The German Reinheitsgebot is yet another example of regulation in the European brewing industry. The first of its kind was issued by Duke Albert IV of Bavaria in 1487. The regulation was meant to control the types of ingredients permissible for brewing. In this case, only barley, water, and hops were allowed. The most famous issuance of this law came in 1516 when Duke William IV repeated the law in Ingolstadt, this time making the law applicable to all of Bavaria. Twice more the Reinheitsgebot was repeated, once in 1553 and again in 1616. Enforcement of the law is most likely the reason for the repetition.
Das deutsche Reinheitsgebot (German Purity Law) dealt with the brewing and selling of beer in the region of Bavaria. The Reinheitsgebot restricted all beer produced in Bavaria to be made solely from water, barley and hops. It also set the price of beer to be one to two Pfennig per Mass. Yeast was not mentioned at all, because it was still unknown. The law was decreed, in part, to attempt to control the competition of prices of wheat and rye between brewers and bakers. Wheat and rye were to be used by bakers. Barley was actually “perceived by consumers to be an inferior good — if the buyer could afford it, wheat was much preferred.” (Unger 158) Often brewers would attempt to buy all the available wheat store, which left bakers with little to make bread with. The conflict between brewer and baker for ingredients spurred lawmakers to regulate the trade. Another important reason behind the decree was to keep beer-makers from using ingredients that were sometimes unhealthy. At the time, it was not uncommon for brewers to use such things as rushes, roots, mushrooms and animal products in their beer. Often, brewers would lower standards to increase profits. The Reinheitsgebot sought to prevent inferior or sub-standard methods of beer production.
The Reinheitsgebot reveals the importance of beer in German society. The law makes clear that inferior beer made from substandard ingredients is unacceptable. At the same time, however, beer that is produced using the best grain is also a problem, because that could have possibly meant that bakers would come into competition with brewers. The resulting lack of bread would be even more disastrous. The law legally defines the quality of beer, but also its place in German society and culture as an important commodity. From the sixteenth century right up until the twentieth century, beer was part of everyday consumption for a majority of people.
Unwittingly, the Reinheitsgebot paved the way for the eventual domination of the beer market by Pilsner style beers by more or less driving all grains but barley out of the brewing industry in Bavaria. From the thirteenth to the sixteenth century Northern Germany began to move away from wheat as a beer ingredient too. Later, in the nineteenth century, Bavarian pilsner beer would become even more dominant when Bavaria insisted that the other German states adopt the Reinheitsgebot as a precondition for German unification.
Bavaria insisted on its application throughout Germany as a precondition for German unification in 1871, to prevent competition from beers made in other German states where more ingredients were allowed. The Reinheitsgebot faced strong resistance in the other German states, but was in fact accepted by a united Germany in order that Bavaria would join. The restriction of many ingredients led to the extinction of many brewing traditions and beer specialties in Northern Germany, such as cherry beer and spiced beer. The German beer market became dominated by Bavarian pilsner beer. The fact that Bavaria demanded that the Reinheitsgebot be adopted by all German states showed the level to which beer played an integral part in the Bavarian economy, and to the economies of the other German states.
Hornsey, Ian S. A History of Beer and Brewing. Cambridge, UK: RSC Paperbacks, 2003.
Pflanze, Otto. Bismarck and the Development of Germany: Volume 1 The Period of Unification, 1815 – 1871. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990.
Schieder, Theodor. Die Kleindeutsche Partei in Bayern in den Kaempfen um die Nationale Einheit 1863 – 1871. München, Deutschland: C.H. Beck’sche Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1936.
Unger, Richard W. Beer in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.