Are Germany’s 500-Year-Old Purity Laws Stifling Beer Innovation?

Surveying the Fatherland’s fledgling craft brewing scene

By Michael C. Brown

Are Germany’s 500-Year-Old Purity Laws Stifling Beer Innovation?
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13 May 2016

While Bronze-Age Germanic tribes may not have invented beer (that great distinction belongs to the ancient Sumerians), they were definitely the first Europeans to concoct the golden brew — as a 2,800 year old amphora from a burial site in Bavaria attests.

But it wasn’t until 1516 that the country enacted the Reinheitsgebot, the infamous German Beer Purity Law that has regulated the production of beer in Germany for the last 500 years.

So in keeping of the anniversary festivities that are currently kicking off all over the world, we want to ask the following question: was zum Teufel is a Reinheitsgebot, anyway?

The regulations were originally adopted as a legal basis for prosecuting crooked brewers, who would often add ash or sawdust to bolster their anemic brews and swindle patrons. Though the particulars of the Purity Law have changed as much over the years as Germany itself has (Bavaria actually insisted on its universal application as a condition for German unification in 1871), the basic tenets remained the same: the brewing process may only include water, barley and hops, (though later, wheat and yeast were also allowed).

And even though the Purity Law was actually repealed in 1987, many breweries in Germany still choose to continue making beer according to its strictures for tradition’s sake. After all, there's something magical about pouring yourself a frothy stein of Weihenstephan, the oldest continuously brewed beer in the world.

But is the adherence to antiquated legislation killing innovation?

While there is a nascent micro-brew scene in Germany, it definitely faces an uphill battle (you need look no further than the domination of American breweries at this year’s World Beer Cup for proof). The biggest obstacle? Tradition has bred a cultural stigma against experimentation — no one treks to the Münchener Wiesn, land of Doppelbocks and Märzens — to douse themselves in IPA.

Still, the German appetite for beer is literally insatiable; though they lag behind the Czech Republic, the Seychelles (who knew?) and Austria in per capita beer consumption as of 2015, the ratio of beer consumed to actual population is a whopping 104 liters per person. In a country of 80.6 million people, that makes for 8.5 billion total liters.

With an appetite so besotten, there's room for innovation. And while Germany’s craft beer scene may not be as prolific as its American counterpart quite yet, the movement is well underway.

In honor of the Reinheitsgebot turning 500, here are six German brews we recommend tracking down — each one either tows the line or flips the script entirely on brewing tradition.

Weihenstephan Hefeweizen. The quintessential Hefeweizen and flagship beer of the oldest continually operating brewery in the world. Pour it into a wheat beer glass, and enjoy the hazy goodness. Perfect for slow summer afternoons.

Andechser Doppelbock. Part of the German monastic brewing tradition, Andechser Doppelbock is arguably the best of these characteristically complex malty and dark beers. Best drunk after sundown, paired with schweinebraten.

Augustiner Edelstoff. The famous golden Lager of the equally storied Münchener Brauhaus. Equally at home on the terrace of a farmhouse in the foothills of the Alps as it is in a Berliner dive-bar, where Augustiner beers are a staple.

Duckstein Original. This red-blonde beauty is a hybrid of traditional craft and modern connoisseurship. Aged in beechwood casques, this northern beer caresses the palete with slightly hoppy, caramel notes.  Perfect for a night spent in.

Vagabund Brewery. This isn't so much about a particular beer, but a brewery. Vagabund is a Berlin-based brewery founded by three Americans, and their beers offer both microbrew staples (IPAs, etc) and German brews with a twist. We recommmend their "ABC American Wheat" and "Social Smoker" rauchbier.

CREW Republic Foundation 11. This take on the Double IPA, brought to you by Munich's CREW Republic (self-consciously styled after the U.S. microbrew scene) is dedicated to all the night owls out there, still at the bar after everyone else is snug in bed. Critics and other professional drinkers agree: this young brewery is one to watch.

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