There is a German word, bierernst, which literally translates to “beer serious.” And in Germany, beer is serious business. Beer purity laws, known as Reinheitsgebot, govern what specifications beer must conform to in Germany. The law is celebrating its 500th birthday this year.
Duke Wilhelm IV of Bavaria issued the regulation in 1516, and some regard it as the oldest currently valid consumer protection law in the world. The law was aimed at quality in sixteenth century breweries. Beer was a dietary staple, and breweries in the sixteenth century were not very hygienic. Brewers often added questionable ingredients, such as wood shavings and roots to their beers. The laws also helped protect consumers from high prices.
Reinheitsgebot also served as a baker protection act. At the time of its passing, brewers were limited to three ingredients, barley, hops and water (yeast was not a known ingredient). By banning wheat in beer, it kept it available and inexpensive for bakers. Reinheitsgebot also functions as a tax law, with the government taking a cut of brewer profits.
The law has lasted in part by support from the German Brewers’ Association. There is also support for the law among German beer drinkers, with surveys showing that up to 85% of drinkers support keeping the law. Traditional beer brewers also favor the law because they feel that it guarantees quality and differentiates them from cheaper beers. It is also viewed as a powerful marketing tool that allows German breweries to play on the reputations they’ve built over centuries.
Criticizers of the law see it as stale, leading to reduced creativity and innovation. Some German brewers see the Pilsner, created in the 19th century, as the most recent innovation the German brewing industry has had. With such strict standards, innovation has been largely limited to innovations with the bottle itself, such as packaging. Some breweries have turned to creative marketing ploys such as registering their mountain spring water as a trademark.
Some German brewers feel the law makes them unable to keep up with the craft beer trend. The number of craft breweries grew over the last 10 years in the United States from 1,400 to 3,400. While breweries abroad can experiment with many different ingredients to tap into this trend, German breweries are largely left only to experiment with the traditional four ingredients if they want to call their product “beer.” The rise in small and craft breweries have not gone unnoticed by the Bavarian Brewers’ Association. The group met in December 2015 to discuss a restructuring of beer purity law, however the resolution has not been published yet.
Even though the law was created to combat purity issues 1516, it is applicable today. A recent testing of 14 of Germany’s best-selling beers found traces of a pesticide in all of them. As one brewmaster put it, “the Reinheitsgebot is still very relevant today, as consumers increasingly focus on the purity and quality of ingredients that go into what they eat and drink.”
Libby Casale is a second year law student at Wake Forest University School of Law. She holds an Honors Bachelor of Science in Business Administration, with an option in Entrepreneurship, and minors in History and Economics.