The Spice of Life
A tourist traveling in Belgium or Britain is greeted by a cornucopia of different styles and tastes in beer. Porters, stouts, witbiers, saisons,… the variety is remarkable. If said tourist now traveled on to Germany or Austria, he or she would find a steep decline in choice. Let’s have our hypothetical tourist sit down in a German pub and sample the beer menu. There would be Munich Helles, Bocks, Dunkles, Schwarzbier, Rauchbier,… all lagers…, and Dampfbier, Koelsch and Hefeweizen (plus some more obscure local ale varieties). But where are the ales brewed with fruit, sugar, and other adjuncts? Where are the milk stouts, the sugar and honey in the beer? Why are there mostly lagers?.
Variety is the spice of life, or so the saying goes, and that was certainly true for the beers brewed in the Holy Roman Empire in the early 1500s. Brewers used barley, wheat, rye and all kinds of herbs and spices in their beer, and, of course, hops. Beers that were brewed were not really divided in ales and lagers yet, but there were definitely lagers brewed – inadvertently.
How do you brew a lager and not know it? Lagers need cold fermenting. Lager yeast is especially bred to ferment lager in the 50F range. In those days, brewers did not even know, what turned their wort into beer. Yeast was not bred or propagated as much as contracted, like a disease, from other beer batches. A yeast cell was not a concept that the brewers understood or knew about, but they knew that a beer that was fermented in winter tasted different than a beer fermented in warmer months. That there were two different yeasts going to town on the wort, depending on temperature, that was a thought that would come much later. So winter produced cleaner tasting lager beers – lagers – and summer was the time of ales.
So far, so good. Until the early 1500s there were lagers and ales, some with hops, some with herbs. So who were the spoilsports who ruined this rich menu? We can point squarely to two people: Duke Wilhelm IV. and Duke Ludwig X. of Bavaria.
Duke Wilhelm IV.
A New Beer Law
In 1516, the law propositioned to the Assembly of the Bavarian Estates in Ingolstadt reduced the ingredients in beer to hops, water and (barley) malt. it was first only used in Bavaria, but it gave the local governments the tools to enforce the regulation and slowly spread all over Germany. The driving factor behind the law (which was not called Purity Law at this time) was economy and health.
Before the rise of hops, herbs were used to brew beer, all kinds of herbs. Those herbs could be beneficial, or highly poisonous. There had been regulations through the Middle Ages in various places and cities, that attempted to regulate the use of herbs in beer, but using hops was simply safer.
Economics played a role too. Beer was such an important part of society, that it consumed a huge part of the grain production. Some grains, like wheat or rye, were necessary for providing bread to the people. The Purity Law restricted brewing to barley, to ensure that enough wheat and rye remained for baking.
So here were the main reasons why German brewers were restricted to water, hops, and malt. Over time this became the motto of the German beer industry and something of a seal of approval. “Hopfen, Wasser, Malz – Gott erhalt’s” (transl. “Hops, water, malt – may God preserve it”) was a way to define clean tasting, long lasting quality beer. But all that does not explain the fixation on lagers. Hops, water, and malts can make a great ale as well.
The second part of this story is one of prohibition. Brewers and consumers were aware that beers brewed in summer could not be as well preserved as beers brewed in winter. Higher temperatures caused not only a different fermentation process, but also contributed to bacterial infections and sour beers. The second and knockout punch to beer variety came in 1553 when in Bavaria summer brewing was outlawed. Beer had to be brewed in the cooler season and stored cool in caves for summer drinking. Continuous practice of this isolated the lager strain of the yeast, and specialized it for cold brewing.
While these revolutions were born in Bavaria, they slowly made their way through all Germany. This was hampered by the political situation at that time that saw Germany not as a unified country, but a quilt of little independent kingdoms and and duchies, all united under the name of Holy Roman Empire. What was good for the towns of one duchy, was not the law for the towns of the neighbouring duchy, and so the law had to make it’s way from town to town and guild to guild, aggravated by the fact that brewers had to find other work in summer, when brewing was forbidden.
And then, how else could it be, the tension of the chain became slack. In a few places, brewing with wheat was allowed again, coriander and cumin snuck into the wort. In the late 19th century a new Beer law was put in place in Bavaria to bring the recipes back to the old standard hops, water, and (barley) malt. Other parts of Germany allowed top fermenting beers with sugar and other malts, but Bavaria stayed the course.
Keeping It Pure
In 1918, the beer law became the “Purity Law” (Reinheitsgebot) in Bavaria for purely economical reasons. Bavaria was defending its beer industry against beer brewed with sugar from other parts of Germany. Later, in the European Union, this “Reinheitsgebot” was adopted in other parts of Germany to indicate that their beer was more pure than the beer imported from other countries in the European Union. This, of course, had the effect that more and more breweries in Germany that had used sugar, had to adhere to the ingredients “hops, water, and malt” again.
And so the Purity Law created an isolating zone around Germany and Austria that fended off everything that strayed from the beaten path. 1987 the breach occurred. Other countries in the European Union were bringing in lawsuits for not being able to export their beers to Germany and Austria and call them “beer”. This started to serious chip away at the Purity Law. Today, the Purity Law only regulates the production of bottom fermenting beer in Germany. Bottom fermenting beer to be sold in Germany has to be produced with hops, water ,and malt, but can deviate when it is produced for export. Other countries shipping their beer to Germany are not bound by this law.
And the law lives on. It has continued to be a trademark of German and Austrian Lager breweries and countless commercials and billboards try to drive home the fact that hops, water, and malt is all that a beer needs. Today the market is opening up. Free trade is bringing new tastes, and even established breweries cannot help but notice that the consumers are thirsty for more than the old standard lager. I was very surprised when I found the first Shandy (Radler) produced by a beer company that I only knew for lager beers, but I am happy that variety is making a comeback.