Beer Nazis

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Some cheer it as a needed "food purity law" of venerable lineage that helps preserve the stellar reputation of German beer. But a German brewer is trying to rebel against the fabled "reinheitsgebot" in the name of creativity and dynamic choice, by marketing a German beer made of something other than just barley, hops, and water–in his case, sugar syrup. (He was on the right side of the law as long as he called it a "specialty made with added sugar syrup," and not an actual beer.)

The BBC has the full story of a brewer who dares defy the German "beerocracy" in the hopes "that relaxing the Reinheitsgebot would allow Germany to produce innovative brews which might help reverse a long-term decline in beer sales."

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  1. Yet, ironically, the state of Texas will not allow sale of something that passes the Reinheitsgebot but has an alcohol content greater than that defined for Beer under Texas law–if it has “bier” in the name.

    That’s right, if it has the German word for beer, it must be beer, so if it’s beer, it must have low alcohol, and if it doesn’t–denied!

    Their papers were apparently out of order.

  2. The Reinheitsgebot is an example of ostensible consumer protection that worked to protect certain business interests against others. See:

    http://www.xs4all.nl/~patto1ro/reinheit.htm

    for a page entitled: The German Reinheitsgebot – why it’s a load of old bollocks.

    Some of the greatest beers in the world, especially Belgian beers, would be illegal under this rubric.

    Now, when the EU requires harmonization to certain technical standards of its new members, what could they possibly be doing?

    Kevin

  3. Contra Evan McElravey:

    Some of the world’s finest beers are brewed in Belgium. Duvel, a very strong golden ale, is simply excellent. Chimay, brewed at a Trappist monastery, features several great beers. The Saisons, particularly Saison Dupont, are also quite good.

    Using Stella to dismiss Belgian beer is as bad as judging American suds in light of Bud or Miller or some such swill.

  4. That was me, Lisa, and someone from a Dr. Pepper plant emailed me that I was wrong – they do use hfcs. Sad day for joe.

  5. “Some of the world’s finest beers are brewed in Belgium. Duvel, a very strong golden ale, is simply excellent. Chimay, brewed at a Trappist monastery, features several great beers. The Saisons, particularly Saison Dupont, are also quite good. ”

    I must confess — but you knew this — to having never tried all of these particular beers. However, my experience with (sorry) Stella, various other Belgian beers (including, I think, Duvel and possibly even Chimay: I ought to keep a log), as well as the various “Belgian-style” brews from Qu?bec have led me ineluctably toward the conclusion, based on an extrapolation of their similar, defining characteristics, that I think the stuff is awful piss. However, I’ve been forced to recant some of my groundless alcohol prejudices in the past, and I’ve never regretted it (mmm…mezcal), so this may be only a provisional opinion. But I stand by it until facts may interfere.

    On the other hand, I’ve never yet had a Reinheitsgebot-compliant beer I didn’t adore.

  6. “Some of the world’s finest beers are brewed in Belgium. Duvel, a very strong golden ale, is simply excellent. Chimay, brewed at a Trappist monastery, features several great beers. The Saisons, particularly Saison Dupont, are also quite good. ”

    I must confess — but you knew this — to having never tried all of these particular beers. However, my experience with (sorry) Stella, various other Belgian beers (including, I think, Duvel and possibly even Chimay: I ought to keep a log), as well as the various “Belgian-style” brews from Qu?bec have led me ineluctably toward the conclusion, based on an extrapolation of their similar, defining characteristics, that I think the stuff is awful piss. However, I’ve been forced to recant some of my groundless alcohol prejudices in the past, and I’ve never regretted it (mmm…mezcal), so this may be only a provisional opinion. But I stand by it until facts may interfere.

    On the other hand, I’ve never yet had a Reinheitsgebot-compliant beer I didn’t adore.

  7. Skittlebrau!

  8. For those of you who did not trouble to visit Mr. Pattison’s site, let me quote:

    In 1516 Bavaria was a good deal smaller than it is now, and didn’t yet include that not-really-so-important brewing area of Frankenland, where getting on for 50% of all the breweries still active in Bavaria are located. Nuremberg, Bamberg and Bayreuth became Bavarian in 1803, as part of the fallout of the Napoleonic Wars.
    The Reinheitsgebot was only extended to cover the whole of Germany around 1900. It was a prerequisite for the Bavarians in agreeing to German unification. It was vigourously opposed by North German brewers who (quite rightly) saw it as an attempt by the Bavarians to protect their trade. Its introduction to the whole country saw the extinction of certain beer styles[*] (there had been a tradition of spiced beers, probably dating back to before the time when hops were widely used), as happened again in the 1990’s when one version of K?stritzer Schwarzbier could no longer be produced.

    As he mentions, there was a time, about a thousand years ago, when hopping beer was an innovation. What if the medieval geniuses of food purity had commanded that it isn’t “bier” if it contains hops? Beer has been around, in one form or another, since ancient Egypt and Babylon. Why its definition should have been frozen in time some 500 years ago by some Bavarian nobleman/pirate baffles me.

    If a Bavarian or Greater German Brewers Association had created a standard for beer, and participating breweries had placed a seal of compliance on their labels, that would have been sufficient to inform the consumer, without any state action, except if someone fraudulently appropriated that seal. Makers of other styles could continue to brew, and make their own efforts to convince their customers of their product’s quality. A spontaneous order, rather than a diktat, would arrange people’s preferences.

    Kevin

    *http://www.xs4all.nl/~patto1ro/gerstyle.htm

  9. But they don’t mind mixing syrups when it’s served. Berlinerweiss (I’m sure I’m spelling it incorrectly) was really nice to have while in Berlin at pub…a wheat(white) beer that you could have ‘mit syrup’, the traditional raspberry cordial syrup mixed in when served.

  10. Surely the point here is that the brewer wanted to produce a non-compliant brew but still call it ‘beer’. The benefit of the Rheinheitsgebot is that when you buy something called ‘beer’ you know what went into it. No-one’s stopping the brewer making his product from syrup, cranberries, artichoke juice or whatever, they’re simply, and quite rightly, stopping him from calling it ‘beer’.

  11. No-one’s stopping the brewer making his product from syrup, cranberries, artichoke juice or whatever, they’re simply, and quite rightly, stopping him from calling it ‘beer’.

    Quite rightly? What right does the government have to tell people what they can and cannot put on their label, as long as it’s not false information? Why should a centralized governing body be able to force people, at gunpoint, if necessary, to follow their strict definition of what “bier” is? As any stroll down a specialty beer shop aisle will show you, the definition of “beer” is infinitely subjective.

    Though, the truly amazing thing that this misguided law has created are those who are able to make such amazing beers as Aventinus, Celebrator and Schlenkerla, within the confines of the Purity Law. On the other hand, who knows what they could have done without the constraints.

  12. What right does the government have to tell people what they can and cannot put on their label, as long as it’s not false information?

    Well, if “beer” is a drink defined by specific ingredients, and you make something with other ingredients, then putting the word “beer” on its label is false information.

  13. Well, if “beer” is a drink defined by specific ingredients, and you make something with other ingredients, then putting the word “beer” on its label is false information.

    But who defines “beer”? It’s simply a symbol for a type of drink. I know what beer is, you know what beer is. But the law doesn’t know what beer is unless it is informed by a definition. The problem here is that it is simply not within the legitimate scope of any government to legislate the recipe of any foodstuff. The argument should not be whether or not the beer is “Beer,” it should be why is the government wasting time and tax dollars defining “beer” when most people can already tell “beer” from “wine,” or something else.

    If a non-“BEER” beverage (call it “Fred”) were to gain enormous market share over “BEER” and become the preferred drink of most people, then, likely, we’d have government busybodies regulating what can legally be called “Fred.”

    The point is it’s all a waste of tax money. And look at the time smart people like us spend arguing over it…

  14. …or is it “like we?”

  15. This is a completely semantic argument, and furthermore I really don’t care what the Germans put in their beer. But the fact is you can’t support “truth in labeling” laws without being willing to stand firm between “beer” and “something with a lot of the same ingredients as beer.” And yes, if you want to make sure that labels don’t have “false” information, then you’re going to have to go through the messy, quibbling task of defining the terms you’re interested in not seeing misused.

  16. Better-informed consumers benefits markets. This is a rare point on which there is unanimity among economists. Whether a particular supplier feels like informing (or misinforming) his consumers is irrelevant.

    The liberty impulse here is working against the efficient functioning of markets – or would be, if certain people had their way.

  17. I see no problem with having a legislated definition of a term for a product, as long as the definition reflects established usage and isn’t used to favor a lobby. Maple syrup has to be made from the sap of maple trees; the worthless sticky-sweet stuff made from cane sugar is often called “maple syrup,” but its producers can’t legally sell it by that name. Does this somehow violate their “right” to call their product whatever they want, on the grounds that the government has no right to “legislate the recipe”?

  18. “Better-informed consumers benefits markets. … The liberty impulse here is working against the efficient functioning of markets – or would be, if certain people had their way.”

    If the market demands ingredient labeling thats what the market gets. Bottom line, bureaucracy regulating markets stifles competition. Would you drink “specialty made beer like beverage with added sugar syrup”.

  19. Hey, here in the U.S., people drink Budweiser and call it beer, but they don’t care what goes into it as long as it doesn’t make them sick (for other reasons than overuse).

    Imagine if Anheuser-Busch (or Pete Coors for that matter) used some of their not-inconsiderable clout to get “beer purity” laws instituted here. No beer worth drinking could be called “beer.”

    This is not about a public health concern, or even a product quality issue, it’s simply a way for influential industry members to exclude competition.

    Saying “Better informed consumers benefits markets” is easy, and may get a lot of heads nodding around here, but the fact of the matter is that consumers can be just as well-informed by a label which lists the ingredients as by redefining a categorical food description to a specific recipe.

    Imagine if all “Pasta” had to be made from the same ingredients, merely in different proportions. How much variety would we have if a “Hamburger” was legally defined to be “two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions, on a sesame seed bun?”

  20. Would you drink “specialty made beer like beverage with added sugar syrup”.

    No, I wouldn’t, which is why I would want to know if THAT is what I might be buying.

  21. Would you drink “specialty made beer like beverage with added sugar syrup”.

    No, that’s why they call it Zima.

  22. I don’t think you’re going to make much hay with the argument “laws like the Reinheitsgebot harm the quality of the product in the marketplace.” Let’s take a step back and look at the general quality of the beer market in Germany, compared with the Reinheitsgebotless American beer market… (although we do have similar laws)

    In general, I think you’re right — there is some danger of industry moguls defining their competition out of the marketplace with laws like this. But there’s no “redefining” going on here, the Reinheitsgebot has been around for hundreds of years! Whatever competition was defined out of the German beer market has already done its crying, and (somehow!) a vibrant market filled with quality product still remains.

  23. >Would you drink “specialty made beer like beverage with added sugar syrup”.

    No, I wouldn’t, which is why I would want to know if THAT is what I might be buying.

  24. Please explain to me how requiring brewers to label the ingredients they use is so onerous as to stifle competition.

  25. “Please explain to me how requiring brewers to label the ingredients they use is so onerous as to stifle competition.”

    Um, the issue is not the labeling of ingredients, it is that the law prohibits the use of the word “Bier” unless the product contains no other than certain ingredients. It’s not allowed to be called “beer” if it’s not made of whatever is prescribed by the gov’t.

    This has absolutely nothing to do with safety labeling of ingredients. It has everything to do with shutting down innovative beers.

    Someone wrote earlier that the crying over the Reinheitsgebot ended long ago and we should all buck up and take it…so does that mean that the quicker the government can stifle protest against a law the quicker it becomes a “good” law?

  26. Hey, here in the U.S., people drink Budweiser and call it beer, but they don’t care what goes into it as long as it doesn’t make them sick (for other reasons than overuse).

    Imagine if Anheuser-Busch (or Pete Coors for that matter) used some of their not-inconsiderable clout to get “beer purity” laws instituted here. No beer worth drinking could be called “beer.”

    DB: Ironic you should use Annheuser-Busch’s Budweiser as an example of “properly” labeled products since the main ingredient in Bud is rice.

    Translated to those who don’t brew: Bud is the king of sake not beer.

  27. As a cerevisophile, I have to say: oh, get over it. It’s just a matter of definitions. If it isn’t made of X, Y, and Z only, you can’t call it beer. You can still sell it, you just can’t call it beer. So what? You can’t piss in a can and call it beer either. As others have commented, in the US we have limits too on what one may legally call beer, but that doesn’t seemed to have stopped the production of innovative “malt beverages”.

  28. I suspect even cane sugar is too dear for conversion into pancake (non-maple) syrup. Can you say “high-fructose corn syrup”?

    And on another unrelated note, someone here once recommended Dr. Pepper for containing sugar and not HFCS. Picked up a can here in SoCal and ingredients read “sugar OR corn syrup”. Damn.

  29. Bah. I’d rather drink Plax than Stella Artois or any other Belgian brew of my acquaintance. Reinheitsgebot that piss out of existence.

    Anyway, my understanding of the law (possibly wrong) is that it doesn’t ban the production of non-complying suds, it’s just that the errant product cannot be marketed as “Bier.” Maybe the government needs to establish a new labeling regime with categories like “Dummauslanderschwill” and “Schmutzschmeckendbrau.”

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