German beer -- bier, as you try to pronounce it at your neighborhood brewhaus -- is the definitive form of beer for many, evoking frosty mugs filled with crisp golden lagers topped with foam. And probably somebody in a frilly dress delivering nine of those mugs at once. And this year, well, it's kind of a big one for Germany's finest export.
On April 23rd beer drinkers and makers worldwide will be celebrating the 500th anniversary of the legendary German Beer Purity Law, the Reinheitsgebot, a piece of legislation that defined what German beer, and beer worldwide, is: barley, hops, and water. That's it. So why is something so simple such a big deal worthy of world-wide celebrations? We poured ourselves a boot, sat down, and found out.
What is the Reinheitsgebot?
"Furthermore, we wish to emphasize that in future in all cities, markets and in the country, the only ingredients used for the brewing of beer must be Barley, Hops and Water. Whosoever knowingly disregards or transgresses upon this ordinance, shall be punished by the Court authorities' confiscating such barrels of beer, without fail." -- The Reinheitsgebot, April 23, 1516
In English, Reinheitsgebot roughly translates to the German Beer Purity Law, which is a hell of a lot easier to say. Signed by the Bavarian co-rulers Duke Wilhelm IV and Duke Ludwig X into law on April 23rd, 1516, it stipulated that beer, by law, was only to be made with three ingredients: barley, hops, and water. Later, yeast was added to the list when its role in fermentation was discovered, and other ingredients were added still later, such as sugar in top fermenting beers. Still, the list was narrow.
The Reinheitsgebot also regulated beer prices. It’s likely that the bill was not to protect beer as much as it was to protect bakers: wheat and rye were reserved for bread while barley, a terrible product for bread-making, was given to the brewers.
It's largely considered the oldest food law in the world today. There were plenty such laws in the past: ancient Egyptians had laws protecting certain fish from being eaten and Romans had laws limiting how much sumptuous food its elite could eat (it was a lot), but none of those laws are still recognized. Even though the Reinheitsgebot was repealed by the European Union in 1987, many German breweries still uphold it, and label their beers as such. It’s a testament to the custom, and it’s for more than just the label and sales -- it’s a recognition and celebration of tradition.