At the German hobby brewery Richelbräu, there’s always something interesting in the vat. Maybe dates, or honey, produced from the brewery’s beekeeping project, or coffee. Once upon a time, there was even a brewing course in chicha, a Peruvian beer traditionally made with saliva.
There are bicycle tours, literary readings and all kinds of cultural entertainment at this quirky community space. But what’s most peculiar about Richelbräu is where it is. No, not in Berlin or Hamburg, where Germany’s most experimental craft beer scenes stir up excitement, but in Munich, the German city with the strictest laws on making beer.
Munich is the capital of Bavaria, Germany’s wealthy southern state, where the Reinheitsgebot, or beer purity law, was proudly established in 1516. According to the law, only hops, barley, yeast, and water are allowed in beer.
Hundred of years later, the Reinheitsgebot applies across all of Germany, but with exemptions that largely allow for craft beer production. Except in Bavaria, where these exemptions don’t exist—making brewing with other ingredients virtually impossible.
According to Dr. Michael Zepf, the division head of Doemens, Germany’s oldest brewing academy located in Munich, there are only two states: Bavaria and neighboring Baden-Wuerttemberg, where the Reinheitsgebot is so stringently adhered to.
“Germans must follow legislation, but not necessarily the beer purity law,” he says. “The brewing laws are the same across Germany, but interpreted differently by each state according to Germany’s federal system.”
So how does Richelbräu get away with a honey beer? It only offers tastings by donation. The hobby brewery is hidden in the tiny basement of a sunshine-yellow apartment building in a quiet residential neighborhood—there aren’t even opening hours.
“We don’t sell our beer, which means we can brew pretty much anything,” says Günther Baumann, Richelbräu’s founder. “We love to experiment and if it was us, we’d get rid of the Reinheitsgebot.”
Critics of the beer purity law, like Richelbräu’s regulars, argue that there is not enough beer diversity in the region, and that similarly influences Bavarians to be less open to international beer styles and really, the concept of craft beer at all.
Bavarians are known for being staunchly conservative, as well as proud of their history and traditions (much of the food, culture, and beer that is internationally recognized as German comes from these parts), but according to Baumann, the Reinheitsgebot is not necessarily a true reflection of Bavarian heritage anymore.
While the law was introduced largely for economic reasons, such as protectionism and preventing price competition between bakers, it also stopped brewers from using toxic and hallucinogenic ingredients like soot or pitch.
Yet the “purity” element of the “purity law” has been essentially forgotten in modern times, Baumann says.
“Purity should mean ‘produced ecologically without toxic ingredients,’” he explains. “But when the hops and barley are sprayed with chemicals, that promise is not being fulfilled anymore.”
Instead, he says, the Reinheitsgebot is a marketing tool for Bavaria’s brewing industry which is dominated by large industrial breweries. At Oktoberfest, the world’s largest beer festival happening annually in Munich (except this year due to coronavirus), only beer from six local breweries is allowed, but four of the six are owned by multinational corporations based outside of Germany.
“The Reinheitsgebot are rules that hobby brewers, small brewers, and craft beer brewers want to get rid of. But the big ones want to keep it because they can put ‘Brewed according to the Reinheitsgebot’ on the label,” Baumann continues.
Zepf of the Doemens Academy argues that Bavaria’s vibrant scene of small-scale regional breweries, passed down over the generations, also benefits from the Reinheitsgebot quality stamp.
“Consumers are proud of having an old foodstuff law from their homeland culture, and it makes beer easy to understand because it’s just four ingredients,” says Zepf. “Everyone understands the law, and it is not complex.”
Doemens, which offers courses for budding brewers and beer sommeliers, also teaches its students to brew with non-Reinheitsgebot ingredients since production isn’t for commercial sale, but the professor Zepf supports the beer purity law as a cornerstone of German brewing tradition.
“(Reinheitsgebot beer) is not just helles,” he says. “The entire world looks at Bavaria and the beer drinkers here are rightly proud of that. Sure, there are countries where there is more diversity, but the consistency of good quality for such a range of beer is unique to Germany in the world.”
Indeed, according to the German Brewers Federation, there are more than 100 kinds of hops, over 40 sorts of malt, and over 200 yeast strains, meaning that it’s possible to drink a different beer brewed according to the Reinheitsgebot every day for 15 years.
In the current coronavirus lockdown, small German breweries have been left particularly vulnerable, particularly in Bavaria where some of the strictest measures were imposed.
For Bavarian breweries that want to experiment with beer styles, chances are they won’t be able to because of the costs. Beer made with non-Reinheitsgebot ingredients cannot be legally marketed as beer, nor can the word brewery be used on the label.
A well-known example in Germany happened a few years ago, when the Bavarian brewery Camba produced a milk stout and was fined and forced by the authorities to pour it out, later deciding to produce the beer over the border in Austria and import it back into Germany.
Richelbräu’s Baumann says such loopholes are evidence that the Reinheitsgebot may no longer be as highly regarded or enforceable in the future, particularly as the European Union moves towards closer integration and bloc-wide regulation.
“If we want to have the same uniform laws across Europe, the Reinheitsgebot may need to be abolished,” he explains. “Or at least other beers, like a chocolate or coffee beer, will have to be allowed to be named as such without penalty. In 10 years, the Reinheitsgebot might not be an issue anymore.”
Dr. Zepf sees a different destiny—he says there’s “no reason why it shouldn’t continue on like now.”
“The legislation can always change and even if it does, I believe the Reinheitsgebot will continue as a mark of quality,” said the professor. “It is so accepted by customers, that from a marketing standpoint, it would be nonsense to give it up.”