Testing the German Purity Law of 1516

Our beer research this weekend took us to Urban Chestnut Brewing Company (UCBC). 

UCBC specializes in “Beer Divergency” an “Old World meets New World” brewing philosophy.  They have some great Bavarian and European style beers, which are part of their “Reverence” series, and some great modern American beers, part of their “Revolution” series.   

The goals of our research this weekend: 

1)  Drink some great beer
2)  Investigate Reinheitsgebot (the German Purity Law of 1516) 

Of course, we couldn’t REALLY investigate the German Purity Law by drinking German beer brewed in America, but it gave us a great reason to go drink some of the lovely craft beers produced by UCBC!

What is the Reinheitsgebot of 1516? 

The German (or Barvarian) Purity Law of 1516 refers to a ducal decree made by Dukes Wilhelm IV and Ludwig X, co-rulers of Bavaria.  The decree gave the government the right to regulate the ingredients in beer, thereby ensuring its purity by stipulating that only barley, hops, and water could be used in brewing (yeast had not been discovered yet) (German Beer Primer).

The intent of the law was to keep beer “pure” by feudal decree, that is, to keep cheap and often unhealthy ingredients — such as rushes, roots, mushrooms, and animals products — out of the people’s drink. In medieval times, brewers often used such ingredients to raise their profits by lowering their standards. The word “Reinheit” (purity), however, did not appear anywhere in the original text. It only started to make its appearance in German legal texts around 1918…It states that, in bottom-fermented beers, that is, lagers, brewers may use only barley malt, hops, yeast and water. Specifically, this rule forbids the brewing in Germany of lagers containing spices (as do many Belgian beers), corn or rice (as do virtually all mass-produced industrial beers in the rest of the world), sugar (to be found in many Belgian and British beers), un-malted grains (required for many Belgian and British beer styles), as well as chemical additives and stabilizers.

For ales, that is, for top-fermented beers, which hold about 10% of the German market, the Reinheitsgebot is somewhat more generous in terms of allowable ingredients, in part to accommodate an ancient and varied, mostly barley-based ale-brewing tradition in northern Germany, in part to accommodate the centuries-old, entirely wheat-based Weissbier (wheat beer) brewing tradition in Bavaria. German ales may contain — next to barley malt, hops, yeast, and water — “other” malted grains (including, of course, malted wheat for Weissbier), as well as various forms of sugar (derived cane or beet) and sugar-derived coloring agents — but still no chemicals or other processed compounds. Curiously, this wording of the purity law almost inadvertently forbids the brewing of wheat-based lagers. This is so entirely for reasons of tradition, not logic (German Beer Institute).

The German Beer Primer provides a detailed account of the history of the Reinheitsgebot that will fascinate history buffs and beer enthusiasts alike.

Back to that Hopfen…

It was a super delicious Barvarian IPA.  UCBC’s Hopfen is “brewed and dry-hopped” with a variety of Hallertau hopfen” (hops).  Slightly bitter, pungent, fresh, with an ABVof 6.2% and IBU- 55. 

German Purity Law or not – it was a well-crafted beer.  We paired it with the UCBC cheese tray (great presentation, 3 different cheeses (the slice of Port Salut certainly could have been bigger, crostinis, candied walnuts, and figs), which made for a great day of research.

Hoppy endings!