Duke Wilhelm IV of Bavaria could have had little idea when he issued the Reinheitsgebot (purity law) in 1516 that 500 years later it would be one of Germany's most controversial laws.
“From now on everywhere in our cities, markets and in the country nothing more than barley, hops and water alone can be used,” the hoary text reads.
“Anyone who knowingly infringes on our injunction shall be punished by the court authority by having this barrel of beer confiscated without mercy.”
Wilhelm IV of Bavaria. Should a man dressed like this be deciding on beer regulation in the 21st Century? Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Who could argue with the idea that only three ingredients – water, hops and malt – could be used to make drinks sold as beer?
As it turns out, by the 21st Century a great many people think that it's time to move on from Wilhelm's princely command – which was originally intended to make sure that brewers and bakers weren't competing for limited wheat supplies.
“Germans are proud of their beer heritage, but what a lot of people don't understand is how much the Reinheitsgebot has been diluted by allowing big companies to use certain chemicals or to take certain shortcuts,” Katharina Kurz of Berlin-based brewers BRLO told The Local.
“You can brew really interesting beers within the Purity Law, but we don't want to limit ourselves to that,” Kurz said.
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Greg Koch, co-founder of US-based craft brewers Stone Brewing, suggests that big beer companies aren't just limiting themselves to the Purity Law – but to a very limited idea of what's allowable even within its strictures.
“I don't blame the Purity Law for a lack of creativity in Germany,” he told The Local.
Rather, there's a “brewing style guideline dogma that has been taught to German brewmasters over many decades. It seems to have been drilled into them, there is one right way and thousands of wrong ways.”
Koch recalls a visit to one large German brewer in 2002, when he brought a sample IPA – which qualified to be labelled as beer under the Purity Law – for the brewmaster there to sample.
“He looked at me and said, what did you put in this? I said, it meets the Purity Law. And he smelled it and tasted it again, and asked again, and I told him the ingredients.”
“He almost screamed at me, 'No!' He couldn't imagine you could make a beer taste like that within the Purity Law.”
Berlin breaks with tradition
Stone Brewing – which is expanding into a new European headquarters in the German capital – and BRLO belong to a new generation of brewers who are pushing the boundaries of what German beer can be.
“It's really exciting what's happening in Berlin, bars opening, restaurants are super open to try out small startup beers, compared with Munich for example, where almost every restaurant has a contract with one of the big breweries,” BRLO'S Kurz said.
Katharina Kurz (right) with her co-founders of Berlin-based BRLO beer. Photo: BRLO
The capital's big foreign population was also a big help, she added, as they were used to craft beer from home and keen to find new, quirky experiences outside the mainstream – like a combined bar and small-batch brewery, for example.
And Berlin's roiling turnover of restaurants and nightspots – which can often appear and disappear in the space of one or two years – means that more venues are willing to take a chance on something that doesn't fit into old formulas.
Ancient and modern
When talking about craft beer, there is no getting away from the fact that its modern incarnation has its roots in the USA.
“We were inspired by the American craft beer scene,” BRLO's Kurz acknowledged, saying that it had pushed her fledgling firm to produce pale ales and IPAs.
As Germans, though, she and her partners also wanted “to have this combination of being inspired by the American scene but also by our local traditions.”
BRLO's name itself draws on the ancient history of Berlin – in fact, it's the old Slavic word from which modern “Berlin” derives.
That sense of the past is one reason why they've tried to resurrect local favourites like the Berliner Weisse, the sour traditional beer that can be mixed with fruity syrup – which had “kind of degenerated into this tourist drink that you buy pre-mixed,” Kurz said.
“You can find brewers all over the world brewing what they label as Bavarian style wheat beer or Belgian style Tripel,” said Stone's Koch.
What's changed is that now, “some of our US, West Coast or San Diego style beers have earned their place on the world stage of classic beer styles.”
But Stone, too, has made a point of seeking out less-popular German beers to revive as they expand into Europe – like Leipzig's Gose beer brewed with coriander and salt – which Koch calls “a kissing cousin to the Berliner Weisse”.
“I don't think delicious beer will be a fad,” says Stone Brewing founder Greg Koch. Photo: Stone Brewing
Interest from craft brewers at home and abroad has revived the style from near-extinction. Just five years ago there were only two brewers in Germany producing Gose.
“Today you'll find a significant handful, and if you go to the US I'm sure you'll find 100 being brewed. It's in Poland, Italy, South Africa, South America. And yet this wonderful style is being completely ignored by the German populace,” Koch lamented.
But the good news is that with a global explosion of interest in craft beer, there's room for all these styles and more.
The industry is “revivalist, we like to be historians, we like to be creative, and we like to find out what we don't know,” Koch said.
Will Germans buy it?
So what's next for the craft beer movement and the brewers' bid to banish the 500-year-old Reinheitsgebot?
“I don't think delicious beer will be just a fad,” said Koch. “Rock and roll wasn't a fad, right? But a lot of people said that when rock and roll came out.”
“The craft brewers of the world have created beers that are, quite simply, absolutely delicious,” he went on. “We have countries all over Europe where we're introducing our beer. People have been eagerly anticipating its arrival.”
“People are starting to understand what you can do with beer,” Kurz said confidently. “For decades, Germans have gone into a bar and just said 'a beer please,' it didn't matter the type or brand. That's going to change.”
Within the Federal Republic, Kurz believes, “Germans are definitely getting ready for craft beer.”
Beer isn't Germans' only tradition. Here: a couple in traditional dress (Tracht) in Herborn, Hesse. Photo: DPA
Although it's still a mostly urban phenomenon in less hidebound cities like Berlin and Hamburg, even the historic beer Mecca of Munich is starting to open up.
She said, for example, that in five years “pale ale will be a household beer. Every restaurant will have one on the menu.”
Her mother recently found BRLO's own products on the shelves of a supermarket near her home in Franconia, northern Bavaria – and if you know a little bit about beer production in Germany, that's not really surprising.
“In Franconia you have lots of little breweries that for centuries have been brewing, basically, craft beer in lots of different styles. The country has all kinds of little varieties and traditions.”
And the new craft beers aren't coming to consumers from remote industrial facilities – they come from small breweries that often include in-house bars and restaurants.
Looked at that way, the latest fad for craft beer could be viewed as Germans being given a little push back towards the roots of their beer culture – and away from the 20th-Century aberration of an over-strict idea of what Wilhelm's decree was all about.