Germany's 500-Year-Old Beer Purity Law Needs to Go

A new study shows Germany's Reinheitsgebot is turning off younger drinkers and driving them to non-German beers.


The Infamous Blue Tie / photo on flickr

Germany's Reinheitsgebot, the umbrella term used to describe the country's fabled beer-purity laws, is celebrating its 500th birthday this year.

Among other things, the 1516 law famously requires that beer made in Germany only contain three ingredients: water, barley, and hops. (Yeast, unknown in 1516, was only added to the list of permissible ingredients in 1993.)

The law, intended in large part to prevent fraud and adulteration, has survived since the Middle Ages. It is literally medieval.

Many German brewers take pride in the rules. But the Reinheitsgebot has come under increasing attack in recent years for being an outdated weight on German beer.

Some German brewers have fought the rules. A 2005 court challenge allowed a German brewer to "continue adding sugar syrup to its dark brew and still call it 'beer.'"

Why is sugar syrup permissible? It appears to be the case that the sugar is added after brewing and so is not part of the brewing process. Arbitrary? You bet. But it's not as if the rules always make sense. Enforcement of some facets of the Reinheitsgebot has sometimes appeared as arbitrary as the law itself.

"Inspectors tested the quality of beer by pouring the drink on top of a stool and sitting down," notes a 1988 article in the Northwestern Journal of International Law & Business, discussing enforcement during the Middle Ages. "The quality of the beer was measured by the degree to which the beer caused the inspector's leather pants to stick to the stool."

Slightly more modern science is also showing, increasingly, how the law has turned off German consumers.

A new study recently added new evidence in support of the law's negative impacts. The study, conducted by a German market research firm, K&A BrandResearch, found that the law, coupled with the freedom enjoyed by brewers outside the country in places like America, with its thriving and innovative craft beer movement, is helping push younger German drinkers away from domestic beer and toward imports. The study concluded younger drinkers find German beer laws to be "increasingly irrelevant." They're fleeing to, among other drinks, those made by American craft brewers.

Plenty of American craft beers appear to comport with the Reinheitsgebot rules.

But plenty don't. Often proudly so. For example, the fine folks at Dogfish Head, the award-winning Delaware brewery, are no fans of the Reinheitsgebot. They proudly declare they've been "thumbing our noses at the Reinheitsgebot" for more than 20 years.

"We experimented with whatever ingredients we found in our brewpub pantry, things like chicory, licorice root, maple syrup, honey, pumpkin, raisins and brown sugar," notes the brewery. "People called us freaks, but we loved those full-flavored beers and so did our customers, so we stuck to our guns."

Rules saying a food may only be made in a particular fashion often claim to uphold tradition. But, as Dogfish Head notes, such rules are often wrong about tradition.

The brewer points out that it's the German law itself, rather than adding berries or pumpkins to beer, that bucked tradition. Dogfish Head points to beers thousands of years older than the Reinheitsgebot that contain ingredients like chicory and honey.

Some German brewers also point out this fact.

"Why shouldn't I include coriander or berries if they improve the taste?" asks German brewer Johannes Heidenpeter.

Germans must choose. Younger beer drinkers are fed up with the Reinheitsgebot. Either the law will continue to slowly obsolete German beer, or Germans will abolish the law.

NEXT: Three New Television Comedies Greet the New Year

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  1. Oh, holy shit, I thought the Reinheitsgebot was just a category of beers based on some ancient law that had been repealed long ago. I never knew that corny law was STILL in effect.

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  2. So I am confused. Obviously someone is appropriating someone else’s culture, but danged if I can figure it out.

  3. I keep coming back to reason for the hip and relevant topics that I truly am interested in.

    1. Surely porter isn’t brewed according to German purity laws!

      1. Depends on the Porter. You’re just using dark malts, so strictly speaking, you can make it and still follow the law.

        Of course, many porters add honey, sugar, chocolate, maple, etc. These would certainly break the purity law.

  4. Sugar is the main addiction killing America. Not surprised younger Germans are drawn to it once brewmasters are allowed to add it to beer.

    1. Geez you must be fun at…*checks username*

      Oh. Carry on.

  5. Few Americans realize just how closed-minded Europeans are and how stifling life there is. There is a reason why Americans are responsible for the vast majority of innovation.

    1. All rhe better for competing against them in the world market. While they smugly celebrate their heritage, we will revel in our future.

      Only Europeans ( well, and a few misguided Americans) appreciate a European legacy. The rest of the world wants new and better products. Their attempt at cartelling their way to competitiveness is failing. Protecting centuries old innovations will not save them. The sooner the European Union breaks up, the sooner the smarter, more innovative countries rise to the top. And the sooner the failures learn from their mistakes.

    2. You take that back! Europeans are the most cultured, diversified and open-minded people on earth, sir!

      1. all the law abiding ones anyways

      2. They are so diversified, the Dutch, Germans, Swedes, Danes, Norwegians, and Finns each needed their separate country! Because they loved each other so much!

  6. Another long German compound word bites the dust.

    1. Schadenfreude will carry on. It’s the closest thing to joy a socialist can experience.

  7. Silly krauts trying to define what is and what isn’t “beer”. Now excuse me I have to make a BLT, wheres my jar of egg-less mayonnaise, my soy bacon, and that nice ripe FrankenTomato?

  8. It’s beer. Who cares? 😉

  9. Good morning, everyone. The weather has finally shifted here. It’s going to get up into the 40s today! I’m looking for my shorts and sandals.

  10. How is a law from 1516 still in effect when Germany wasn’t even a country in 1516? Hell they had 5 separate governments (counting East Germany) in the 20th Century. Did each one re-pass the law? Or are there still laws on the books from the Nazi Government or Wiemar Republic? Or is it more akin to Common Law?

  11. Oke first of all. The article is complete nonsens.
    The rheinheitsgebot Was changed in 1987. And allows Brewers to brew whatever they want. A lot of Brewera in germany still gold True to the law because they like it. But make no mistake there are Many young new craftbrewers in germany and in europe.

    And to Some of the comments below.
    A porter can end is most of the time a beer brewed by rheinheitsgebot. Because it only had hop malt water and yeast.

    America shurly is innovative. But Not more then europe
    To name a few the lightbulb and the cd are dutch inventions.

    Back to craftbeer. Most of the beerstyles in the world originate from europe: Belgium england and germany. All the anerican styles are an adaptation of the styles that are from Europe.

    Greatings a dutch craftbrewer

    1. Sorry for the spelling and typo’s. Typing On a Phone in a foreign language is a bit hard

    2. “America shurly is innovative. But Not more then europe. To name a few the lightbulb and the cd are dutch inventions.”

      The argument was not that no inventions ever came from Europe; the argument was that MOST new innovations are American because in general, Americans are allowed relatively more leeway when tinkering with product designs.

      1. I dont know where you base that on. Because it is Not true. What is the basis for youre argument?

        1. history ?

          1. Haha. Name one significant american inventions. And Not the big Mac or the revolver. Because they are stupit

            1. You should use your smart phone to Google some of them on the Internet.

              1. Really! u can do the Same for european inventions.I mean it isn t a contest. Im Sure america had done Some great inventions.

                But there is no basis for the argument that america is more inovative. Tell me Why america is more inovative then europe. Give me a good argument Not based On feelings or patriotism.

              2. Of all people, the Swiss can claim some credit for the Internet.

                But yes, the US has invented the modern world, from the telegraph onward.

            2. Really want to play that game?

                  1. Ah, so you’re going to ignore the vast majority of American history and only focus on today’s current regulatory climate. A climate that becomes less and less innovative the more it emulates European law. How very disingenuous of you.

                    1. I am certanly not. Europe’s history is much longer then the american.
                      Certanly in ways of important inventions america can never surpass Europe dont even mension the cultural difference

                      And in europe there is more the tenancy to emulate america law. So Thats probably just a matter of perspective

                    2. ManicBrewer|1.2.16 @ 1:06PM|#
                      “I am certanly not. Europe’s history is much longer then the american.”

                      Bloodier, too!

                    3. What’s that have to do with it?

                    4. Manic Brewer. If you come back and re read the comments check these guys out.


                      They make the best Belgian style beers in America.

                    5. The point being is that in America we do not have any cultural restraints that you are subject to in Europe. In the U.S. we take your ideas, and build on them.

                    6. Boohoo, euroweiner is jealous cause his entire continent will either be irrelevant or Islamic 20 years from now. You, like most Europeans, learned to speak English – no one learns to speak Dutch…

                    7. Sort of like China?

                    8. ManicBrewer|1.3.16 @ 12:32AM|#
                      “What’s that have to do with it?”

                      What do you mean? You guys invented the world war, along with other notable cultural developments.

                    9. Is it dignified to engage the slave pen exterminators of Europe? If so, why not ask them what is so wonderful about altruism?

            3. I remember the long list of Chinese inventions like stern post rudder, compass, gunpowder, etc., but that they were all combined into an armed caravel by Europeans. So, “innovation” is all relative.

              European inventions vs. Chinese says China was far more innovative then.

              I remember the screw being a big European invention…which admittedly is pretty handy.

              p.s. America invented the atomic bomb.

            4. Excluding the revolver and the Big Mac — although they are both awesome — and many, many other things, Americans invented the telegraph, the telephone, the incandescent light-bulb, the fluorescent light, LEDs, the airplane, air-conditioning, vulcanized rubber, plastic, atomic energy, television, interplanetary travel, the transistor, the computer, the laptop, the cellular phone, the smart phone, liquid-fueled rockets, communication satellites, GPS, recombinant DNA, Viagra, and aerosol cheese.

        2. You can look at patents, startups, economic growth. Europe was a center of innovation until the end of the 19th century. Since WWII, Europe has fallen far behind the US in terms of innovation.

  12. SOMEONE has to say it-

    1516 was NOT “medieval”. It was Renaissance.

    1. I thought about that, but while by 1516 the renaissance had started in Italy and Spain, it did take a while to work its way up into northern Europe.

  13. Um. They still brew fun things, they just have to write malt beverage instead of beer on the label. If some ingredient in Founders Breakfast Stout caused the brewery to have to label it malt beverage instead of beer I’d still drink it.

  14. There was a great Brew Dogs episode where they went to Germany with the Stone Brewery founder and made a beer without ANY of the Germany Purity Law ingredients, just to show how bullshit it is in modern times.

    Good stuff!

    1. They made a beer without water?

      1. That would be great for camping.

  15. So is it illegal to make beer with additional flavor in Germany? Or are they forcing beer makers (breweries, etc) to call it something other than “real German beer”?

  16. Finally, Reason has an article which deals with the real life issues people are interested in, Beer. 🙂

  17. Libertarian solution. Have an organization akin to Underwriters’ Laboratories or the various groups who do inspections for kosher and halal foods create voluntary certification for brewers who want to make beer based on the strictures of the old laws. Then, the brewer could label the beer with the appropriate seal of approval. No damned gubmint involvement required, unless you get caught defrauding customers by using the seals without authorization by their owners, and you get sued.

    1. Suggesting libertarian solutions to German problems is like suggesting igloos to desert nomads.

      1. German beers are shit, and that’s the way they like it. They will die a slow death as imports slowly scrub them from the various menus. Why would ANYONE keep a beer law from 500 years ago? It’s almost the very definition — in a humorous sort of way — of insanity. Let’s replace it with this: “All beer shall taste good. If a beer does not taste good, the drinker shall pay a fine of US$1.00.” Problem solved, right?

  18. And yet Germans have figured out how to sell wheat beer.

    1. Yes. They call it “white.” (cue canned laughter)
      Seems to me we ought to count blessings that after shooting, bombing and hanging some 7 million of them to get rid of their Malthusian altruistic eugenics laws, those are mostly gone–at least from Germany. I will not take up cudgels to change their beer laws. Instead I buy Dutch beer as better tasting and morally superior. Some countries brew Heineken locally, at regular beer prices–paradise as far as any reasonable beer drinker is concerned.

  19. Oh, this is precious: German economic meddling has a long tradition

    The Bavarian order of 1516 was introduced in part to prevent price competition with bakers for wheat and rye. The restriction of grains to barley was meant to ensure the availability of affordable bread, as wheat and rye were reserved for use by bakers.[2] It has also been argued that the rule had a protectionist role, as beers from Northern Germany often contained additives that were not present in Bavarian beer.[3]

  20. The only time government meddling in booze produced a good product was when they came up with Bottled in Bond whiskeys.

  21. “Why shouldn’t I include coriander or berries if they improve the taste?” asks German brewer Johannes Heidenpeter.

    This is like asking why shouldn’t I add pineapple or artichokes to pizza. Go ahead but I’ll take the real thing 😛

    1. So, tell us what you drink. What is this “real thing” to which you refer?

  22. can’t they get around the law by calling their beer “non-confomist brew” or something like that. I’m sure hipsters and what not would like that.

  23. Google pay 97$ per hour my last pay check was $8500 working 1o hours a week online. My younger brother friend has been averaging 12k for months now and he works about 22 hours a week. I cant believe how easy it was once I tried it out.
    This is wha- I do…… ??????

  24. Better to have beer laws than the sort of selective breeding for racial altruism the boche had not so long ago. Even Jack London pointed to Germany as the source of the socialist brainwashing he underwent as a young man.

  25. They should allow all beer and request the label indicate Reinheitsgebot. consumer makes the decision.

  26. I’m sticking with the Chocolate Porter at Neptune’s Brewery in Livingston, Montana. You won’t catch me drinking any of that stale, tasteless, lifeless Euro-piss that tries to pass for beer.

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