Germans have long been proud of their historic beer purity laws. But are these rulings really responsible for the high quality beer or are they actually doing more harm than good?
German Beer Purity Laws
First drawn up by a Bavarian duke in 1516, the Reinheitsgebot is claimed to be the oldest consumer protection law. It mandates that all beer must only be made from the three basic ingredients of water, hops and barley. The law is hailed as a historic badge of quality for all German beers.
Despite recent revisions – it now allows wheat malt and cane sugar, but prohibits unmalted barley – the law on German beer purity has essentially remained the same over the intervening centuries.
Beer Quality Down to Quality Brewers
Disillusioned by the proliferation of characterless, chemically altered beers on home soil, UK drinkers have long looked admiringly towards Germany for the quality of its brewing industry, and seen the law as the reason for its high standard.
However, some beer experts argue that this common belief that Germany’s purity laws are responsible for the country’s esteemed brewing industry is misguided. Instead they believe that German beer is good because German brewers are very skilled in the art of brewing and undertake their role with immense pride and care.
They assert if a soulless commercially motivated brewery wants to brew bland beer then the constraints of the purity laws will not prevent them from doing so. The purity law will not hinder a bad brewer from making bad beers and its absence won’t prevent a good brewer from making good beer.
For instance, during the days of the DDR, Germany’s eastern bloc dispensed with the Reinheitsgebot, and yet the quality of their beer didn’t diminish and suffer in comparison to their western rivals. In fact some argue that DDR beers were by and large of a better standard.
Purity Laws Restrict Other Key Areas
One might even argue that the existence of the laws could even be helping to compromise German beer quality.
The factors that are crucial to the quality of a beer are not the exclusive presence of the key ingredients but the standard of the ingredients, the lagering period, pasteurisation, filtering and carbonation. The belief that beer is good simply because it is pure is just a convenient excuse for a German brewery to claim they are providing high quality products without making any effort to do so.
Laws Limit Range of Beer
Also the law stifles the creativity of brewers by the restricting of the ingredients. If a beer tastes good and doesn’t have anything unsavoury in it then brewers should be allowed to use any ingredients they wish.
The sheer range of beers available in Belgium would not be possible with stringent purity laws. Most, if any, of the classic Belgian ales would not be able to be brewed if they had to follow the rules of the Reinheitsgebot.
This is highlighted in the fact that although Germany boasts a phenomenal number of breweries, it is home to comparatively few beer styles. The open-minded approach to beer ingredients in Belgium means it has almost as many different styles as breweries.
The Right Legislation
The rest of the EU should therefore not follow in the footsteps of Germany with regard to their laws regarding beer production. The important development for European beer lovers would be to introduce legislation that would mean that all beers would have to include a full ingredient list – like non-alcoholic drinks and food. This will enable consumers to see what they are drinking and make an informed choice when buying their beer.