Posted February 2016
That mythical German thing called Reinheitsgebot
German beer around the globe | As German brewers prepare to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reinheitsgebot this year, taking pride in the fact that for five centuries their beers have only been made with water, barley, hops and yeast, the rest of the beer world will politely acknowledge this achievement and move on. No doubt, the Reinheitsgebot has contributed to brewing culture but times are changing. The old battle cries “German beer versus chemical beers” do not resonate any longer with consumers abroad as the global beer discourse has already shifted to “big brands versus craft”.
To inward-looking German brewers that will be beside the point. They see the Reinheitsgebot as a defender of tradition and a guardian of purity, as much as a rallying point for them to come together as brothers in spirit (but vicious price fighters at the point of sale, cartel shenanigans and all) and gain some sort of shared identity which insulates them against the vagaries of globalisation.
Being both material (a law) and immaterial (a cultural practice), it was a fitting manoeuvre in 2013 to apply to UNESCO for the Reinheitsgebot to join a list of “intangible heritage” that includes Spanish flamenco and Turkey's Kirkpinar oil-wrestling festival. Sadly, for German brewers, their wish was not granted in time for the festivities. I am far from calling the UNESCO application a joke. In fact, it underlines how increasingly symbolic - but no less dogmatic - the Reinheitsgebot has become. It already survived a 1987 ruling by the European Court of Justice which forced Germany to allow imports of noncompliant foreign beers. The Reinheitsgebot may have wobbled a few times but it did not fall.
As I see it, German brewers and their Reinheitsgebot have felt besieged for so long by the dark forces of Those-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named that they are not going to dump it any time soon. Outsiders have called the Reinheitsgebot nostalgic, anachronistic, retrogressive. They are probably right. But as German brewers decided decades ago to do things differently – for example, why is there no German global player in beer? Why are beer prices so suicidally low? – the beer economist Germain Hansmaennel might be proven right. Provocatively he predicted that in the brewing industry Germany’s future will be that of the “Disneyland of Beer” and the Reinheitsgebot a major cornerstone.
This year’s celebrations will doubtlessly highlight that the German Reinheitsgebot was the first modern consumer protection law, safeguarding punters from poor standard and potentially lethal beers. In view of Germany’s recent food scandals this would be a laudable move. However, fairness would dictate that the law’s other aspects should get an equal airing: namely that the original Reinheitsgebot was also meant to control beer pricing, to ensure beer’s taxability, and to reserve other grains for bread because they were in short supply. Like all rulers before him and all governments after him, we should not put it past Duke Wilhelm IV of Bavaria (1493-1550) that “revenues” were foremost on his mind when he decreed the Reinheitsgebot. After all, isn’t there a saying “redde Caesari quae sunt Caesaris” (“render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's”)?
Of course, time tends to be a benign concealer, but not so the global beer commentariat. For the past few years, with the celebrations in Germany coming up, it seems that every Tom, Dick and Jerry with internet access have voiced their opinions on the Reinheitsgebot. While one could find the predictably sneering vitriol on the web, one could likewise hit on plenty of sober and unbiased assessments. As one commentator pointed out, 500 years on from 1516 we certainly have a much more advanced sense of what can go into a beer and make it taste good.
The man has a point. These days, beer is all about taste and flavour and the consumer decides what is a good beer and what is not. Fortunately, brewing technology and quality controls are such that, even without a Reinheitsgebot in place, chances are close to zilch that consumers will grab a beer anywhere around the world that will make them ill. Let’s face it: the Reinheitsgebot in Germany will do nothing to prevent impure and infected beers finding their way onto supermarket shelves. But surely real consumer protection legislation would insist that beer was fit to drink?
Despite these foreign quibblers, German brewers have got themselves into party mood by extolling the success of German beers on the international markets. What piques me: How do you measure the relevance of Germany’s Reinheitsgebot beers globally? That’s a big question.
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