In an era when beer is crafted with mangos and pineapple, doughnuts and maple syrup, frozen pizza and dollar bills, and even, um, the “quintessence of femininity,” it’s worth reminding everyone that it takes just four ingredients to make a beer.
Water. Malt. Hops. Yeast.
Five-hundred years ago tomorrow, the Germans—those giant Teutons long obsessed with order—formally adopted a series of regulations called the Reinheitsgebot. Commonly known by tongued-tied Yanks as the Bavarian Beer Purity Law, it required its country’s breweries to use only water, hops, and malted barley to produce their beers. (Yeast was not understood as a necessary contributor to beer-making until Louis Pasteur formally observed fermentation in 1857.)
Even insufferable beer nerds draw blank stares when asked about the origin story of Reinheitsgebot. Contrary to popular belief, it actually wasn’t to assure beer was safer—even if some beers of the time were brewed using such questionable ingredients as sawdust, soot, dead animals, and even poisonous plants. Rather, the Reinheitsgebot had a more sinister purpose. With brewmasters now able to use only barley as their malt, other grains like wheat and rye were left for bread, effectively preventing any sort of buying competition and keeping prices down all around.
Cheap bread was a good thing—unless you were the one selling it—and beer free of soot and dead dogs was pretty darn good too. The problem was that German beer instantly became less interesting. Whereas Germans once brewed exotically spiced and fruited beers like their Belgian brethren, they now only had those four simple ingredients to work with if they wanted their product to officially be labeled bier.
To be fair, you’d be amazed by the variety of beer that can be made under the restrictions of Reinheitsgebot—everything from uber-light kölsch to dark and boozy eisbocks, not to mention malty marzens, tart Berliner weisses, and sweet weizens (after wheat was eventually allowed under the regulations). Still, things had been set in motion to one day assure Deutschland would no longer be the king of the brewing hill, at least in terms of creativity.
“I’m pretty unusual for a German in that I’m actually okay trying new things,” Florian Kuplent tells me over the phone from his home in St. Louis. He was born in Bavaria in the mid-1970s and quickly developed a passion for the beer of his homeland, apprenticing at his local brewery Brauerei Erharting and earning a Master's in brewing science at the prestigious University of Munich-Weihenstephan (which teaches strictly traditional, Reinheitsgebot-legal techniques).
“Ten years ago, everyone was making fun of American brewing,” Kuplent tells me. “Now that has definitely changed. People are jealous, as they’re seeing how exciting our market is. And how open people are to trying new things.”
"People said we were being disrespectful to ‘traditional’ brewing—consciously or not, they were referencing the Reinheitsgebot."
Wanting a part of this Reinheitsgebot-free excitement, Kuplent moved to America in 1996, first working at New England Brewing Co. and then Anheuser-Busch. Ultimately, he opened his own brewery in St. Louis, Urban Chestnut, under a philosophy he calls “beer divergency.” Thus, his brewery has both a Reverence and a Revolution series—the former features traditional, Reinheitsgebot-friendly offerings like Zwickel beers and Munich dunkels; the latter focuses on hopped-up American offerings, often produced with oddball ingredients like ground chestnuts and orange blossom honey.
These days, even many Europeans have begun to begrudgingly consider America the world’s foremost brewing country—or, at the least, the planet’s most avant-garde and ambitious. Of course, the American beer scene only got this way because it quit being dominated by ersatz German offerings, and because a few upstart brewmasters steadfastly refused to follow a code as restrictive as the Reinheitsgebot.
“When initial batches of many of our more exotic beers came out we took a lot of shit for them and were considered weirdos and heretics,” Sam Calagione, founder of Dogfish Head, once told me. “People said we were being disrespectful to ‘traditional’ brewing—consciously or not, they were referencing the Reinheitsgebot.”
Calagione had first read about the purity law at the New York Public Library in 1993 while researching a business plan and trying to figure out a way his would-be brewery could stand out in an increasingly crowded marketplace.
"After reading the history and definition, I decided to build a brewery committed to having the majority of our beers brewed outside the Reinheitsgebot," he says. "Using exotic and fresh culinary ingredients from around the world instead of genuflecting to militant beer styles." In the last 20 years, his brewery has produced cutting-edge beers with such ingredients as green spruce tips, wasabi, rotting fruit, and even live lobsters.
"I hate the concept of the Reinheitsgebot, but I am essentially happy it exists," he concedes. I hear this love-hate relationship echoed by a lot of American brewers.
"I hate the concept of the Reinheitsgebot, but I am essentially happy it exists."
Kuplent is quick to note that 95% of the great craft beers of his adopted country would still be legal under the Reinheitsgebot. Think of the legendary IPAs that currently dominate the conversation—your Heady Toppers, Pliny the Elders, and Tree House Juliuses of the world. Most use nothing more than those famous four ingredients. In fact, as America's esoteric craft beers have become the mainstream, its brewers have begun looking back with more respect toward tradition. Old-fashioned lagers are hot all of the sudden, and there are now even lager-only American craft breweries, like Massachusetts's Jack's Abby. Live Oak Brewing out of Austin, beloved my modern beer geeks, makes almost exclusively traditional, German-style offerings.
Seeing these Americans manage to both respect tradition while also creating new ones, Kuplent believes there’s absolutely no excuse for Germany’s Reinheitsgebot-reverential beer scene to remain as stagnant as it currently is.
“I think it’s more of an excuse from the German brewers to not have to do something new,” Kuplent tells me. “Many of them think, ‘We already got the greatest beer in the world, why try anything else?’”
Perhaps for this very reason, Germany has become an inviting place for eager American craft brewers looking to invade and steal market share. In 2010 Samuel Adams, collaborated with the 1,000-year-old Weihenstephan to produce Infinium, a 10.3% ABV champagne-style beer that was literally the first new beer style created under the Reinheitsgebot in more than 100 years.
Last year, Urban Chestnut acquired the defunct Bürgerbräu Wolnzach space so that it could operate a German branch of its brewery. (“Opening up the brewery in Hallertau is like a homecoming,” Kuplent told me, admitting surprise at how well his hoppy, American-style pale ale was received by locals.) Meanwhile, Stone Brewing Co.—the ninth largest brewery in the U.S.—is opening a satellite brewery this year amid the notoriously dull beer scene of Berlin. It will be proudly offering Reinheitsgebot-bucking beers like Xocoveza, a mocha stout made with chocolate, coffee, cinnamon, vanilla, nutmeg, and pasilla peppers.
I’d worry some aging Bavarian brewers would have heart attacks upon hearing about that particular offering, but it seems Germany may finally be ready to put the Reinheitsgebot to rest. German microbreweries are popping up, and just last year in parliament, deputy member Daniel Schwerd noted his country’s “growing demand for more creativity and diversity of flavors in the beer industry.”
It only took them five centuries to get back to where they started—minus the soot.