gravity brewing permitted. Although previously prohibited, high-gravity brewing is now permitted, but is seldom practiced.

Water: Relaxed rules about water treatment. The German Trinkwasserverordnung (Water Quality Law) governs the preparation of water for general consumption and brewing and provides for numerous modern methods to provide safe, good-tasting drinking water. German brewers may use sedimentation, aeration, mechanical filtration with DE or sheet filters, distillation, ion exchangers, reverse osmosis, slaked lime, chlorination, ozonation, and UV light for water treatment. Brewing liquor may be treated with gypsum and calcium chloride, but these salts can be added only to the brew water, not to the mash. The apparent rationale is that when the brewer treats the water with these naturally occurring mineral salts, the salts become a part of the water. If the salts were added to the mash, they would be considered another ingredient. These various treatments and mineral additives may be viewed with suspicion as deviations from the Reinheitsgebot, but it is apparent that legislators recognized that safe, good-tasting water is not available everywhere and for reasons of safety and practicality, water treatment is necessary and therefore permitted.

Natural acidification only. Although German brewers can take advantage of most water treatments commonly found in breweries worldwide, acidification is strictly restricted to the use of lactic acid naturally derived from malt. In earlier times, breweries soured the mash by mashing in at low temperatures and letting the mash stand over night to activate naturally occurring lactobacilli. Today’s German brewers more commonly propagate lactic acid bacteria in a propagator fed with wort much as one would propagate yeast. The propagator allows for controlled dosing of acidified wort, which can be added to either the mash or the brew kettle.

German maltsters also produce a Sauermalz (sour malt) that is produced from dried malt soaked in water at 113–122 °F (45–50 °C) until naturally occurring lactobacilli produce 1% lactic acid. The malt is then slowly dried at (122–140 °F (50–60 °C) before kilning, during which time the lactic acid concentration increases to 2–4%. Mich. Weyermann Malting Company (Bamberg, Germany) speeds up the process by spraying the dried malt with biologically derived lactic acid before kilning. Sauermalz typically is included in amounts up to 10% of the malt bill.

Hops: Pure hops only. German beer may be produced using hop powder, pellets, and even extracts, as long as these forms are derived solely from pure hops. Solvents to produce extracts must be derived from nonpoisonous solvents such as ethanol, CO2, or supercritical CO2. Isomerized extracts are prohibited because isomerization of the alpha-acids must occur in the kettle.

Kettle only. The brewer can add hops only to the brew kettle. First wort hopping is permitted, but dry-hopping and the addition of hops to the whirlpool are not. These restrictions help explain the noble, delicate bitterness and aroma typical in German Pils compared with the more assertive herbal character of dry-hopped British and American ales. Although hops could technically be added immediately before the end of the boil and transfer to the whirlpool, hops are generally boiled at least 5 to 10 minutes to drive off unpleasant flavors.

Yeast: No direct additives or nutrients. German brewers may plate pure yeast strains on agar, but when propagating the yeast to pitching volume, they may not directly add additives or nutrients. Nevertheless, German brewers have creatively devised legal ways to feed their yeast. One German brewer has suggested propagating yeast in cooled wort that was dosed with yeast cells before boiling as a way to add nutrients without violating the Reinheitsgebot. Zinc cannot be provided directly by addition of ZnSO4 or ZnCl2, but running the wort through piping or over lauter screens containing zinc can provide the needed trace amounts.

No acid washing. Acid washing is prohibited because the repitched yeast would contain a quantity of the acid used in washing, and the addition of acid to wort is prohibited. Some German brewers have proposed, however, that if the yeast slurry is returned to its natural pH before repitching, technical compliance would be maintained.

Using lager yeast in ales. Although lager beer can only be brewed with malted barley, some wheat beer brewers prefer to add lager yeast for bottle conditioning; it settles and clarifies better than ale yeast and is less likely to autolyze. Brewing regulations, however, place a limit on the amount of lager yeast that may be added to top-fermented beer. If yeast slurry is added, the quantity must not exceed 0.1% of the original wort volume. If kräusen is used instead, it must not exceed 15% of the total volume of wort, and furthermore, must be produced from malted barley. Although the law, oddly, does not state what proportion of wheat must be contained in the wort, German consumers expect wheat beers to contain at least 50% wheat. Therefore, brewers must ensure that the addition of kräusen does not drop the percentage of wheat below 50%.



Conditioning and carbonation practices: Only nontoxic, odorless, tasteless substances that can be completely removed after contact with the beer may be used as mechanical filters or adsorbents, such as fining agents. DE and cellulose filters and fining agents such as silica gel, bentonite, and PVPP (for example, Polyclar) may be used to enhance colloidal stability. Kettle finings such as Irish moss are not allowed, presumably because the carbohydrates, proteins, and other substances in the Irish moss would be extracted into the wort. Isinglass finings are permitted, but only in top-fermenting beers and then only in the conditioning tank and not after packaging — in other words, not in the bottle or keg.

German brewers typically carbonate their beers naturally in the conditioning tank either by adding kräusen or by closing tanks when fermentable extract of approximately 1.0–1.5 °P remains. Forced carbonation is permitted if the carbon dioxide is recaptured from fermentation, but that is a costly process, justified only in larger breweries. Carbon dioxide from other sources and nitrogen may be used to move or serve beer, but these gases may not be used to adjust the carbonation levels.


Significance of the Reinheitsgebot


Germany’s detailed brewing regulations reflect the fact that beer occupies a more significant place in German culture than in U.S. culture. Germans count beer as a basic nutritional staple (Grundnährungsmittel) and not merely as a social drink as it is often construed in America. German monks still carry on the brewing tradition, and the portrait of Martin Luther (himself a lover of beer who married a former nun and brewer) has been displayed on bottles of his beloved Einbecker Bockbier — these facts attest to the acceptance of beer in even the most pious segments of German society. (For perspective, try to imagine Pat Robertson’s or Jerry Falwell’s portrait on a beer bottle.)

Even the manner in which Germans consume beer denotes the lofty esteem in which they hold their national beverage. German glassware for serving beer is often more elegant than wine glasses and is typically provided by breweries to each tavern serving their beer, so that even draft beer brands are recognizable by their logo. And each beer style has its own designated glassware: stemmed glasses for Pils; tall, wide-rimmed vases for Weiβbier; tumblers for Helles and Märzens; and small, straight-sided glasses for Altbier and Kölsch. The Germans are also more likely than Americans to practice proper beer-drinking etiquette by toasting each time a new round is served, and God help the ingrate who is so rude as to toast without looking his companions in the eye or to commit the unpardonable gaffe of setting his glass down before drinking.

Germans on the whole also appear to be better informed than Americans about what constitutes good beer. While the vast majority of American brewpubs filter their beer, German brewpubs advertise unfiltered “Naturtrüb” (naturally hazy) beer because German consumers recognize that unfiltered beer is more natural, fresher, and perhaps healthier. Likewise, Germans would be very skeptical of the trend in American taverns to carry as many as 100 to 200 different beers, because so much beer cannot possibly be kept at the peak of freshness.

Germans take national pride in the quality of their beer. They not only talk the talk, they walk the walk, as demonstrated by the fact that since non-Reinheitsgebot beers were allowed into Germany in 1987, imports have not gained significant market share. Who knows if the Reinheitsgebot has created and protected the quality of German beers or if it is the devotion of Germans to beer that sustains the authority of the Reinheitsgebot. Even though foreign brewers may dispute the effectiveness of practices that may seem outdated, expensive, impractical, and restrictive, few can dispute that German brewers are successful in producing a wide variety of beer styles with a consistently high level of quality that is demonstrated from region to region and brewery to brewery.

Beer and the Reinheitsgebot are integral parts of German culture. Perhaps nothing is more closely associated with Germany than beer, in much the same way that baseball is associated with American culture. Like beer and the Reinheitsgebot, baseball is something ingrained in American culture that has endured from generation to generation. Baseball fans may have seen good ball games that were played at night, in air-conditioned domed stadiums, on artificial turf, by teams wearing powder blue, double-knit uniforms. But if most fans could choose the perfect circumstances under which to view the national pastime, it would probably be the same way their fathers and grandfathers viewed it: an afternoon game under God’s sunshine, on a manicured field of cool, green grass, in a quaint old ballpark, between teams in white and gray flannel. Perhaps that’s what the Reinheitsgebot represents — an assurance, even as times and brewing methods change, that the critical factors that ensured the quality of German beer for half a millenium are protected and preserved for future generations in a manner that differentiates German beer from the rest of the world’s brews and makes it uniquely German.

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