The Bavarian purity law has been around since 1516. A pretty long time I think. In 2016, 5 years from now, we will have its 500th anniversary. But in fact the party will not be held in its creation town Ingolstadt. Munich already had its 500 years purity law anniversary, as the Munich purity law is a little older than the Bavarian purity law - since 1487. 500 years is indeed a long time. Let’s take a closer look into it.
Purity law history
First we need to know some history in order to understand why there is something like a beer purity law around at all. The law was made in order to bind the brewers to use only three ingredients. These three were malt, water and hops. Yeast was not known at that time. Pasteur discovered it in the 19th century while searching for an answer for the French brewers' questions about why German beer tasted better than French.
The question still remains: Why three ingredients only? Till 1487 / 1516 beer was brewed with many ingredients in it. Ingredients you might not want to drink as they were intoxicants like henbane, or poisonous like thorn apple. These 3 ingredients where just going together very well. And hops where a good natural preservative. Some historians think that the purity law may have been the first anti drug law in order to protect people.
Nowadays the purity law is embedded in the BierStg (German beer law). German brewers are bound to it if they are selling beer in Germany but not if it is for export.
The purity law protects the German market.
With purity law in place the German market is protected against low cost industrially produced beers. These beers can be produced with all kind of ingredients. Ingredients you don’t even want to know about. For example you can brew beers without any natural enzyme rests by just using artificial enzymes and chemicals. A PhD at the Technical University Berlin called the brewing process “a purifying process”. Another PhD student was talking about the beer matrix (not the movie); where you have all the chemicals in place and just add water to get something that tastes like beer at the end, when in fact you produced it within some minutes. Just think about the low costs of this way of making "beer". Especially the transport costs would be extremely low. Welcome to the great new brewing world.
The purity law is about consumer protection
Protecting the market isn’t the only reason keeping it up. The purity law is still about consumer protection. Consider the usage of enzymes, chemicals or even genetically modified yeasts or malts (genetically modified yeasts aren’t possible in organic beers) in beer. The purity law makes it nearly impossible. Carrying the "Gebraut nach dem Deutschen Reinheitsgebot" sentence is in a way a statement about quality. And this sentence still sticks in the consumers' head for a good reason.
High technical knowledge
With a high demand on still cheap beer the technical knowledge has to be high. Have you ever seen industrial scale beer production? You won’t see the product until you open the bottle. If for example if you can’t use artificial yeast growth nutrition, you have to be highly technical with the process in order to produce a beer at a competitive price. It’s no wonder that German brewing plants are sold everywhere all over the planet. Look at Krones, Caspary, Nerb and all the other global players. If you have drunk a beer somewhere on this planet, it is most likely that a German company built the brewery it was made in.
The diversity is not for sale
Only because there is no information about the diversity of the German beers available doesn’t mean that there is none. One of the biggest German hobby brewers’ website is hobbybrauer.de. There are guys there inventing new beers & equipment even though they Have never taken a brewing course. Have you ever heard about the "quarter square meter brewery"? If not, check the "Viertel-Quadratmeter-Brauerei" and you will be astonished at what high technical level beers can be produced at the smallest scale.
The Germans adhere to their laws and that’s why you will not find the diversity in the supermarkets shelf or at online stores. The diversity isn’t sold or bought, it’s tasted and shared.
The German purity law is about tradition, quality and will remain for a long time. The German brewers are proud of it. And if you don’t like to brew a beer that’s not in accordance with the Reinheitsgebot you still can do it. And there are many around doing it.
If you believe that the diversity of German beers is just about Helles, Alt, Kölsch, etc. you are on the wrong track. Just not giving a new name to a beer because a new yeast strain is used or the alcohol content is stronger than usual doesn’t mean that beers don’t differ. We have no Strong Kölsch, or Pale Alt, or Indian Pale Alt. It’s the brewers freedom to be within a range of given parameters and make the most out of it. (Given parameters are mostly about alcohol or original gravity – tax thing - there are two different categories "Bier Art" and "Bier Typ").
Take a look at the yeast banks hosted by Weihenstephan, Doemens, VLB, etc. You will find a huge diversity of mostly 70 strains which are available right away on demand. More are available on request. Check out the agricultural breeding centres and find that many different sorts of barley, rye, wheat, etc you never dreamed of. Walk through the hop gardens in the Hallertau, Tettnang or Hersbruck and ask for the not so popular hops.
Check the local hobby brewers (smaller than nano) and discuss with them variety. It is the beer world you ever dreamed of.
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