Germany has always been a nation that is proud of its brewing heritage. So much so that the country’s brewing association recently began pressuring the United Nations to recognize that fact. In essence, the brewers association wants the Bavarian Purity Law (or Reinheitsgebot) – established some five centuries ago in 1516 – to become part of the UNESCO World Heritage list. In this respect, it would join the Argentinian tango, Iranian carpet weaving and French gastronomy, among other famous traditions, that are considered unique and worth protecting.
Written by Bavarian noblemen in the year 1516, the law states that only water, barley and hops may be used to brew beer (contrary to popular belief, yeast was added to the list centuries later when scientists discovered the fermenting agent). The law was aimed at preventing crops used to make bread from being squandered on brewing. In addition, it wrote the centuries-long practice of using hops to flavor and preserve beer into law – a practice which also ended the use of other psychoactive and potentially poisonous additives during the Middle Ages. But over time, it became synonymous with high-quality German beer and began to be adopted by brewers all over the world.
Currently, some 5,000 different beers carry its seal. Many brewers today still make beer that would pass muster under the law, though penalties for breaking it are long gone. Modern German brewers are also trying to be more creative with their beers while adhering to the purity law — for example, by adding hops that taste like grapefruit or pineapple. And for many Germans, especially those who endured the many decades of partition during the Cold War, the tradition is something they are especially proud of and want to see recognized internationally.
Marc-Oliver Huhnholz, the spokesman for the German Brewer’s Association, expressed these sentiments and the associations stances thusly:
It stands for the things you are thinking of when you think of Germany and beer and culture and friendship and all these positive things. I think it’s a traditional thing because it brings us together and holds us together as a nation within this more and more international lifestyles… The idea and message is that German beer is pure and will be pure in the future.
However, some German brewers dismiss the attempt to gain UNESCO recognition as mere arrogance. They say the purity law is from a bygone era and that Germany can compete in the world beer market without it.
Opponents of the law claim that limiting his brewing to the centuries-old document restricts creativity. What’s more, they point to the fact that many nations produce high-quality beer that does not adhere to it. For example, Belgium produces such styles as Wits, Saisons, Framboises, Krieks, and Farmhouse Ales that make use of coriander spice, fruit, and other additives that are not permitted by the law. But these styles are internationally renowned and are considered historic examples of fine brewing. In this respect, opinion is roughly divided along lines of culture and historical preservation, and modernization and globalization.
Personally, and as someone who’s wife works in Heritage, I can certainly sympathize with those who wish to see this law protected. All too often, the process of modernization and change has the effect of eroding our cultural foundations. At the same time, I can sympathize with modern German brewers who would like to expand and adopt new ways of making beers. And since penalties associated with it have not been enforced for some time, there really is no reason to fear it remaining in effect.
And if the modern brewing industry has taught us anything, there’s much to be gained by marrying tradition to innovation. For those who want to get truly experimental, there’s plenty of opportunity to be had. And for those who want to keep making beer according to centuries-old traditions, I’m sure their will always be a market. And let’s not forget that we can do both. If the craft brewing revolution has taught us anything, it’s that we can experiment and innovate and keep traditions alive all at the same time.
And In the meantime, drink up, and have a happy holiday season!