Want to know how long Germans have been obsessed with making good beer? A very long time. So long that they had a beer purity law – the Reinheitsgebot – in place for centuries before Captain Cook first laid eyes on Botany Bay, or the Lord Nelson – Sydney’s oldest brewery – ever fermented its first batch of beer. Bavaria’s Duke Wilhelm IV enacted the law 500 years ago this year, setting a beer-brewing standard for brewers creating quality drops across the globe.
According to the BBC, as the world’s oldest consumer protection law “had three aims: to protect drinkers from high prices; to ban the use of wheat in beer so more bread could be made; and to stop unscrupulous brewers from adding dubious toxic and even hallucinogenic ingredients as preservatives or flavourings.” The original Bavarian law decreed beer could only be made with barley, hops and water, later amended to include yeast (when they realised what yeast was and its role in the beer-making process) and then further refined to read as it does today, replacing barley with malted grains more generally to give German brewers (just a little) more wiggle room.
Nina Anika Klotz, editor of German craft beer magazine Hopfenhelden, says the law really came back into fashion in the last century when “German politicians saw it as a sort of unique selling point. Germans started to say ‘Well, you should buy our beer, because it’s special. It’s been brewed according to the Reinheitsgebot.’”
The law only legally applies to German brewers inside Germany but for the world’s beer-drinking public it’s been a boon, inspiring quality-obsessed modern brewers to keep ingredient lists short and clean, ditching endless additives. Operations like Alexandria’s Rocks Brewing Co aim to make as many of its brews as possible with “nothing but barley, hops, water and yeast”. And Sydney’s new craft beer label, the Crafty Bavarian, brewed by the Urban Craft Brewing Co, is not only following the spirit of the law, it’s making Bavarian-style brews created by a Bavarian-trained brewer using strains of Bavarian yeast to keep the final product as true as possible to the Bavarian recipes and traditions that inspire their beers. Plenty of Australia’s craft brewers use nothing but the four ingredients stipulated in the beer purity law for most of their craft brews without touting an allegiance to it, because it’s simply the centuries-old, tried-and-true way to make palate-pleasing ales and lagers.
Indeed, Germany seems to have perfected the art of beer making. Klotz says “apart from Reinheitsgebot, Germany has been the place to learn how to brew for quite some time. In Weihenstephan we have the oldest brewery in the world and the oldest university at which to study beer brewing. Brewers from US and elsewhere (like Australia) come here to study brewing. In that sense, Germany has also influenced brewing worldwide.”
Although some Reinheitsgebot critics also call the law limiting it doesn’t seem to have limited the variety of beers or beer knowledge Germany invented, riffed on (like the Czech beer Pilsner) or exported, from lager to hefeweizen. Ever neck a 4 Pines Kolsch, Wayward Sour Puss Berliner Weisse, Crafty Bavarian Hop Dock Hefeweizen or a Nomad Freshie Salt & Pepper Gose on a balmy summer afternoon? All from the land of Oktoberfest. Red Oak Weizen Doppel Bock? German. As is the Sydney Brewery Darlo Dark, a deceptively dark lager that belies its lighter taste.