An American Reinheitsgebot

 Featured Contributor: Andrew Newton  @DrinkMeLocal

In Andrew Gavrin’s recent article he talked about the need to better define what exactly craft beer is. In the end he laid out his own definition, including that craft beer should not contain any adjuncts. This level of brewing ‘purity’ sounds an awful lot like an American Reinheitsgebot, our own twist on the so-called Bavarian Purity Law that restricted brewers to malted barley, hops, water, and yeast. The reality is that the Reinheitsgebot is an idealized and romantic notion; more of a modern marketing gimmick than a guarantee of quality.

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    What would an American Reinheitsgebot mean? Or consider this: what could it cost us?

    The Reinheitsgebot, enacted in 1516, restricted brewing ingredients to malt, hops, water, and yeast (once it was discovered). Contrary to popular belief, it had little to do with enforcing a ‘pure’ product for the citizens. Wheat and rye were popular amongst brewers and the rising demand between breweries and bakeries was affecting food prices. By limiting brewers to malted barley prices were stabilized.

    Before hops, brewers used a mixture of herbs called gruit to flavour and bitter their beers. Gruit was controlled and taxed by the Church. During the Middle Ages there were a number of political battles between German Lords and the Church. The requirement to use hops exclusively allowed the governments to remove this major source of revenue and begin profiting from it themselves.

    The third function of the Reinheitsgebot was to protect German breweries from foreign competition. British and Belgian beers continued to gain popularity across Europe, especially during the Industrial Revolution. By refusing entry to beers that didn’t comply – which was pretty much all of them – there were no foreign beers with radically different flavours for German brewers to compete against. This protectionism would continue to be enforced until 1987.

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    American Craft Beer is facing none of these threats. Wheat, rye and other grains are not in short supply, hops are not a source of government revenue, and American brewers are leading the world in craft beer trends. So what’s the point? A vague notion of purity? Heineken and Becks conform to these standards and I challenge you to pit them against your favourite IPA.

    If that doesn’t make you reconsider then think of the consequences.

    During German Unification Bavaria insisted that the Reinheitsgebot become German law, and in doing so they destroyed hundreds of years of brewing tradition across Germany. Kölsch and Altbier are some of the only survivors. There is no question that outstanding German beers exist and flourish under this law, but we only have to look across the border to Belgium to see what is possible when brewers have the freedom of choice.

    America has developed a breadth of brewing styles that go beyond what even the Belgians are producing. If an American Reinheitsgebot were to be enforced just imagine all of the beers we would lose. Sam Calagione would not be running Dogfish Head. Stout as we know it would not exist. Everything detailed in Michael Tonsmeire’s American Sour Beers would never have happened. All because our craft brewers did not have the right to freely choose their ingredients.

    So no, an American Reinheitsgebot is not in our best interest. I say we leave it to the Germans and the marketers. Craft beer is built on the idea of trying new things, recreating historic styles, and creating new ones. I want to see craft beer continue to push the boundaries and develop new flavours. As for defining what makes a beer ‘craft’, I think we’ll be debating that for some time. Prost!

Andrew’s Bio:

Andrew Newton is a beer and wine writer that likes to keep it local. He lives in the land of Tidal Bay and blogs irregularly at DrinkMeLocal.ca

Twitter: @DrinkMeLocal

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