The curse of the Reinheitsgebot

Everybody knows the famous German Purity Law of 1516. It stated that beer could only be made using three ingredients: water, barley and hops (four, once yeast was discovered). This law, the Reinheitsgebot is to this day touted as a high pinnacle of brewing, and it has done wonders for German beer, forcing all brewers to use the best grain (instead of cheaper corn or rice) and otherwise cut corners for the sake of maximizing profit. The result: German beer is of universally high quality; I think it’s the best in the world.

But that universal excellence comes at a price, as modern German brewers are discovering.

On this side of the pond, we like to think of Germany as this quaint little patchwork of tiny breweries, each making beer exclusively for the villagers in their own town, while the burgermeister dances on the beer kegs. Maybe it actually was like this once. Maybe in Bavaria it still is. But, just like in England, large brewing conglomerates have been snapping small breweries up at an alarming rate, and those that remain are forced into direct cutthroat competition.

So how do you compete when everyone’s beer uses the same four ingredients and is equally excellent?

German brewers now have to differentiate their product, mostly through marketing, or buy their competition. The result? fewer choices for the drinker. Of course, what’s left is still awesome beer (thanks to the Reinheitsgebot), but the law inhibited development of diverse niche beers, such as those you see from Belgium, and prevented stratification of the market into lesser and premium beers. Now Germans’ treasured brewing culture is vanishing before their eyes, and that is a crying shame.

The Reinheitsgebot is no longer the law of the land, but its legacy lingers on. We American beer drinkers have benefited tremendously from its influence, as it set an example for great beer after prohibition and World War 2 left us with no friggin’ idea. And brewers are proud to say their beer complies.

Too bad the sword cuts both ways.


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