Germany’s Beer Purity Law

Germany - Scott #1396 (1983)
Germany – Scott #1396 (1983)

Germans are deadly serious about their beer. In fact, they have a phrase for it:  bierernst  which translates literally as “beer serious.” With more than 1,300 breweries producing some five-and-a-half thousand different types of beer, what is now Germany has had a beer purity law known as the Reinheitsgebot for more than 500 years. Introduced in 1516 by Duke Wilhelm IV of Bavaria, the decree allows for only hops, barley, water and, later, yeast in every Stein. The law also stipulates that beers not exclusively using barley-malt such as wheat beer must be top-fermented. Yes, beer is a major part of German culture. In 2012, Germany ranked third in Europe in terms of per-capita beer consumption, behind the Czech Republic and Austria.

I had originally planned to use October as an excuse to post mainly German stamps on A Stamp A Day due to obtaining a large number of them recently. The idea was to tie this commemoration with Oktoberfest, the world’s largest Volksfest (beer festival and travelling funfair), held each year in Munich from mid or late September to the first weekend in October with more than six million people from around the world attending the event every year. The original Munich event is an important part of Bavarian culture, having been held since 1810. However, I have decided to save Germany for later (other than this post) and use October instead for philatelic-related articles marking (U.S.) National Stamp Collecting Month; in conjunction to that, A Stamp A Day has just launched its very own Facebook Page.

A waitress with Hacker-Pschorr, one of the traditional beers allowed to be served at Oktoberfest. She wears a dirndl, a traditional women's dress of Bavaria. Photo taken by Mark Burger in 2011.
A waitress with Hacker-Pschorr, one of the traditional beers allowed to be served at Oktoberfest. She wears a dirndl, a traditional women’s dress of Bavaria. Photo taken by Mark Burger in 2011.

The earliest documented mention of beer by a German nobleman is the granting of a brewing license by Emperor Otto II to the church at Liege (now Belgium), awarded in 974. A variety of other beer regulations also existed in Germany during the late Middle Ages, including in Nuremberg in 1293, Erfurt in 1351, and Weißensee in 1434. Thuringians point to a document which states the ingredients of beer as water, hops, and barley only, and was written in 1434 in Weißensee (Thuringia). It was discovered in the medieval Runneburg near Erfurt in 1999. Before its official repeal in 1987, it was the oldest food-quality regulation in the world.

The Reinheitsgebot (literally “purity order”), sometimes called the “German Beer Purity Law” in English, is a series of regulations limiting the ingredients in beer in Germany and the states of the former Holy Roman Empire. The best-known version of the law was adopted in Bavaria in 1516, but similar regulations predate the Bavarian order, and modern regulations also significantly differ from the 1516 Bavarian version.

The most influential predecessor of the modern Reinheitsgebot was a law first adopted in the duchy of Munich in 1487. After Bavaria was reunited, the Munich law was adopted across the entirety of Bavaria on April 23, 1516. As Germany unified, Bavaria pushed for adoption of this law on a national basis.

Freshly picked hops. Photo taken on July 14, 2010.
Freshly picked hops. Photo taken on July 14, 2010.
A field of barley in the United States. Photo taken by Jurema Oliveira of the U.S. Department of Agriculture on November 28, 2004.
A field of barley in the United States. Photo taken by Jurema Oliveira of the U.S. Department of Agriculture on November 28, 2004.

According to the 1516 Bavarian law, the only ingredients that could be used in the production of beer were water, barley and hops. The text does not mention yeast as an ingredient, since its existence was unknown at the time. The 1516 Bavarian law also set the price of beer (depending on the time of year and type of beer), limited the profits made by innkeepers, and made confiscation the penalty for making impure beer.

The text (translated) of the 1516 Bavarian law is as follows:

We hereby proclaim and decree, by Authority of our Province, that henceforth in the Duchy of Bavaria, in the country as well as in the cities and marketplaces, the following rules apply to the sale of beer:

From Michaelmas to Georgi, the price for one Mass [Bavarian Liter 1,069] or one Kopf [bowl-shaped container for fluids, not quite one Mass], is not to exceed one Pfennig Munich value, and
From Georgi to Michaelmas, the Mass shall not be sold for more than two Pfennig of the same value, the Kopf not more than three Heller [Heller usually one-half Pfennig].

If this not be adhered to, the punishment stated below shall be administered.

Should any person brew, or otherwise have, other beer than March beer, it is not to be sold any higher than one Pfennig per Mass.

Furthermore, we wish to emphasize that in future in all cities, market-towns and in the country, the only ingredients used for the brewing of beer must be Barley, Hops and Water. Whosoever knowingly disregards or transgresses upon this ordinance, shall be punished by the Court authorities’ confiscating such barrels of beer, without fail.

Should, however, an innkeeper in the country, city or market-towns buy two or three pails of beer (containing 60 Mass) and sell it again to the common peasantry, he alone shall be permitted to charge one Heller more for the Mass or the Kopf, than mentioned above. Furthermore, should there arise a scarcity and subsequent price increase of the barley (also considering that the times of harvest differ, due to location), WE, the Bavarian Duchy, shall have the right to order curtailments for the good of all concerned.
— Bavarian Reinheitsgebot of 1516 as translated by Karl J. Eden in “History of German Brewing”. Zymurgy. 16 (4), 1993.

Sign commemorating the Decree on the Purity Law by Duke Albrecht IV on November 30, 1487; Photo taken at Viktualienmarkt, Munich, Germany, on August 2, 2012.
Sign commemorating the Decree on the Purity Law by Duke Albrecht IV on November 30, 1487; Photo taken at Viktualienmarkt, Munich, Germany, on August 2, 2012.

The Bavarian order of 1516 was introduced in part to prevent price competition with bakers for wheat and rye. The restriction of grains to barley was meant to ensure the availability of affordable bread, as wheat and rye were reserved for use by bakers. The rule may have also had a protectionist role, as beers from Northern Germany often contained additives that were not present in Bavarian beer.

Religious conservatism may have also played a role in adoption of the rule in Bavaria, to suppress the use of plants that were allegedly used in pagan rituals, such as gruit. The rule also excluded problematic methods of preserving beer, such as soot, stinging nettle and henbane.

While some sources refer to the Bavarian law of 1516 as the first law regulating food safety, this is inaccurate, as earlier food safety regulations can be traced back as far as ancient Rome. Similarly, some sources claim that the law has been essentially unchanged since its adoption, but as early as the mid-1500s Bavaria began to allow ingredients such as coriander, bay leaf, and wheat. Yeast was also added to modern versions of the law after the discovery of its role in fermentation.

The Bavarian order of 1516 formed the basis of rules that spread slowly throughout Germany. Bavaria insisted on its application throughout Germany as a precondition of German unification in 1871. The move encountered strong resistance from brewers outside Bavaria, and imperial law of 1873 taxed the use of other ingredients (rather than banning them) when used by Northern German brewers. It was not until 1906 that the law was applied consistently across all of Germany, and it was not formally referred to as Reinheitsgebot until the Weimar Republic.

A Kranz (wreath) of fresh Kölsch beer that is typically carried by a server (
A Kranz (wreath) of fresh Kölsch beer that is typically carried by a server (“Köbes”), containing traditional Stange glasses and, in the center, larger modern glasses. Photo taken by Tim ‘Avatar’ Bartel.

In 1952, the basic regulation of the Reinheitsgebot were incorporated into the West German Biersteuergesetz (Beer Taxation Law). Bavarian law remained stricter than that of the rest of the country, leading to legal conflict during the 1950s and early 1960s. The law initially applied only to bottom-fermented (“lager”) beers, but brewers of other types of beer soon accepted the law as well.

Outside of Germany, the Reinheitsgebot was formally incorporated in Greek law by the first Greek king, Otto (originally a Bavarian prince). German brewers at the Tsingtao Brewery in the German colony in Qingdao, China also followed the law voluntarily.

In March 1987, in a case brought by French brewers, the European Court of Justice found that the Reinheitsgebot was protectionist, and therefore in violation of Article 30 of the Treaty of Rome. This ruling concerned only imported beer, so Germany chose to continue to apply the law to beer brewed in Germany. Greece’s version of the Reinheitsgebot was struck down around the same time. General food safety and labeling laws may also apply.

After German reunification in 1990, the Neuzeller Kloster Brewery, a former monastery brewery in the East German town of Neuzelle, Brandenburg, was warned to stop selling its black beer as it contained sugar. After some negotiations the brewery was allowed to sell it under the name Schwarzer Abt (“Black Abbot”) but could not label it “Bier“. This decision was repealed by the Federal Administrative Court of Germany through a special permit, and after legal disputes lasting ten years (known as the “Brandenburg Beer War”) Neuzeller Kloster Brewery gained the right to call Schwarzer Abt “Bier” again.

A Maßkrug is the style of glassware featured at German beer festivals, especially in Bavaria, such as Munich's Oktoberfest. Photo taken by Martin Ortmann on April 23, 2006.
A Maßkrug is the style of glassware featured at German beer festivals, especially in Bavaria, such as Munich’s Oktoberfest. Photo taken by Martin Ortmann on April 23, 2006.

The revised Vorläufiges Biergesetz (Provisional Beer Law) of 1993, which replaced the earlier regulations, is a slightly expanded version of the Reinheitsgebot, stipulating that only water, malted barley, hops and yeast be used for any bottom-fermented beer brewed in Germany. In addition, the law allows the use of powdered or ground hops and hop extracts, as well as stabilization and fining agents such as PVPP. Top-fermented beer is subject to the same rules, with the addition that a wider variety of malted grains can be used, as well as pure sugars for flavor and coloring.

The law’s applicability was further limited by a court ruling in 2005, which allowed the sale of beer with different ingredients as long as it was not labeled “beer”.

Exceptions to the current rules can be sought, and have been granted to allow gluten-free beer to be labeled as beer despite the use of different ingredients.

The Reinheitsgebot remains the most famous law that regulates the brewing of beer, and continues to influence brewing not only in Germany, but around the world.

Historically, the restriction on ingredients led to the extinction of many brewing traditions and local beer specialties, such as North German spiced beer and cherry beer. Only a few regional beer varieties, such as Kölner Kölsch, Gosler Gose, and Düsseldorfer Altbier, survived its implementation. However, modern versions of the law have contained significant exceptions for different types of beer (such as top-fermented beers), for export beers, and for different regions. The basic law now declares that only malted grains, hops, water and yeast are permitted.

In response to the growth of craft breweries globally, some commentators, German brewers, and even German politicians have argued that the Reinheitsgebot has slowed Germany’s adoption of beer trends popular in the rest of the world, such as Belgian lambics and American craft styles. In late 2015, Bavarian brewers voted in favor of a revision to the beer laws to allow other natural ingredients.

Some German brewers continue to use the word
Some German brewers continue to use the word “Reinheitsgebot” in labeling and marketing. Photo taken on June 4, 2007.

Because of strong German consumer preferences, labeling beer as being compliant with Reinheitsgebot is believed to be a valuable marketing tool in Germany. German brewers have used the law to market German beer internationally, including a failed attempt to have the law added to the UNESCO list of intangible cultural heritages. Some breweries outside Germany, such as Gordon Biersch in California, Red Oak Brewery in Whitsett, North Carolina, Olde Mecklenburg Brewery in Charlotte, North Carolina, Schulz Braü in Knoxville, Tennessee, Namibia Breweries, Penn Brewery in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Bitte Schön Brauhaus in New Hamburg, Ontario also claim to be compliant to the Reinheitsgebot as part of their marketing.

While the beer market is weaker but more centralized in northern Germany, southern Germany has many smaller, local breweries. Almost half of all German breweries are in Bavaria, where the seven main breweries produce 158 million gallons. In total, there are approximately 1,300 breweries in Germany producing over 5,000 brands of beer.

The highest density of breweries in the world is found in Aufseß near the city of Bamberg, in the Franconia region of Bavaria with four breweries and only 1,352 citizens. The Benedictine abbey Weihenstephan brewery (established in 725) is reputedly the oldest existing brewery in the world (brewing since 1040). In 2004, Oettinger replaced Krombacher as the best selling brand in Germany.

The alcohol-by-volume, or ABV, content of beers in Germany is usually between 4.7% and 5.4% for most traditional brews. Bockbier or Doppelbock (double Bockbier) can have an alcohol content of up to 16%, making it stronger than many wines.

A beer stein (or simply a stein) is an English neologism for a traditional type of beer mug. Steins may be made of stoneware (rarely the inferior earthenware), pewter, porcelain, silver, glass, or wood. They may have open tops or may have hinged pewter lids with a thumb-lever.  Steins usually come in sizes of a half liter or full liter (or comparable historical sizes). Like decorative tankards, they are often decorated in nostalgic themes, generally showing allusions to Germany or Bavaria. It is believed by some that the lid was implemented during the time of the Black Plague to prevent diseased flies from getting into the beer.

Märzen at Oktoberfest, served in the traditional 1-litre Maß. Photo taken on September 24, 2008.
Märzen at Oktoberfest, served in the traditional 1-litre Maß. Photo taken on September 24, 2008.

The Maß (pronounced [mas]) is a term used in German-speaking countries for a unit of volume, now typically used only for measuring beer sold for immediate on-site consumption. In modern times, a Maß is defined as exactly 1 liter. As a Maß is a unit of measure, various designs are possible: modern Maßkrugs (Maßkrüge in German) are often handled glass tankards, although they may also be in the form of steins. At the Octoberfest beer is available in Maßkrug or half liter ‘Halb‘ .

Beer boots (Bierstiefel in German) have over a century of history and culture behind them. It is commonly believed that a general somewhere promised his troops to drink beer from his boot if they were successful in battle. When the troops prevailed, the general had a glassmaker fashion a boot from glass to fulfill his promise without tasting his own feet and to avoid spoiling the beer in his leather boot. Since then, soldiers have enjoyed toasting to their victories with a beer boot. At gatherings in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, beer boots are often passed among the guests for a festive drinking challenge. Since the movie Beerfest appeared in 2006, beer boots have become increasingly popular in the United States. Glass beer boots are either manufactured using a mold or from mouth-blown glass by skilled artisans.

In Germany, beer boots usually contain between 2 and 4 liters and are passed from one guest at the table to the next one clockwise. When almost reaching the bottom of the boot, it suddenly starts bubbling. By some accounts, drinker who caused the bubbling has to order the next boot. There are also boots known with 6 and 8 liters. That being said, beer boots are almost never seen in Germany, even among friends who do drink as much and more beer on an evening out together; normal glasses are preferred.

Main entrance to the Historical Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany. Photo taken by Richard Huber in September 2010.
Main entrance to the Historical Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany. Photo taken by Richard Huber in September 2010.

The beer festival is part of a general funfair or volksfest. The most famous is Oktoberfest, a 16- to 18-day festival held annually in Munich, Bavaria, Germany, running from late September to the first weekend in October. Only beer which is brewed within the city limits of Munich with a minimum of 13.5% Stammwürze (approximately 6% alcohol by volume) is allowed to be served in this festival. Upon passing this criterion, a beer is designated Oktoberfest Beer. Large quantities of German beer are consumed, with almost 7 million liters served during the 16-day festival in 2007. In 2013, 7.7 million liters (66,000 US bbl) were served. Visitors also enjoy numerous attractions, such as amusement rides, sidestalls, and games. There is also a wide variety of traditional foods available.

In 2018, Oktoberfest started on September 22 and will run until October 7 with fourteen large tents and twenty small tents. The tents are wooden non-permanent structures which are constructed for and only used during the festival. The largest of these is Winzerer Fähndl with  8,450 inside seats and seating for an additional 2,450 outside. Translated as “Winzerers (Bavarian for Winebrewers) flag”, this tent is noted for its huge tower with a Maß of Paulaner beer sitting atop it. Schottenhamel (seating for 6,000 inside and 4,000 outside) is reckoned to be the most important tent at the Oktoberfest, mainly because it is located at the beginning. On the first Saturday of the event, no beer is allowed to be served until the Mayor of Munich taps the first keg, at exactly high noon. Only then can the other tents begin to serve beer. The tent is very popular among younger people. A substantial part of the tent is guaranteed to traditional Studentenverbindungen (a particular form of student fraternities) and outfitted with their distinctive colors and coats of arms.

For philatelists, letters placed in the Oktoberfest mailboxes receive a special postmark from the Munich post office.

Germany - Scott #1396 (1983) first day card [NIMC2018]; image sourced from active eBay auction.
Germany – Scott #1396 (1983) first day card [NIMC2018]; image sourced from active eBay auction.
Germany - Michel #3229 (2016) first day card [NIMC2018]; image sources from Colnet
Germany – Michel #3229 (2016) first day card [NIMC2018]; image sourced from Colnet

Scott #1396 was released by Deutsche Bundespost on May 5, 1983, celebrating the history of the Reinheitsgebot. The inscription on the stamp claims it marks the 450th anniversary of the Beer Purity Law but I couldn’t find any reference to an occurrence in 1533. Interestingly, Germany released another stamp commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Bavarian order of 1516 on April 7, 2016 (Michel #3229). The 1983 80-pfennig stamp was printed using offset lithography and portrays a 1677 engraving of Brewers. There were 30,450,000 copies of the stamp issued, perforated 14. A 2015 article by Linn’s Stamp News mentioned that mint never hinged copies of Scott #1396 were a “good buy”.

Flag of Germany
Flag of Germany
Coat of arms of Germany

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