And now, on this Labor Day, a story about kicking back with a cold one.
Like every popular tourist destination, Germany has its stereotypes (lederhosen, sausages, and beer usually come to mind.) Being on a journalism fellowship in Germany, I couldn’t resist doing at least one story on the country’s famous golden brew.
So let’s explore the centuries-old purity code that has made German beer what it is today.- The Reinheitsgebot.
For almost 500 years this law has defined German beer.
Back in 1516, Bavarian Duke Wilhelm IV signed what would later be known as the Reinheitsgebot after being dissatisfied with the inconsistent quality of his people’s beer. So, through feudal decree, he said beer could only be brewed with three ingredients:
The law eventually spread to all of Germany by the early 1900s and was amended to allow yeast and malted wheat as possible ingredients.
German Stephanie Habers manages a small brewery, Bönnsch, in Bonn. She sees the influence of the Reinheitsgebot every day. She showed me to the back of the brewery, where a murky yellow concoction was boiling in one of Bönnsch’s two gleaming steel tanks, a mixture that would soon produce a Reinheitsgebot beer. Brewmaster Philip Hadebuch took noticeable pride.
“(Laughs) That’s a good question,” Hadebuch said when I asked why he loves his work. “I need beer. And the German Reinheitsgebot is fantastic. And the beer is Einzigartig”
That means exceptionally good.
Germans identify with German beer, sure, but much more so with their local beers. New Yorker Mark Garrison and I are both here on the same fellowship. He produces a popular food podcast, the Sporkful.
“You can have (beer) from the north, where they tend to be very bitter and very herbal Pilsners, all the way to the South where you have your Wheat beers and your Munich style lagers,” Garrison said.
Those regional identities are taken very seriously.
“We’re talking right now, we’re in the Rhineland, so if we go to Cologne, most of the beer available will be Kölsch. If we go to Dusseldorf, most of the beer available will be alt. And the cities and the regions have rivalries. And so sometimes that means if you are in a certain region, you are going to get the beer of that region. You’re not going to be able to choose beers from the other regions like that,” he said.
It’s serious enough that no brewery more than 20 kilometers from Cologne can brew a beer and call it Kölsch–by law. That’s a complication for Bönnsch beer, brewed 25 kilometers away.
DB:”You say this is a…what?”
DB:”But, you can’t call it a Kölsch.”
HABERS: “No, we call it Bönnsch…kölner Brauart…that means Cologne-Style.”
The Reinheitsgebot remained official German Law until 1987. A globalized beer marketplace made such strict restrictions impractical. But many German breweries still proudly follow the law all around the world.
It was bottling day when I visited Bayern Brewing in Missoula, Montana earlier this summer. Owner and Brewmaster Jürgen Knöller was standing on the floor, monitoring hundreds of brown glass bottles as they twisted and turned through a stainless steel assembly line with absolute precision. All of his 12 beer varieties strictly adhere to Reinheitsgebot principles.
“I would say I probably take it (the Reinheitsgebot) more serious than most of the Germans do,” he said.
Knöller left Germany in 1987, the same year the law of purity was dropped. He said since then larger breweries have been cutting corners to produce beer more cheaply and efficiently. Losing the law has led to his homeland producing beverages he does not consider real beer.
“Most people are not even 100 percent sure what that means,” he said about the Reinheitsgebot. “Most people think it’s just malt, barley, hops, yeast and water. But even things like artificial carbonation…no you don’t put berries in beer, no, dry-hopping is not allowed.”
I recently gathered with several other American journalists at a quaint little beer garden right on the banks of the Rhine River to discuss their feelings on the Reinheitsgebot. Sean Sinico, a freelancer for Deutsche Welle Radio, had a much more jaded view of the German beer scene.
In contrast to Bayern’s Jürgen Knöller, he didn’t think German beer has changed enough.
“You can get a very good beer anywhere in Germany but you can’t get a variety of good beers in most places, you can get one or two sorts and finding something that goes beyond that with a flavour that’s a-typical is difficult,” Sinico said.
That scepticism comes from the very thing that has made German beer so famous.
“Breweries that decide not to stick to the Reinheitsgebot get stigmatized and… they don’t really deserve that. There’s a place for flavors in beer.”
Stephanie Habers actually agreed with Sean, that flavored beers have a place in Germany. Some drinks brewed by Bönnsch do not follow the Reinheitsgebot.
For a current experiment they have taken some 80 gallon barrels that used to be filled with Red wine, “and we’ve put some beer in (them) now, and we’re leaving (them) until mid of November,” she said. “And then we’re going to have a look what it’s like. Maybe it takes some of the color, some of the red color. Maybe it takes some of the taste from the wine.”
She said this idea of brewing specialty beers is becoming more popular with small breweries. It’s fun, but she said they will never replace Reinheitsgebot beers.
HABERS: “It’s not the same because it makes headache.”
DB:”And nobody wants a headache.”
Stephanie:”Mmmm hmm, and with clear German beer, normally you don’t get a headache, the next day. (Laughs.)”
That’s something beer drinkers around the world can ‘prost’ to.
Want to learn more about the Reinheitsgebot? I found this article on germanbeerinstitute.com to be the most comprehensive.