In Defence of the German Pure Beer Law


In 1988, Michael Jackson wrote in his The New World Guide To Beer:

“The law itself could not insure that all brewers would have skill, flair and sensitivity, but in no corner of the world has as much good beer been made as in Bavaria. No beer routinely tastes as clean and malty as that made in Bavaria. If the law prevented the Bavarians from making Belgian Kriek or British Sweet Stout, for example, no one seemed to mind. Now, if the Germans want these specialities, they can import them”.

Beer fans are aware, many of them, that since the 1500s parts of Germany have had a “pure beer law”, the ReinheitsgebotThe law has a long and complex history which, in the context of a quotidian blog, I will summarize as follows.

In 1516 two dukes in Bavaria enacted a law that required in brewing three things only: water, barley, and hops. Yeast was not mentioned, probably because beer was often fermented by wild yeast, or if yeast was regularly harvested from ferments and reused, it was taken for granted as necessary to produce alcohol. Barley is specified, not barley malt, but one can infer that barley malt was meant as this has been the understanding of the law for hundreds of years. Also, it is extremely difficult in practice to brew from 100% raw (unmalted) barley.

Bavaria was smaller then, than today. The law initially did not apply in other German areas in the south, or in the north. In brief, the law was extended there progressively as Germany became united. It became a national measure only in 1906. In 1918 after WW I, the reconstituted Germany agreed to the pure beer law when Bavaria insisted as a condition of entry.

Northern Germany had its own beer traditions. Many of its beers used herbs, fruits, or other ingredients not allowed by the pure beer law. E.g. a beer called Lubeck used, in addition to conventional ingredients, oatmeal, beans, and a variety of herbs, possibly reflecting the pre-hop era when, as in Britain and elsewhere, a wide variety of flavourings was used. Some of these beers called for unmalted grains, as Belgian wheat beer (Wit) still does. Once the pure beer law became writ though these beers disappeared, as did rice in some German lager in the north.

Before 1918 the law was referred to as the “surrogates law”, a law, that is banning substitutes in brewing. Only when Germany re-federated after WW I was the measure referred to as a purity law, which is the meaning of the term Reinheitsgebot. To some degree that term is and has been understood as value-laden, judgemental, but so it has been and remains.

Some writers argue the original law was passed partly or wholly to protect the bread market from competition with brewing: in effect to protect a staple of the people. In general, barley is better suited for brewing than baking. Wheat contains a large amount of gluten and other proteins. Gluten is not generally desirable in brewing but suitable for bread and other baking.  Hence, the “resources allocation” theory has a surface attractiveness, as does a trade protection theory, which has been suggested.

These are still theories though or inferences, not clearly justified by period sources as far as I know. One can as easily infer, or I do, that the first pure beer law was a quality measure. Possibly the law had multiple justifications;* this does not of itself remove the basis for its continuation in Germany.

The beer law evolved over time to take account of a number of factors, primarily the wheat beer tradition, reliant in part on malted wheat. it took root in the royal court in the 1600s.

Top-fermentation brewing, of which wheat beer brewing is an example, survives as a vestige in German brewing, notably the alt and kolsch beer traditions, which themselves can accommodate the pure beer law. Top-fermentation brewing, reflecting pre-industrial practises, had always used a broader range of ingredients than bottom-fermentation, or lager, brewing.

The pure beer law, as last changed in 1993, permits for top-fermented beers certain sugars, and malted grains other than barley malt. In summary though, for lager brewing only barley malt may be used, no other source of starches such as corn, rice, and un-malted barley or rye, and no sugars. Even in top-fermentation brewing no raw grains can be used: they must be malted.

In the early days of North American craft brewing the pure beer law had a huge influence. Indeed most craft beer was, and still is, made from all-malt. The Brewers Association, the national lobby of U.S. independent small brewers, until 2014 required that member breweries have an all-malt “flagship” beer. This requirement was changed in that year to permit old-established regional breweries to join the BA which had always used a measure of corn in their main brands.

Nonetheless for 35 years up to then American craft brewing was built mostly on all-malt beer, a momentum that carries on to this day as mentioned. It provided a boost to quality brewing in the U.K. and elsewhere outside the U.S.

Interestingly, Britain also required commercially-produced beer to be all-malt until the mid-1840s, when sugar was thenceforth permamently allowed in brewing. Later in the century, 1880s, a “free mash tun” law permitted grains other than barley to be used in brewing as well, whether malted or no.

In 1987 the European Court of Justice decided that the German pure beer law, while still valid for German beer production, could no longer be used to prevent the importation of beer (so-labelled) that didn’t meet the law’s requirements. To do so would countenance a trade barrier felt inconsistent with Germany’s free trade obligations under the 1957 Treaty of Rome. Nonetheless Germany’s beer market, probably for cultural and historical reasons, is still largely a domestic one, which hews therefore to the law except for some exports.,s ent to countries that have no pure beer law, which is most.

It is my perception though that most such exports, at least to North America, comply with the pure beer law. I had a Holsten Premium last night which said so on the label. It had the full, clean taste I associate with an all-malt beer.

Many argue that the German pure beer law is no longer necessary if it ever was, that it restricts unduly the range of beers that German brewers can make, and in any case doesn’t ensure that beer will be well-brewed.

I would argue that the law is well-founded because all-malt beer is a gastronomically superior in flavour to other beer, and the long continuation of the law in Germany reflects that understanding. People do not have to know a lot about beer to appreciate its quality – it is only when confronted with a beer reliant, say, on 40% corn adjunct that they see a difference. Corn and rice contribute a high degree of fermentability in contrast to barley malt, and therefore primarily contribute alcohol, as does sugar.

This is not to say various forms of these adjuncts don’t leave traces of their flavours  – they can in some cases, depending too on the degree of fermentation. But all things equal, an all-malt beer in my own experience has a richness and quality that adjunct beer lacks.

True, if you use adjunct in very small amounts, or in very strong beers, the difference may be hard to detect, but adjuncts can be viewed as a slippery slope. What was 10-20% dry weight of fermentables in the late 1800s became 30%, and today can be 40% or even higher. The history of American brewing shows that only too well.

People say that some famous Belgian beers use sugar, and that most British beer did even before adjunct-laden lager became the main type of beer in Britain. British ale however never used adjuncts in the same quantity as American mass market beer. This assisted to preserve its quality as did the higher hopping in comparison to North American beer.

Anyway, what is or was suitable for Britain and Belgium should not necessarily apply to Germany. It has its own traditions and its beers, while certainly not all of high quality, in general have a roundness and drinkability that unquestionably in my view is linked to their all-malt construction. Even alt and kolsch beers, as noted, are all-malt, and for good reason. Drink a German bock or dopplebock and you may see the influence of all-malt but the quality is evident in most German beer, IMO, provided it isn’t fermented to excessive dryness.

Why did Heineken revert to all-malt – return to its 1800s roots, that is, some 20 years ago? Because it knew surely that all-malt assisted beer quality and improved consumer acceptance. Would even Beck’s, which I like when very fresh, be better with 30% adjunct? I don’t think so. Adjunct beers have a characteristic dryness, a “starchy” quality that detracts, one may argue, from their true beer nature. One can argue too adjunct doesn’t have to have this effect but in practice it seems to, is my point.

There is no way craft brewing would have achieved the growth and world acceptance it did without being based on all-malt. American all-malt ales of the 1980s, which simply restored the kind of beer made in the U.K. until sugar and then adjuncts were legalized, had a savour and richness of high gastronomic merit. It made people take notice.

A good example in craft is Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, or Anchor Celebration Ale, or Sam Adams Boston Lager. But there are countless others which show why such beers immediately made an impression: all-malt was a major part of the appeal, especially in the U.K. where most of the ales and surviving stouts, not to mention the lagers, used adjunct or sugar.

The Czech Pilsner Urquell is the classic all-malt pilsener, and has been cited as the biggest selling import in Germany, in fact. If Germans didn’t recognize the superiority of all-malt on palate grounds, why would the notably malty Urquell have such an honoured presence? And this is nothing recent, the recognition of Bavarian beer as superior in Germany was attested by an article in the 1850’s in United States Magazine, “History of Beer”. The author described how the “conquering Bavarian hogsheads” were replacing northern beers deemed suspect in part by their use of unconventional ingredients.

All things equal, all-malt brewing sets a high standard for quality. It doesn’t mean good beer can’t be made from different ingredients, and I am all for such variety. It doesn’t mean there isn’t indifferent all-malt beer; there is. But brewers who want to grow their market can never go wrong by sticking to all-malt as their “flagship” for classic styles such as porter, pale ale, lager. When beer becomes too reliant on adjunct, people may lose interest – look at what is happening to mass market North American lager and light beer, it is a declining category in absolute terms (long-term decline in beer consumption). The Germans will be wise not to let that happen, or to prevent its worst effects. Beer consumption had fallen in Germany in recent years (now somewhat recovered), but would the situation have been better had brewers been allowed to use corn and rice in Helles, Dunkel, and Pils? I doubt it.


*Just as partisans for adjunct brewing in North America argue, say.


2 thoughts on “In Defence of the German Pure Beer Law”

  1. I did read that barley not malt was specified as back in the day malting was considered part of brewing not something separate from it.

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