April 23rd 1516 was the day that the ‘Reinheitsgebot’, or Purity Law, was adopted across the entirety of the Duchy of Bavaria.
Originally formulated in Munich, the law was designed primarily as a means to regulate the market. Specifying that beer could only contain water, barley and hops, the law ensured that brewers couldn’t buy up available wheat, which would cause bread prices to rise.
It also meant that beers from surrounding duchies and free cities couldn’t sell their beer in Bavaria, protecting brewers from outside competition.
While not a food safety measure, the Reinheitsgebot could have had a beneficial effect on the quality of beer. It made the brewing of beer with other, possibly poisonous ingredients more difficult.
In addition to the discovery of the role of yeast in brewing, various gruesome ingredients such as the fingernails of hanged men, or a noose could be added to start the fermentation process – after the introduction of the law, brewers were far more careful with what they added to their beer.
Through centuries of upheaval, war, pestilence and famine, the Reinheitsgebot endured and was adopted first by the German Empire, after Bavaria joined, then the Weimar Republic after the First World War.
It still exists as part of federal legislation today, albeit only applying domestically, adding yeast as a permissible ingredient and not outright banning the sale of beer with other ingredients, but forbidding its sale as ‘beer’.
Credit: Michael Stuchbery
Despite pushback from younger brewers, the Reinheitsgebot remains an important marketing symbol across Germany, a mark of quality that also stands for tradition and the cultural values embodied in the brewing process – exactness and patience.
It is so treasured that the anniversary its adoption was the natural choice for the day to celebrate one of the country’s most prized exports.
This weekend, brewers across the country will celebrate German Beer Day, despite the pandemic. Many smaller breweries are offering online tastings, and beer specialist stores are running promotions showcasing local brews.
So, if you’re in the mood for a drink this weekend, why not seek out a local beer that abides by the Reinheitsgebot, and find out why it remains such a potent symbol of German pride and culture. Prost!