If the year 2016 will be remembered for anything by beer lovers, it will be best known as the 500th anniversary of the Reinheitsgebot, or The German Beer Purity Act.
Back in the 16th century, European brewing was in a state of flux. Monastic brewing was on the decline, but commercial brewing was on the rise. As the Age of Discovery was just beginning, the Americas were virtually unknown to Europeans, so all the world’s great breweries were in central Europe and the British Isles.
The hop plant had made its formal appearance in the 8th century, but many other plants in addition to grains were being used in beer including laurel, ivy, myrtle, juniper, heather, and whatever else grew in the garden. Spices from the Far East and West plus honey, sugar, syrups and other additives, were also being added. Beers of this time were almost exclusively ales, and were smoky, murky and dark brown most of the time.
Bavaria, home of the Reinheitsgebot, was a shapeshifting state until after World War II. Despite a brewing and political free-for-all, several decrees were passed that declared only barley malt, hops and water could be used to make beer.
In 1516, Dukes Wilhelm IV and Ludwig X introduced the Purity Pledge at the Assembly of Estates of the Bavarian Realm in Ingolstadt. While the idea of preventing unwanted, harmful products being added to beer was part of the code, these acts were not made exclusively for the protection of the public; the Bavarian royal family had a monopoly on the growing and distribution of barley, and didn’t want competition from other cereals or grains.
Although the Bavarian royal family lost all its power over brewing as a result of World War I, German lagers and the Reinheitsgebot had already shaped the beer world.
However, it’s in contemporary North America where its (non-binding) influence has had the greatest impact. The mega breweries born in the mid-1800s in the U. S. (and even earlier in Canada) had morphed from their German and British roots into producers of beers, which had very little resemblance to their European antecedents. With the generous use of adjuncts, such as corn and rice, the Reinheitsgebot had become a distant memory.
It’s partially in response to this that the modern craft beer movement was born in the 1980s. These new breweries began introducing beer styles that had not been brewed in this hemisphere for centuries. Their use of only malt, hops, yeast and water became a badge of honour. While many of these breweries now make so many different beers that the Reinheitsgebot has become superfluous, many still doggedly adhere to the code.
So raise a glass to the500th anniversary of the Reinheitsgebot and all it hath wrought. Here are some recommendations for classic German beers that have paved the way to beer-greatness:
Brauerei Fahr Away Hefeweizen (Turner Valley)
A slice of Germany right in our own back yard. This refreshing wheat ale has the requisite clove and banana nose and flavour of its German counterparts. The brewery should be opening soon. Available only on tap currently.
As classic a German pilsner as you can find. Bright, crisp, clean, with just enough noble hops to make it interesting. CSPC 715376, $3.29 500 mL can.
Using three different malts, this 7 per cent ABV beer bears no resemblance to the Radeberger above. Maltier and seemingly heavier, it does however, show the diversity Germans are capable of producing with the same four base ingredients. CSPC 432856, $3.29 500 mL can.