Lost in the Reinheitsgebot (German Beer Purity Law)
I wanted to write that feuilleton for a while.
I have been there when Germany was a Pilsland, I have been there when some people tried to start a craft beer revolution and I observe it dying. There were a few points of ignition for finally writing.
· First one, quite exactly a year ago: a Bavarian craft brewer, whom I criticized for labeling the beer as “Brewed according to the Reinheitsgebot”. The guy came to me and say, they do it because they are proud of this law.
· The second one was an interview with Marcus Rauschmann, main brewer of Braufactum @braufactum who stated that the craft beer must finally take off. (https://getraenke-news.de/die-schonfrist-ist-vorbei/).
· The third one was my personal experience. Even if I live in Belgium now, I still visit Germany on a regular basis. I have seen craft beers getting to the masses in 2016-2017. Since 2017 I see the trend going backward dramatically. And it’s a devil’s wheel: No interest-no new breweries-no great beers-no interest.
· A recent one, a summary of the market development that shows craft beer trend going backward. It may not be the absolute end of craft beer in Germany, but at least any development has been stopped.
A bit of history to start.
I have moved to Germany in 1999 to start my Ph.D. study. Moving around the country from Berlin to Heidelberg and later to the area of Frankfurt am Main I had a chance to live in there for 16 years. I have traveled across the land and visited the vast majority of touristic and some non-touristic places that you can find in Germany. I also went through vast all of beers styles and maybe available in this beautiful country.
What I have noticed is what I call nutrition schizophrenia. I know it sounds strong, but for me, that is what exactly describes the German way of eating and drinking.
Here a description, Germans love foreign food. Against all that people believe there is nothing like a common German cuisine. Local food is different between Berlin, Munich, Aachen, and Leipzig. Common is the love for Asian, Indian and Turkish kitchen. The national food of Germans appears to be Döner Kebab. This is not very far from the truth as the current form served in the bread with salad was invented by a Turkish immigrant in Berlin around 1979*.
On top of their love for the exotic food, Germans like to visit the world. And I don’t mean the men in short trousers, sandals, and socks, I mean real travelers through Asia, Australia, and South America. For most people, I knew, Majorca was a starting point. A sabbatical trip through Peru was nothing unusual and a trip to Asia was something they could decide on from Monday to Tuesday. I also know somebody who has traveled to Siberia with Orient Express. German airline Lufthansa uses #SayYesToTheWorld in their advertisements. Yes, it is a lot about the money, but it mostly is about being open to the world.
On the contrary, openness ends up when it comes to drinking. The first truth I have learned about Germany is that you could easily buy here any juice you love if you like apple juice. Especially in my early years there, apple juice and orange juice were literally the only choice of juice you could get. In any neighboring country, you could get multiple other sorts, but in Germany, your choice was limited to these 2.
Then there is wine – sure there are great French, Australian, and South African Wines bur we have excellent German wines from multiple regions, why to take anything else.
These two examples only slightly visualize the scale of the problem. The real fun is when you get to the beer.
Beer = Pils
In some cases, it may be a dark (dunkles) beer. But in general, if you go to a bar and ask for a beer, you get a Pils, Lager, Helles and similar. Bock and alt are considered exotic, drink seasonally and a margin of the whole production. Gose, which is a traditional style for Leipzig, is not even described as Beer and I know that 99% of people outside of the area are not aware of the existence of such a style. On top, they are all convinced their local Pils tastes the best, even if they are not able to differentiate it from the other ones**.
So, it looks to me that Germans have been brainwashed. And the name of the procedure is Reinheitsgebot.
For the ones that are not aware. Reinheitsgebot was introduced in Bawaria in 1516. It restricted the name of the beer to a drink made of three ingredients: barley, water, and hops (yeast was unknown in 1516). Bavarians made a pan-German acceptation of their law a prerequisite for German unification in 1879. It only became a pan-German law in 1906.
Just to make it clear, because I got this question more than once. This was the law! This was not just the suggestion. Anything outside these very narrow and sharp borders is not a beer. Seriously, your milkshake IPA is not a beer, neither your milk stout nor sour beer. Not beer! Point!
And they meant it. It took the case under the European Court of Justice in 1987 to allow the foreign beer to be sold as beer in Germany. Even after Germans decided to keep that regulation for the beer produced inland.
One more info, Reinheitsgebot has been replaced in 1993 by a Provisional Beer Law. Few more things like hop extracts are now allowed. Importantly, most of the breweries still use the name in their advertisements and people believe it. To be honest, this is a perfect weapon against a craft beer revolution.
To not appear negative. Reinheitsgebot was the wonder of its time. In the middle ages, people were very trigger happy when it came to what they added to a beer. And quite some things were poisonous. Thanks to strict regulation, the good name of the beer was restored and saved.
A very limited number of ingredients required from brewers to master their technology to obtain good beer. No cheating possible. No sugar to bump alcohol, no corn syrup or extracts, no spices etc… Knowing that it is easier to understand why German beer holds high quality all over the land. Even a cheap beer from Aldi or Lidl has acceptable quality and so-called premium brands like Warsteiner or Radeberger guarantee clean, crisp Pils without flaws.
Thanks to the century-long experience German Pils is cheap. 1-liter Warsteiner costs around 1.53 Euro. For comparison, 1 liter of Gerolsteiner mineral water costs 0.87 euro (I consider both brands to be premium products, price were checked in Rewe online shop on October 7) ***
Maybe, the beer is not as cheap as water, but considering that beer requires more ingredients and some advanced technology the price tag of German beer is low.
So much for the good things. Now let’s talk about the drawbacks.
Undeniably, Reinheitsgebot has unified the German beer landscape. Without a euphemism, most of the non-Reinheitsgebot-compliant styles were killed or forced not to use the name beer.
Therefore, even is Germany is considered one of the canonical beer nations of Europe, it is not. It is Pilsland (as much and sadly only that much). I have nothing against Pils, but to be honest it is not the most complex and demanding beer style. Well, it is demanding for the brewer, but not for the people who drink it. Even as a beer lover, I cannot compare the complexity of Pils to wine, whereas good stout or barrel-aged beer can easily stand this comparison. Consequently, German beer is getting to the level where it is considered a thirst quencher. You would seek it on hot days, but you would not serve it in high society parties, or you would not enjoy it in the winter evening at the fireplace. It is not even beer, it is "beerchen" (softer, more paternalized name).
For me, this stupid sticking to Reinheitsgebot tradition is one of the things that is causing a constant drop in beer consumption in Germany. It is so simple; people expect more than just another Pils. If they cannot get it, they for more complex wines or stronger alcohols like whiskey. In a normal land, nowadays they could get their barrel-aged beers, but in Germany, they are left alone. This is at best very short sighed politics and it will have long going consequences.
That brainwash is continuing, big brands still use the name Reinheitsgebot in their adverts. I met many people who still believe that Reinheitsgebot is an existing law in Germany. New beer styles are considered abomination.
Even worse, some of the so-called craft brewers also praise the Reinheitsgebot. A year ago, I have criticized German brewer from Bavaria for calling their IPA compliant with Reingeitsgebot. He came to me and said that this is because they are proud of that. Guy, I am proud of people learning how to ride horses, but I prefer a VW. In fact, I am grateful to that guy, at least one brewery I don’t have to try at all, I am sure they will never brew something out of the box.
I recently met a craft brewer who told me that they buy lactose obtained from barley, just to make sure that their milk IPA is Reinheitsgebot compliant. It is 5x more expensive than the regular lactose and has a dramatic impact on the price of the beer. But it allows you to write that your Milkshake IPA is Renheitshebot compliant.
I call it madness.
To summarize this lengthy drop of facts and bits, the consumption of beer in Germany is going backward. And the numbers are not small. A few years ago, Germany was the second in Europe in Beer consumption. Now they may be at place 4 or 5.
Personally, I love that citation from Süddeutsche Zeitung. “Kunden sind "ihrer" Biermarke nur noch selten treu. Lieber wechseln sie wöchentlich die Sorte, um Geld zu sparen. Der Wechsel fällt umso leichter, da sich manche Biere im Geschmack nur mithilfe von Labortests auseinanderhalten lassen.“
Free translation „Clients are not anymore bound to their beer brand, they are happy to change the brand to save money. This change is not very difficult, because the taste of different beers can only be differentiated using laboratory tests”.
There was a wave of articles in German newspapers earlier this year, trying to understand the phenomenon. One of the ideas was that the new generation simply does not drink that much. This is of course because of the healthy lifestyle. Apparently, young people drink less…
Well, do not get your eyes covered. According to the World Health Organization, Germany belongs to the most drinking lands in Europe. According to the 2019 report, Germany, together with Lithuania and the Czech Republic are the only winners, belonging to the group of 13-15 liter of pure alcohol per capita.
Btw, Polish, who in the mind of average German consumes a lot of alcohol, are in group #3, consuming below 11,9 liters. And guess what Poland is now European #2 for beer consumption.
To be frank. You must be fully blind not to see the connection. Less beer consumption, more pure alcohol per capita. This must be going somewhere. Obviously either in wine or in strong alcohol. So simple, math and statistics can’t be wrong.
Based on my experience with a beer in Poland, craft beer could have been something that reverses the trend. It is obvious that people are bored with drinking the same beer over and over. As stated before, Germans are curious and interested in tasting something else than Pils. If you keep insisting that beer is only the thing that is made according to the Reinheitsgebot that is what you going to get.
Consequently, every craft brewer who is putting on a beer label a statement that the beer was brewed according to Reinheitsgebot is actively destroying the beer scene in Germany. There are no excuses for that. I am not asking you to be ashamed of Reinheitsgebot, but you have the power to educate your local fans that beer is way more than Reinheitgebot.
Not taking this chance should be considered a crime.
BTW. If you think that beer is Reinhaitsgebot, you simply do not belong here, please stop calling yourself a craft brewer. Craft is about invention and fun. No place for 500 years old laws here,
Final word. I travel quite a lot. Very often I interact with beer geeks from Europe and the USA. There is a reason why all of them want to go to Belgium and literally, none of them asked me for the best place in Germany to have a beer. On my personal list Germany does not make it to the top 3 countries in Europe where I would like to have a beer. Considering worldwide, it does not make it to top 5. On top, I couldn’t trade any single beer form Germany in the last two years. Even great things like the wine barrel-aged bock from wouldn’t go. It is because of Germany, full of their Rienheitsgebot, just left the race for broadly recognized beer and nobody is expecting anything interesting from German brewers.
Obviously, I can’t stop today. I am fully fed up. Fed up with hearing stories that German craft brewer must sell his Ginger-Triple as “a drink on a beer basis” (Biermischgetränk). Fed up with wasting the enormous potential of German beer culture. And fed up with brewers who praise 500 years old laws.
Not asking you to blame the Reinheitsgebot, just stop praising it. For your own sake.
*No joke. I have seen a TV documentary about that. Yes, I know that you can buy identical Döner Kebab in Turkey. But it is for the tourists, it has not a lot to do with their traditional food.
** Another TV documentary, tested group of fans of a local beer. They failed miserably in the blind test.
*** Btw. cheapest Pils I found was 0.7 euro/ liter. Cheapest mineral water was 0.22.