What is the Reinheitsgebot (“German Purity Law)

Well, the first step is to learn how to say Reinheitsgebot…. “Rine-Hites-gaBoat” is the best pronunciation I could find.  Of course some native German speaker will probably correct this, but its pretty darn close.  So now that we can pronounce the word, lets get into what its all about.

The Reinheitsgebot, or “German Purity Law” as many call it, literally translates to “purity law” or “cleanliness law”.  An early version of the law was proposed in 1487, but the version most speak of today originated in the Bavarian city of Ingolstadt on April 23, 1516.  Introduced by Duke Wilhelm IV, the original intent of the law was three fold:

  • Control pricing
  • Ensure the quality of beer
  • Reserve more valuable grains like rye and wheat for bread making, as these grains were often in very short supply

The law limited the allowed ingredients in beer to water, barley and hops.  However, this was only one sentence in a much longer text focused primarily on pricing rules and regulations (see original text below).  Unfortunately the pricing portion of the law did not last… the price was set as one Pfennig per Mass (now that sounds like a great price for a beer!).

Notice there is no yeast in the list of allowable ingredients.  Why you ask?  Well, they really did not know that yeast existed, or was necessary for fermentation, in the 16th century.  They would either use some of the sediment from a previous batch of beer (which included the yeast) or they would let the batch sit out until some wild yeast began the fermentation process. It was not until the 1800’s when Louis Pasteur discovered the role of yeast in fermentation that it was added to the list of acceptable ingredients.

So that is the basics of the original “German purity law”.  As we will discuss in a future FAQ, the law has been updated and adapted to keep up with modern times and has also become the source of some interesting controversies.  Look for the new article soon….

Text of Reinheitsgebot

The best English translation of the Reinheitsgebot that I could find was published in Zymurgy magazine by Karl J. Eden in 1993.

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, markets 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 markets 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 of 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.