Here in the United States, we care more about who owns the brewery and controls the brewing process than we do about what ingredients are in the beer. Americans relish in the creativity of the brewer and we are willing to try beers brewed with innovative ingredients like peaches, live crabs or, where legal, even CBD. No so in Germany. This week on Beer Notes we are exploring the definitions of beer here and in Germany.
In 1516 Duke Wilhelm of Bavaria and his brother instituted a beer purity law stating that only hops, barley and water could be used to brew beer. It was adopted throughout Germany in 1906. During World War I, a Bavarian legislator first named the law “Reinheitsgebot” and the beer purity law phrase was embraced. The original intention was probably economic as well as to ensure the safety and health of the population.
One of Wilhelm’s concerns was the use of questionable ingredients in the production of beer. They ran the gamut from wood shavings to hallucinogenic plants. Another motive was to protect the wheat supply so there was enough wheat flour to produce bread to feed the population. However, since wheat beer was already a staple in Bavaria, the brothers allowed one brewer to continue producing these wheat beers — for a pretty penny.
Nobody really knew at this time that yeast was a vital component of beer. When scientists began to understand yeast’s role in the conversion of sugar in the mash into alcohol, yeast was added as an acceptable ingredient.
In Germany, the Reinheitsgebot is still in effect today despite the popularity of craft beer and the many creative ingredients being used to produce it. Germany now imports foreign beers that have a much broader range of ingredients. Brewers can also apply for special exceptions to add other ingredients and Germany itself allows the production and sale of non-compliant beer as long as the brewer doesn’t call it beer.
So craft beer in America may not actually be called beer in Germany. It might be a “malzgetra(e)nke” or malty drink. However, for those of us who love craft beer, a beer by any other name is still a beer in Germany or America, For Beer Notes, this is Ann McGinnis Hillyer.