The German Reinheitsgebot
Why It’s a Load of Old Bollocks
September 16, 2004
Written by rpattinson
The Reinheitsgebot, the oldest consumer protection law and a guarantee of beer
quality. An example to the world of how beer should be brewed, as the Germans
have done for centuries. Well, not really. These are a few of the myths I would
like to expose. Everyone <em>thinks</em> that they know what the Reinheitsgebot
is and mostly consider that’s it’s pretty groovy. This is an attempt to have
an objective look at what can be a very emotive subject.
Now, some people may be a little shocked and perhaps even outraged by the title
of this page so a few words of explanation first. German beer, generally, is
brewed to a very high standard, one which of the rest of the world rightly envies.
Unfortunately, many people seem to get confused about the reasons for the high
quality of German beer. As far as I can tell, the Reinheitsgebot is totally
irrelevant; German beer is good because German brewers are highly skilled and
make their beer with pride and care.
<font size="+1">The DDR - who needs a Reinheitsgebot?</font>
That it is also possible to do this without the limitation of only using malt,
water, hops and yeast has been proved by many, including some in Germany itself.
The scorn heaped upon beer from the DDR - mostly because of the supposedly inferior
brewing standards - I find totally unjust and mostly based upon pure prejudice.
How many West Germans, who will happily tell you how undrinkable DDR beer was
while sipping a delicious glass of Oettinger, ever actually drank in an East
German pub? Very few.
I can well remember being in the DDR at the time when West German beer first
became available. What surprised me were how much <em>worse</em> the imported
beers were than the supposedly inferior DDR counterparts. I couldn’t understand
how anyone could prefer these expensive, tasteless beers over their own local,
flavourful brews. Well, as time has shown, they didn’t. Even before the re-introduction
of the Reinheitsgebot in the East, people had gone back to their old favourites.
Anyone who compared the washing-up water blandness of Eschwege Pils with the
wonderful Mühlhausener Pilsator would know why: the DDR beer simply tasted better.
<font size="+1">What is pure?</font>
I realise that this is a controversial view because many, including some who
really should know better are hypnotised by the ’pure’ beer argument and find
it hard to believe that beer with other ingredients can not only be just as
pure, but also taste just as good. A crap, money-grubbing commercial brewery
will manage to brew bland rubbish either within or without the constraints of
the Reinheitsgebot. The problem is, that concentration on this limited list
of ingredients as the core of beer quality allows compromise in many other key
For me, the discussion should concentrate more around the factors which are
truly crucial to the taste of a beer: the quality of the ingredients, lagering
times, pasteurisation, filtration and carbonation. I think it has been all to
easy for many German breweries, and not only the large ones, to gloss over the
introduction of dubious techniques by insisting that they still brewed ’pure’
Sorry, but I’m afraid that I find it hard to accept that a filtered, pasteurised
beer, given a quick glance at the cellar and then shipped out to the unwitting
or uncaring customer is a ’pure’ beer, solely because only malt was in the grist.
I’m not advocating huge amounts of adjuncts in the mash tun, but I know that
while I may not be able to notice if a beer contains 5% non-malt in the grist,
I can certainly tell if it hasn’t been lagered long enough. For me this is the
only thing that matters; how does it taste.
As long as it tastes good and doesn’t have anything harmful in it, the brewers
should be allowed to use whatever ingredients they choose. You only have to
look a Belgium to see how far the frontiers of what is considered beer can be
The simple insistence that all their beer is good because it is ’pure’ has been
very convenient for any German brewer wanting to cut corners, lower production
costs, but still pretend that they are making a top-quality product.
<font size="+1">How good is German beer?</font>
Let’s be honest about this; there is a lot of crap beer brewed in Germany. There’s
also a large amount of very good beer produced, but to insist that all German
beer is good is evidently ridiculous. Not all British beer is good, not all
Belgian beer is good, not even all Czech beer is good.
From the caramelly, boiled-sweet flavour of a mass-produced alt through a soapy,
sweetish helles to a one-dimensional pils that tastes like lemonade with added
hop-extract, there are plenty of uninspired or downright unpleasant beers.
On the other hand, the pub-brewed altbiers of Düsseldorf as some of the finest
examples of top-fermented beers to be found anywhere in the world. A Franconian
unfiltered kellerbier is a revelation to anyone thinking that bottom-fermented
beers could never rival ales for subtlety and complexity of flavour. A Bavarian
weizen, with its bouquet of spices - coriander, cloves, banana even - can confound
the limitations of its ingredients and achieve flavours straight from the spice
mill. There is much diversity and much to be very proud of in the German brewing
<font size="+2">11 Reasons why the Reinheitsgebot is bollocks</font>
With that explanation/apology done, here are my reasons why the Reinheitsgebot
is a load of old bollocks:
<table width="89%" border="1" align="center" cellpadding="0" cellspacing="0" bordercolor="#660000">
<td><strong>1. No-one in the world brews according to the Reinheitsgebot of
1516</strong>. Everyone (with the exception of the lambic brewers who disqualify
themselves on other grounds) uses yeast as well as the water, malt (and
that’s specifically and exclusively <em>barley </em>malt). Even if you don’t
deliberately add it, you’ll find it pretty difficult to brew beer without
<td><strong>2. It’s a bread protection rather than beer protection law</strong>.
The original idea in limiting the permissable ingredients of beer, was to
stop people using grain better suited to making bread for making beer. Specifically,
rye and wheat. Barley, not so suitable for baking but very much so for brewing,
was to be reserved for beer. No wheat beer can claim to be brewed to the
Reinheitsgebot of 1516, because until the 17th Century when the aristocracy
were given the privilege of brewing beer with wheat (the equivalent of eating
white bread), the use of wheat in brewing was specifically forbidden in
Bavaria. In the original law only barley malt is permitted. </td>
<td><strong>3. The only permitted ingredients are malt, water, hops and yeast.
. . .</strong>except for sugar in top-fermenting beers. Exactly why this
is allowed in top-fermenting beers and forbidden in bottom-fermenting beers
is a riddle to me. You will note that German brewers don’t advertise the
fact that sugar is sometimes allowed in their beers. </td>
<tr><td><strong>4. In itself, it’s no guarantee of good beer</strong>. Let’s face
it, Heineken Pils is brewed according to it. Are you seriously accusing
that of being a top-quality beer? Or try that delicious Binding beer. Umm,
dishwater with a dash or margarine. Lovely. </td>
<td><strong>5. There are still chemical additives used in German beer</strong>.
It’s perfectly permissable to treat the water with chemicals before you
use it. Plus all the pesticides and chemical fertilisers you like in growing
the barley. Some German brewers got most upset with people brewing organic
beer, because they saw it as a challenge to their claim to purity. </td>
<td><strong>6. It limits the styles of beer which are possible</strong>. Virtually
none of the classic Belgian ales is, or even <em>can</em> be brewed if you
stick to the rules of the Reinheitsgebot. Framboos and kriek because of
the use of fruit (hardly a cheap replacement for malt), La Chouffe and witbiers
because of their use of spices. None of these would be possible. Given the
choice between Heineken Pils and La Chouffe, I know which I would go for.
Considering the number of breweries it possesses, Germany is home to relatively
few beer styles. Bavaria, with its hundreds of breweries only has a handful
of different styles. Belgium, on the other hand, with it’s open-minded approach
to ingredients, has almost as many styles as breweries. Even Austria, with
only 90-odd breweries, manages to have at least as many different types
of beer as the whole of Germany. </td>
<td><strong>7. Germans have been brewing to the Reinheitsgebot since 1516</strong>.
Well, Bavarians have. But then again, not even all of them. In 1516 Bavaria
was a good deal smaller than it is now, and didn’t yet include that not-really-so-important
brewing area of <a hrefhttp://www.bierregion-franken.de/>Frankenland, where getting on for 50% of all the breweries
still active in Bavaria are located. Nuremberg, Bamberg and Bayreuth became
Bavarian in 1803, as part of the fallout of the <a hrefhttp://www.zum.de/whkmla/region/germany/bavaria17991815.html>Napoleonic
The Reinheitsgebot was only extended to cover the whole of Germany around
1900. It was a prerequisite for the Bavarians in agreeing to German unification.
It was vigourously opposed by North German brewers who (quite rightly)
saw it as an attempt by the Bavarians to protect their trade. Its introduction
to the whole country saw the extinction of certain <a hrefhttp://www.xs4all.nl/~patto1ro/gerstyle.htm>beer
styles (there had been a tradition of spiced beers, probably dating
back to before the time when hops were widely used), as happened again
in the 1990’s when one version of Köstritzer Schwarzbier could no longer
<td><strong>8. It doesn’t act as any protection for the consumer</strong>.
It’s still perfectly possible to produce dreadfully unpure beer, with a
yeast or bacterial infection, and sell it. I have drunk beer in Germany
which was so badly yeast infected that it was unfit to have left the brewery.
The Reinheitsgebot has nothing to say about this. Real consumer protection
legislation would insist that beer was fit to drink. </td>
<td><strong>9. The current Reinheitsgebot is not the same as that of 1516</strong>.
The original law says that beer should only be made from <em>barley</em>,
hops and water. Note that this is not barley malt, but barley, which is
specified. Of course, no mention of any other form form of malt or grain,
such as wheat. Guinness, which doesn’t count as a Reinheitsgebot beer because
of the use of roasted barley <em>would</em> have qualified under the 1516
<td><strong>10. German brewers do not always stick to the Reinheitsgebot themselves</strong>.
Many breweries use various adjuncts for versions of their beers sold abroad.
(Though this is not allowed for those located in Bavaria.) </td>
<td> <strong>11. Many German wheat beers may not, strictly speaking, be sticking
to the rules of the Reinheitsgebot</strong>. Wheat malt is only permitted
as an ingredient in top-fermented beers, yet many hefeweizen beers are bottled
with a bottom-fermenting yeast. As this yeast will be continuing the fermentation
in the bottle, it’s a matter of debate whether the end result is a pure
top-fermenting beer. </td>
Some misguided people, without thinking of the consequences, had proposed the
introduction of the Reinheitsgebot for the whole of the EEC. What a disaster
this would be for diversity and choice for the beer drinker! Belgian fruit and
spiced beers, Finnish sahti, even traditional Guinness, would no longer be possible.
What is really needed is legislation forcing brewers to list the ingredients
on the label (as is already the case in Scandinavia). Then consumers can see
what they are getting and make an informed choice. Personally, I don’t want
to have my choice of beer determined by medieval legislation to stop Bavarian
peasants malting grain they should have been baking with.
<font size="+2">The Reinheitsgebot today</font>
Here is an English translation of the German beer law. Note paragraph 2 where
the permitted ingredients for top-fermented beer are listed. Note also paragraph
7 and its reference to "special beers". This can allow pretty well
any ingredients, on a purely discressionary basis. It is this part of the law
that allows Gose to be brewed with coriander and salt yet still be called beer.
<table width="89%" border="1" align="center" cellpadding="0" cellspacing="0" bordercolor="#660000">
<h2>German Beer Law</h2>
<li>Only barley malt, hops, yeast and water may be used for the brewing
of bottom-fermented beer, with the exceptions contained in the regulations
in paragraphs 4 to 6.
<li>The brewing of top-fermenting beer underlies the same regulations,
however other malts may be used and the use of technically pure cane,
beet or invert sugars as well as dextrose and colouring agents derived
from these sugars is allowed.
<li>Malt shall be taken to mean: any grain that has been caused to germinate.
<li>The use of colouring beers, if brewed from malt, hops, yeast and water,
in the preparation of beer is allowed but is subject to special supervisory
<li>Hop powder, hops in other milled forms and hop extracts may be used
in brewing, so long as these products comply with the following requirements:
<li>Hop powder and other milled hop forms, as well as hop extracts
must be produced exclusively from hops.
<li>Hop extracts must:
<li>contribute the same flavoring and bittering substances to
the wort as would have been contributed had hops been simmered
with the wort.
<li>fulfill the requirements of the German Pure Food Laws.
<li>only be added to the wort before or during the simmering phase.
<li>Only materials which act mechanically or by absorption and are thereafter
removable, leaving no, or only such residue in the beer which is of
no health, taste or odour concern may be used to clarify beer.
<li>Upon request, in individual cases, such as the preparation special
beers and beers intended for export or scientific experiments, exceptions
to the requirements of paragraphs 1 and 2 can be made.
<li>The requirements of paragraphs 1 and 2 are not applicable to brewing
for personal consumption (home brewing).
<li>After establishing the original extract content in the fermenting
room, water may not be added to beer without permission of the customs
office. The customs office can permit the brewer to add water to beer
after the original extract content has been established in the fermenting
room, provided the appropriate precautionary measures have been observed.
Beer wholesalers or publicans are, under no circumstances, allowed to
add water to beer.
<li>Brewers, beer wholesalers or publicans are not allowed to mix beers
of different original extract contents nor to add sugar to beer after
the beer tax has been calculated. The Finance Minister can allow exceptions
<li>For the production of top-fermenting simple or very low original extract
content beer, according to the Additive Authorisation Regulation (...)
I rant a little more on some of the topics raised in this article here:
<a hrefhttp://www.xs4all.nl/~patto1ro/bambbrew.htm>The breweries of Bamberg
<a hrefhttp://www.xs4all.nl/~patto1ro/ddrbrew.htm>The breweries of the Former DDR
<a hrefhttp://www.xs4all.nl/~patto1ro/bambpubs.htm>Bamberg Pub Guide
<a hrefhttp://www.xs4all.nl/~patto1ro/gerstyle.htm>Old German Beer Styles
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