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German brewers cheer 500th birthday of beer purity law

German brewers will be clinking glasses this year to the 500th anniversary of their "purity law", even as craft label designers complain the decree is cramping their style.

German brewers cheer 500th birthday of beer purity law
Photo: DPA

Known in German by the verbal mouthful “das Reinheitsgebot”, one of the world's oldest food safety laws limited the ingredients of the amber brew to just water, barley and hops, although yeast was later added to the approved list.

A Bavarian nobleman and early consumer rights advocate, Munich's Duke William IX laid down the law on April 23, 1516, worried that the medieval staple was being adulterated with sawdust, soot and poisonous plants.

Today the regulation — far from being a remnant of the days of knights and castles — is a global selling point for German lager, pils and weissbier varieties around the world, say brewers.

“In contrast to our colleagues abroad, German brewers don't use artificial flavours, enzymes or preservatives,” said Hans-Georg Eils, president of the German Brewers' Federation, at the Green Week agricultural fair in Berlin.

The keep-it-simple brews indeed suit a trend toward organic and wholesome food, agreed Frank-Juergen Methner, a beer specialist at the National Food Institute of Berlin's Technical University.

“In times of healthy nutrition, demand for beer which is brewed according to the Reinheitsgebot is on the rise too,” he said.

Some simply follow their gut feeling as they hail the law, which will mark its 500th birthday at an April 22 ceremony in Ingolstadt, and nationwide a day later, the Day of German Beer.

“Munich's beers, they are so good — I really believe there's no better,” said Nick Zanic, sitting in a Bavarian bar, expressing a widely held local sentiment.

Beer is king

With even small towns and ancient monasteries making their own centuries-old brands, Germany has 3,500 breweries that exported about 1.5 billion litres (396 million gallons) last year.

In a country where beer has long been king, per capita consumption has dropped off to 107 litres (226 pints) a year from 150 litres in the 1970s.

Most of Germany's breweries stick to the old Bavarian regulation that evolved over the centuries and became imperial law in 1907.

Beer experts acknowledge that the intentions behind the rule may not always have been as a pure as the beer itself, and that it was also aimed against international competitors.

Until the 1950s, Bavaria banned the import of beers from other states.

Germany did the same with foreign beers until the early 1990s when a European Court ruling forced it to open its doors to labels from other nations.

“Of course, the Reinheitsgebot until 1993 played a protectionist role,” said Methner of Berlin's Technical University.

Today foreign brands account for nearly eight percent of Germany's annual beer consumption.

Quince, coriander

As it nears its half-millennium milestone, the law has again been criticised — this time by a new generation of craft brewers who want to add new ingredients, from honey to cranberries, and find the law too restrictive.

“There are small breweries and craft beer producers who would like to experiment, to embark on more daring creations,” said Stefan Hempl, spokesman of the large brewery Hofbraeu Munich.

Craft and boutique brewers can market their creations in Germany but have to label them as 'mixed beer beverages'.

“What's there to complain about with organic quince or coriander?” asked Simon Rossmann of Giesinger Braeu, a Munich-based craft brewer.

“What is not pure about such ingredients, which of course you can add to beer to give it a very different taste?”

The traditionalists argue that the permitted ingredients already allow for a universe of culinary possibilities.

“We are currently seeing a huge diversity, especially in the use of hops,” said Ebbertz of the Bavarian Brewers Federation.

Even without adding fruit, he said, “new varieties are giving beer some fruity notes which evoke mango, peach and the like.”

For now, the boutique labels remain a niche market in Germany.

Ebbertz argued that the purity law is an essential component of the success of German beer, adding that “I think we are well advised to stick to it”.

According to a survey conducted for the national federation, 85 percent of Germans feel the same way.

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BEER

From ‘crisis beer’ to crowdfunding: How German small brewers are getting creative during the pandemic

Beer gardens are beginning to open up across Germany. Yet In order to make up for the losses they have faced over the past year, brewers have had to take matters into their own hands.

From ‘crisis beer’ to crowdfunding: How German small brewers are getting creative during the pandemic
The inside of the 'Kaiser Brewery'. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Marijan Murat

Across Germany, brewers have been searching everywhere for inspiration during the coronavirus pandemic, from brewing ‘crisis beer’ to baking beer-infused bread, starting online businesses and even relying on crowdfunding.

This creativity has been a lifeline – the only way for some breweries to survive.

Standing next to a storage tank inside the Holzhauser Brewery, Dario Stieren – brewer extraordinaire and manager of the Munich Brew Mafia – takes a sip of his own freshly-brewed beer.

The months-long closure of restaurants and bars during the pandemic has hit the industry hard, and small breweries have really felt the impact. 

READ ALSO: Can Germany’s small breweries survive the coronavirus crisis?

Perhaps surprisingly, business is actually going better for the Munich Brew Mafia than before the pandemic, all thanks to the launch of their new line of beers named Impfstoff (vaccine) that they developed in response to the crisis. This novelty beer is available in ‘easy dosage’, ‘double dose’ and ‘overdose’. 

The brewers had not expected their ‘pandemic beer’ to fly off the shelves so quickly, but the first round of bottling sold out in just six hours. In June they will be bringing the fifth batch of their innovative creation to the market.

The pandemic has definitely not all been smooth-sailing for the Brew Mafia; the three brewers who produced the crisis beer have had to become much more flexible and creative over the pandemic, and each of them has had to work a separate job alongside the brewing.

‘We have to stand together’

The opening of beer gardens around Germany is undoubtedly an important step forward, but the Association of Private Brewers in Germany does not think that this alone can lift the brewers out of the difficulties brought by the pandemic. 

The Nuremberg Schanzenbräu brewery is a prime example of innovation under trying times. In a normal year, every weekend between the end of May and the start of September would be a celebration, for which the Schanzenbräu brewers would provide beer on draught. 

Last year the summer party season was basically non-existent, explains Stefan Stretz, the managing director of the brewery, and this year is not looking much better. 

Between 25 and 30 percent of the beers sold by Schanzenbräu come from the tap. Since the start of the Covid-19 crisis Stretz, like most brewers, has been trying to sell more and more bottles of beers. “The market is now pretty cut-throat”, says Stretz. 

READ ALSO: Why German beer day is celebrated on April 23rd

Along with his fellow brewers, Stretz developed and brewed a Zusammen Halbe beer. “The idea behind the beer is that, in a time of crisis, we have to stand together”. A full 40,000 bottles of the beer were produced, and most of these were snapped up pretty quickly.

Stretz will not reveal the extent of the losses suffered by his brewery during the pandemic, but he says there is no way the company’s new ventures can fully compensate. What the beer did do was bring attention to the brewery, which is hugely valuable given the competitiveness of the brewing industry in Germany. 

Somewhat surprisingly, some brewers are actually doing well in the crisis. The Störtebeker brewery in Stralsund has seen a rise in sales.

“With this rise we have been able to compensate for the losses caused by the closure of the restaurant industry”, says the brewery’s spokesperson Elisa Raus. Offering their products online has also played a part in the brewery’s increased sales, and helped to win over new customers. 

Like many other brewers, Christoph Kumpf, manager of the Kaiser Brewery in Geislingen, Baden-Württemberg, faced another problem dealt by the pandemic.

“The persistent lockdown of the restaurant industry meant that a lot of our draught beer was approaching its sell-by date”.

In order to avoid having to pour it all down the drain, Kumpf had to get creative, using the beer to make gin, installing a ‘beer drive-thru’ in front of the brewery and selling any remaining product to local bakers.  

‘Beer-saver bread’

Six bakeries in the region are now producing ‘beer-saver bread’, for which they replace the water in the dough with beer. According to Kumpf, 1,500 liters of draught beer have been used so far to make over 3,000 loaves of bread.

An employee of the Kiene bakery holds a Bierretter bread in her hands. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Marijan Murat

Through these forward-thinking approaches, the brewery has at least been earning back the cost of producing the beer. Other breweries across the country have come up with similar ideas and you can now be on the lookout for Altbierbrot (old beer bread) in Düsseldorf. 

Kumpf is pleased with the success of his campaign, but he stresses that his brewery cannot survive without restaurant sales and private events. “The support from the state has been a real lifeline, no doubt, but the crisis has simply lasted too long”. 

A further problem of the pandemic is that breweries have no money to invest in their futures. The Viechtach community brewery in the Bavarian forest had to launch a crowdfunding campaign to counter this, from which they raised €500,000 within a week, according to the brewery’s manager Markus Grüsser. 

Grüsser, who comes from the Cologne area, took over the brewery at the end of 2018, at which time the business had an investment backlog of fifteen years.

He now wants to use the money raised by crowdfunding to invest in new refrigeration systems and increase the brewery’s social media presence. 

According to the German Association of Brewers, effective media campaigns like those in Nuremberg and Viechtach can help to alleviate the damage for their own individual brewing companies, but are not representative of the situation facing the majority of breweries. 

“What we are talking about here are a few exceptions”, says Holger Eichele, the association’s spokesperson.

The union’s surveys have shown that the future of one in four brewing companies in Germany is under threat. 

READ ALSO: ‘We thought we’d be closed for a month’: How Berlin’s bars are surviving the coronavirus shutdown

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