Learning About Beer: Reinheitsgebot, gesundheit?

Hello again my friends,

Today I am starting a semi-occasional series of posts I like to refer to as the L.A.B. series, or Learning About Beer. The aim of this series is to try to spread beer knowledge. Lots of sites, like ours, review beers, but not too many espouse upon general beer knowledge. So my aim is to try to bring to light different styles, traditions, ingredients, processes or, in this case, a term you may have seen here or there. To put it simply, the Reinheitsgebot is a list of what can go into beer and folks in Cincinnati are big fans of it. To put it more complexly, read on!

Reinheitsgebot (which sounds something like Reign-heights-geh-boat) means “purity order.” Nearly 400 years ago, two Bavarian (which is now southwestern Germany) Dukes got together and decided to lay down the law on what went into beer. They didn’t call it the Reinheitsgebot then, but we’ll get to that later. They said you could only have barley, hops, and water. [footnote] This was before we knew how yeast worked in beer. That came about in 1857 thanks to Louis Pasteur, that awesome dude who figured out pasteurization [/footnote] That’s actually a pretty limited list; especially if you’ve ever looked at what Dogfish Head likes to throw into some of their brews. There seems to be some dispute today over why this was ordered. Some people say they did this because Brewers were throwing random things into their beers like roots, mushrooms, or “animal parts.” If that were the case, then this would be the oldest known consumer protection law. Other people argue that this was ordered to protect wheat and rye, important for making bread, from being “wasted” on beer. That would keep the price of bread down and thus, more people fed.

It wasn’t until 1918 that Reinheitsgebot appeared in print anywhere, and it became a part of the German tax code.  It was updated to include malted barley, yeast, hops, and water, but that was only in bottom-fermented beers, aka lagers. After World War II, the Germans started to market the purity and natural qualities of their beer, and the reinheitsgebot began to receive lots of attention. Then, in 1987 when Germany went to join the European Union it all came to an end. Other countries (like Belgium, which uses lots of different stuff, notably including wheat, in their beers) were strongly against the Reinheitsgebot. So now in 2012, there is no actual law, but it’s still a highly held goal and achievement for brewers.

Now, you may be thinking that this blog is about Cincinnati, right? What does some 400-year-old German law have to do with the Queen City??

Well, if you’ve been here for at least a year you’re probably well aware that Cincinnati is a big fan of celebrating its German heritage (Remember, Over-The-Rhine is actually a reference to the Rhine river). I haven’t been able to nail down any info regarding whether THE Christian Moerlein (as in the dude, not the company named after him) followed the Reinhetsgebot, but he was Bavarian, so there are pretty good odds on that. What I do know is that when the company came about it became the first American brewery to have a beer that met the Reinhetsgebot, something they are fond of talking about, just checking out their twitter page:

But it’s not just Christian Moerlein. Rivertown has a few brews which apply to the Reinhetsgebot as well! Also, while Haufbrauhaus claims they’ve always brewed to the Reinheitsgebot (which I had to dig around for and found on their about page), it apparently doesn’t apply to many of their beers like the Dunkel or the Weizen. As time goes on and some breweries choose to get wild and wacky with their flavors (I’m looking at you 21st Amendment – Hell or High Watermelon) I have a feeling that more breweries will choose to react to this and follow the Reinhetsgebot. If that happens, then you’ll be ready to impress your friends with the history of this barely pronounceable word!

5 thoughts on “Learning About Beer: Reinheitsgebot, gesundheit?”

  1. My philosophy on beer is much, much more aligned with the Belgians than it is the Germans. If you look at the two hypotheses for why this was implemented (consumer protection and ingredient rationing), neither have any practical purpose in today’s beer industry because consumer protection is already handled and ingredients are plentiful. Therefore, it just seems silly to keep with tradition for the sake of tradition. You can debate all you want about some of the more extreme beers like Dogfish Head, but certain ingredients, such as Rye, can improve dimensions of beer when used appropriately and are still banned under this law.


  2. I agree. On the spectrum, I fall somewhere between Reinheitsgebot and the silliness that DFH puts out. My all means, brew the most “pure” beer or the most nonsensical beer you can imagine, but I probably won’t enjoy either very much.


  3. I don’t want you to think I’m in favor of the reinhetsgebot or advocating it’s use, I was just curious about it having seen it at the lager house and wanted to spread knowledge. I really like brewers doing whatever they want. While I don’t like some of the different brews DFH and others have come out with I love that they are trying new things and I enjoy being able to try those beers.


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