purity law


Germany and its purity law for beer have a well-kept secret, that the corporate gatekeepers of its industrial brewing and export industry want you to know as little as possible about: it has a long, rich and very diverse beer heritage that has developed over centuries, entirely independently of any so-called purity law – or so called “Reinheitsgebot“!

An important recognition was recently given to another great brewing nation, Belgium, when it was honoured by the UNESCO in December 2016. “Beer culture in Belgium” was inscribed onto the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, with references made to the wide variety of beer styles, beer and food pairing and positive aspects of beer in Belgian life.

Unfortunately for Germany, in a time of globalisation within the beer industry, its genuine lasting contributions to world beer culture have not yet been represented for UNESCO World Heritage status and are in danger of being forgotten or altered beyond recognition. With a new interest in historic beer styles around the globe, traditions are being appropriated across international borders and often history is being misrepresented in favour of a marketable narrative for new beer products.

At the end of 2014, a key opportunity was missed. The bid to UNESCO that was orchestrated by the German Brewers Association (Deutscher Brauer-Bund e.V.) failed. According to Dr. Christoph Wulf, the Vice President of the German UNESCO Commission responsible for reviewing the applications, this German application was rejected, because rather than celebrating positive beer culture, regulation of the food industry was too much in the foreground (i.e. via the purity law resp. the real law named “Biersteuergesetz“) and modern industrial brewing practises were emphasised over manual brewing practises by human beings.

Beyond the Purity Law: What Elements Of Germany’s Beer Culture Should Be Protected?

The Belgian bid succeeded because it celebrated the positive contributions of Belgian beer culture to the world. Taking a lead from this positive approach that is more in line with the goals of UNESCO, it is worth considering the most important elements from the beer and brewing culture that can be attributed to the geographical area that Germany represents today.

Should a new application be co-ordinated by a group that was interested in protecting Germany’s positive brewing heritage, rather than just the commercial interests of the modern industry, what should it include? The following is a proposal key elements that should be included in any serious application:

1. World-Leading Technical Brewing Expertise

For centuries, brewing engineering, equipment manufacture and expertise has been world-leading in the area that would become Germany – not the purity law. Today, breweries from around the globe look to German brewing equipment manufacturers (often centuries-old family businesses), that have maintained a tradition of deep brewing knowledge, quality and innovation. The very terminology used in breweries today (e.g. lautering, krausen, lagering) comes directly from the German. In education and research, the German brewing academies (such as TUM/Weihenstephan, VLB and Doemens) produce brewing graduates that are in high demand the world over.

2. Bottom-Fermentation & Lagering Techniques

Top fermentation and spontaneous fermentation techniques have been employed for thousands of years in all corners of the globe where fermentation was managed. One real innovation in fermentation, that has had a lasting influence on the modern beer industry came from Franconia, when bottom-fermentation was employed (in cool cellars & caves) to allow fermentation to continue through the summer months. (Warm temperatures would make top-fermentation impossible without spoilage). Over centuries, the use of these techniques would eventually facilitate the manual selection of new strains of specialised yeast, that would become the workhorse for the lager beers produced around the world today.

3. Hop Cultivation

Germany has been an important hop region for over a thousand years, today accounting for 60% of the hop cultivation in Europe and one third of the global hops supply. There are four major hop growing areas: Hallertau (where 90% of German hops are grown and site of the first ever documented hop cultivation in the year 736), Elbe-Saale, Tettnang and Spalt in Franconia. Much of the hops harvesting and processing technology to this day was first engineered for German hop farms.

4. Wide Range of Region-Specific Beer Styles

Although Pilsner and Weissbier are distributed nationally and represent the vast majority of German beer that is exported, Germany has a wide range of regional styles that are neither distributed domestically, nor produced in large quantities for export. These regional styles include the two top-fermented beers of the Rhineland: the blonde, Pilsner-like Kölsch of the Cologne area and the dark, malty Altbier from Düsseldorf. In the north-east, the areas around Berlin and the Leipzig both had thriving wheat beer cultures where beers were brewed creatively with ingredients outside of those later restricted by the purity law: the champagne-like Berliner Weisse soured with Lactobacillus and the complex Gose, enhanced with the addition of coriander seed. Fresh smoked beer (Rauchbier) is still brewed in the Bamberg/Franconia area, but is almost unknown to the rest of Germany. These, and many additional regional specialities, deserve wider recognition.

5. Seasonal Styles

Brewing used to be highly dependent on seasonal temperatures and availability of raw materials. Religious rituals such as Lent would also play a role on beer consumption. Other beer nations have had seasonal beers, but none are so tightly connected with the calendar as the traditional German styles such as the light, malty Märzen/Festbier; the rich, dark Doppelbock; the light, sweet Maibock and the heavier Winterbock and Christmas beers. As the brewing industry consolidated in Germany, these less profitable, seasonal styles have fallen out of fashion.

6. Oktoberfest

In opposite of the purity law, the recognition of festivals falls within the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity mandate. Although it may not be to everyone’s taste, there is no greater beer festival celebrated today than the infamous Oktoberfest on the Wies’n in Munich. Although it could be argued that this festival does not need further recognition for its continued survival, in a time of changes within the beer industry, it will be important to recognise the origins of the festival and the unique customs associated with it.

7. Unique Serving Locales, Traditions & Drinking Vessels

Often overlooked, the culture associated with beer serving is almost as important an element of the German beer traditions as the beer that comes out of the brewery. Germany is a vast country with many different regional locale types and associated customs. For example, in Bavaria you will find the traditional beer halls, Bierkeller and Biergärten, where fresh beer is often served from gravity fed kegs and poured into beer steins. Compare this to the Kölsch-houses of Cologne, where freshly poured 0.2L glass flutes are continuously delivered by the ‘Köbes’, with every patron keeping a personal record of the number consumed on their beer mat.

It’s not the Purity Law that Carries the Tradition of German Brewing

Although Germany’s bid to UNESCO in 2014 was exposed for the marketing stunt that it was and appropriately rejected on this basis, this need not be more than a minor set-back on a longer journey to protect Germany’s unique beer heritage. The biggest challenge to recognising the rich, diverse culture is who to entrust with protecting and guarding this legacy.

At the moment, the German Brewers Association (Deutscher Brauer-Bund e.V.) has this responsibility by default, but puts the commercial interests of the large breweries it represents first, callously using the Reinheitsgebot myth as a seal of quality. Driven by national pride, most regional breweries around Germany do not recognise how their own legacy is being misrepresented. As the interest in beer grows around the globe, both regional German breweries and we, the inheritors of this beer culture would be better served by a new organisation that we can entrust, without commercial interests defining the narrative and rewriting our history.


Foto: Photo via Shutterstock. Post: Tim Klöcker.