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500 Years of State Beer Regulation in Bavaria

Not every celebration calls for Champagne. To mark the 500th anniversary of the introduction of Bavaria'sbeer seems more appropriate.

Not every celebration calls for Champagne. To mark the 500th anniversary of the introduction of Bavaria's Reinheitsgebot beer seems more appropriate.

The word Reinheitsgebot is usually translated as 'beer purity law' but, in fact, it originally had significantly wider implications. The law was introduced in 1516 to regulate the ingredients used by brewers and price of beer sold in taverns. It is regarded as the world's first state-wide statute regulating the production of food.

Beer as food, you might wonder? Take a stroll in Munich, Augsburg or Ingolstadt and you'll still hear Bavarians refering to beer as flüssiges Brot (meaning 'liquid bread').

Restricting the ingredients of beer to barley, hops and water meant the state ensured that rye and wheat could be supplied to bakeries. Food shortages were a frequent occurrence in 16th century Europe. Protests against high bread prices could soon escalate into social unrest.

The Reinheitsgebot played a role in ensuring the people of Bavaria had enough affordable bread to prevent them from going hungry. It made it possible for agents of the state to confiscate barrels of impure beer. Innkeepers' margins of profit on beer sales were also limited and the law permitted Bavaria's ruler to curtail beer production if barley become scarce.

Prince Luitpold of Bavaria is a member of the Wittelsbach family, in whose name the Reinheitsgebot of 1516 was proclaimed. He is involved in the brewing industry as the Chief Executive Officer of the König Ludwig Schlossbrauerei, a brewery whose headquarters and production base are at Kaltenberg Castle, roughly 55km west of Munich, Bavaria's capital.

"The law is up-to-date...Why dilute the definition of beer?" asks Prince Luitpold, 500 years after the Reinheitsgebot was intruced, adding that he is proud that his ancestors ushered in "the oldest food control law is still valid today."

Though it might seem strange today, beer was usually safer to drink than water in the Middle Ages.

The beer consumed on a day-to-day basis contained markedly less alcohol by volume than most of the brews available to us today. Even children would consume beer regularly.

The introduction of the law of 1516 meant brewers could no longer mask the flavour of a bad brew with spices or other ingredients.

Matthias Trum is the Bräu (meaning he is a brewery owner, a brewmaster and runs a brewery tavern) at Bamberg's Schlenkerla Brewery, which is famed for its Rauchbier (smoke beer).

Mr Trum points out that the Bavarian Reinheitsgebot built upon local brewing legislation already on the statue books in cities such as Augsburg (dating from 1155), Regensburg (1469) and Bamberg (1489). "All these purity laws had the main purpose of controlling been tax and only secondarily the quality of the beer. Even today the Reinheitsgebot is still part of the vorläufiges Biersteuergesetz - the preliminary beer tax law - and not of any food control law," says Mr Trum.

He acknowledges the Reinheitsgebot made beer safer to consume and regards its impact as significant. "The revolutionary element was something different: the fact that government at all made a law on how to produce a certain food was the precursor for all the food laws we know today," he says.

"The real legacy today in my opinion is, that the Bavarian purity law defines what we - Bavarians, Franconians, Germans - mean when thinking of beer...Even in the age of craft beer most Germans wouldn't consider a, say, kriek or geuze [Belgian styles of ale] a 'real' beer," adds Mr Trum.

So, cheers, or Prost as Germans say, whichever type of beer you choose to crack open to celebrate 500 years since the Reinheitsgebot entered the Bavarian statute books.

Further information

See the Bavaria and Germany websites for ideas relating to travel and tourism.