Criticizing German brewing always feels very hard to do, especially to Germans. Because it really is so accomplished. But while there is much for Germans to be proud of in their place in beer history, fetishization of the Reinheitsgebot and layers of red tape will keep German beer from attaining heights they might otherwise reach. Germany has so much expertise that could produce even more great beers if it wasn’t brewing with one hand tied behind its back.
The famous 1516 Bavarian Reinheitsgebot decreed that beer may only be made with barley, hops, and water (yeast was discovered centuries later). The law was enacted in order to prevent brewers from competing with bakeries for wheat and other grains, and so keep the price of bread stable, as well as to regulate away ingredients that might cover up a spoiled beer.
However, the rulers of Bavaria still had a taste for wheat beer, and just four years after the law passed, a brewery on the Czech border was given permission to brew with wheat. That brewery remained the sole producer in Bavaria until a century later, when waivers were given out by Duke Maximilian I to many more breweries across the country.
Over time even more exceptions were granted and recently EU and German courts made several rulings which require a less strict application of the law. The current law only applies inside of Germany, and doesn’t affect beers made for export. Allowances have been made for certain industrial processes, and brewers are also allowed to use natural sugar for flavour and colour.
But the mythos of the Reinheitsgebot has become so powerful in general German culture that it still stifles brewers who want to experiment or even brew traditional German beer styles, many of which do not conform to the law. It’s fine to be proud of the quality that the Reinheitsgebot has come to stand for, but German brewing prowess is not caused by law and doesn’t need it either.
German brewers who want to brew new styles, use creative (natural) ingredients, or even want to try their hand at historical styles, face a number of challenges. Depending on the federal state, brewing these beers might be legally impossible, or require much time and money on paperwork for exceptions, with Bavaria having the strictest regulations.
Andreas Seufert, a member of the Vereines Deutsche Kreativbrauer (association of German creative brewers) described, in an interview this year with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, how their brewing of a wheat lager, based on a Bavarian recipe from 1616 was illegal in modern day Bavaria.
Even outside of Bavaria, German brewers must apply for exceptions if they want to brew outside of the modern law, which requires extra time and money, making the decision of whether to brew a new kind of beer very difficult. The well-regarded Danish craft brewer Mikkeller has been known to produce over 50 different beers in a year. While Mikkeller is on the extreme end, a German brewer would quickly find the kind of experimenting Mikkeller does time and cost prohibitive.
Another issue for the development of beer in Germany is the regulation of home brewing. In most of the US home brewing is as easy as buying the equipment and ingredients and going at it. Generally, as long as you aren’t selling it, you are golden.
In Germany, while home brewing also isn’t taxed, you can only produce up to 200 litres in a year. And even then you have to register with the customs office, and inform them exactly when, where and how much you will be brewing. Depending on your regional customs office, they may inspect the site of brewing regularly and require you to provide receipts proving you really are only buying the amount of ingredients you need.
A healthy home brewing scene is very beneficial to brewing culture, since it provides an informal avenue for experimentation as well as allows beer fans to engage with beer on more than just a consumer level.
Making space for more creativity and engagement with beer is even more important when considering global and German beer drinking trends. The generally trend is that total beer consumption is falling.
Even in Germany, consumption has fallen from 150 to 107 litres per capita in the last 30 years or so. People are drifting towards drinking more wine and cocktails. However, the other side of that trend is that the craft and local beer slice of the pie keeps growing larger. More and more the people actually drinking beer care more about the source and the story of the beer.
Instead of glorifying an idea that has contributed little to German brewing excellence, Germans should support brewers who are trying to apply German Fachkenntnisse (know-how) to modern ideas.