Reinheitsgebot, The German beer purity law of 1516, celebrates its 500th anniversary.

Many German brewers have recently been pushing to get the “Reinheitsgebot” German beer purity law recognized by its addition to the UNESCO World Heritage List. They say it would celebrate German beer culture and the high standard of excellence that placed German beer squarely among the ranks of the world’s finest beers. They say this proud tradition of uncompromising adherence to strict standards of quality and purity deserves to be recognized. Since brewers in Germany still follow the “Reinheitsgebot” they believe it sets them apart and points to why German beer is still to be considered superior to other beers.

In 1516 the new beer purity law mandated that all beer must be brewed using only 3 ingredients: water, hops and barley (they didn’t understand about yeast yet). Today there are 2 separate camps as far as support for the law and the explanation for why it came into being in the first place. Not surprisingly, those brewers advocating for the UNESCO recognition of “Reinheitsgebot” are in one camp and other brewers who think its outdated, restrictive and unnecessary are in the other. For expedience I’ll just refer to them as the pro or anti camps.

Pro-Camp: my research tells me that pro-campers insist “Reinheitsgebot” was conceived out of a necessity for keeping the use of grains like wheat and rye (which were at times in limited supply) available for baking bread, a staple for the hungry masses. They would seem to be suggesting that it was thought the use of those grains in beer brewing was squandering what could be more sensibly used to feed people. After all, hunger surely sows the seeds of revolution. Additionally, pro-campers believe the antiseptic qualities of hops made it a perfect preservative and its bitterness made it an ideal bittering agent to counteract the sweetness of the sugars required for the fermentation process (although many other plants and herbs are equally antiseptic and bitter).

Anti-Camp: anti-campers say that this entire UNESCO effort is really about boosting declining German beer sales as more people abstain for health reasons and younger beer drinkers are discovering a wide world of enticing alternatives. They say that other countries with just as ancient and noble a beer brewing heritage have managed just fine without restrictive laws regulating beer ingredients and indeed such restrictions place them at a distinct disadvantage in the world market. Where they most dramatically part company from the pro-camp is in their understanding of true genesis of the original beer purity law: greed, control and religion.

Let’s take a little trip in our beer fueled time machine back to the year 1516 so we might sort out this little controversy. At that time most beer, or ale was made from Gruit, a combination of herbs like Mugwort, Bog Myrtle, Horehound, Myrica Gale, Sage and many others as well as roots, berries and tree bark. Hops was also used in some ales but not nearly as much as the primary ingredient it was to become post “Reinheitsgebot”. In those days drinking beer or ale wasn’t just about relaxing, unwinding or even getting drunk. Many ales had medicinal properties and were noteworthy as cures or salves for certain illnesses. It may be that Ale Houses got their name due to the fact that people went to them for relief from certain medieval ailments and discomforts.

Many of the herbs and plants used for beer brewing also had psychotropic and aphrodisiac properties. They were healing, stimulating and pretty darn good for the libido! Gruit Ale drinkers were said to often have “visions” or become energized and hyper-creative not to mention hyper-sexual. Hops on the other hand was and is more of a sedative. In fact it had long been used to treat restlessness, anxiety and sleep disorders. Hops are also a very abundant source of phytoestrogens and by some accounts one of the most potent sources of plant-based estrogens. Estrogen may be great for menopausal women but it’s not so great for older men. The term “brewers droop” came from the fact that men exposed to hops consistently, like brewers and bar keepers tended to experience erectile dysfunction at younger ages as well as the phenomenon we now call “man boobs”. It was also noted that women who harvested hops would begin their menstrual cycle earlier.

So…. on one hand you had “hops based” ales that made people lethargic and men hypo-sexual, and on the other Gruit, that made people euphoric, stimulated and hyper-sexual.

The Protestant Reformation that officially began in 1517 certainly must have been brewing (pun intended) for many years prior. Before the Reformation and the “Reinheitsgebot” beer brewing at the household level was handled by women (the Beer wife), a tradition that continued for hundreds of years after. Much of the mass produced ale was the province of Monasteries. Beer brewing monks developed Gruit recipes from many different combinations and ratios of herbs and plant materials. Particularly popular recipes were closely guarded by these enterprising fryers just as recipes for Coke-a-Cola or Dr. Pepper are today. In many cases these monasteries and powerful Catholic clergymen held monopolies on Gruit. Official edicts were handed down from Archbishops, equivalent to government officials in those days.  Ale Houses and commercial brewers must purchase their Gruit (the actual herbal mixture used in the brewing) from Catholic monasteries or risk the wrath of the church. In some cases a tax was charged for the privilege of foraging for Gruit on Church owned land and only a select few were granted “picking rights”.

You can imagine this Gruit monopoly and close guarding of popular recipes didn’t sit well with the up-and-coming Protestants. For one thing they thought Catholics were too ostentatious, materialistic and much too given to drink.  As Protestant sensibilities and values gained prominence it must have occurred to someone that they could kill two birds with one stone. By outlawing beer made with anything other than hops, barley and water they could crush the pesky Catholic monopoly in one stroke. If Protestant aristocrats also just happened to control the supply of hops, so much the better.  With their own monopoly they could re-direct money going into Catholic coffers to their own treasuries. At the same time, a population more sedate, less stimulated, less aggressive and less sexual fit very well with Protestant morality.

So there you have it. The first anti-drug laws were actually born out of greed and a desire to exert more control of the populace by tamping down passion, creativity and sexuality. More docile, lethargic, unstimulated peasants caused less trouble for the ruling class. That and the enormous sums of money involved may have much to do with why you hear very little about Gruit to this day.

As I see it, some things haven’t changed much in 500 years. Beer purity laws like many other misguided laws were ways for the wealthy and influential to consolidate power and fill their coffers at the expense of the less fortunate. They may have been justified as a necessary means to “protect the commoners from themselves”. If you really think about it, many modern laws pertaining to drugs and alcohol are a governments attempt to protect us from ourselves. It’s funny how often times protecting us from ourselves just happens to be economically beneficial for those with the clout and money to buy influence in the halls of government. A good example of this is the vilification and outlawing of Hemp in 1937. A corporation, hence certain very rich and influential individuals made inestimable fortunes from synthetic fibers for ropes and lines after Hemp was declared illegal. Undoubtedly some government officials at the time were handsomely rewarded for their support.

So what has really changed? I got interested in this question as I was doing research for an eBook about starting a Nano-Brewery with scanty financial resources. There are lots of very skilled home beer brewers that would love to take their passion to the next level and sell their beer. To “go pro” as they say. What stands in the way of most? Government regulations and red-tape! Bureaucracies on top of bureaucracies have made the possibility of legally selling home brewed beer way beyond the reach of your average home brewer. It’s not just about money either. There are so many different governments that hold sway like Federal, State, County and City and they rarely agree with each other or even like each other much. They definitely don’t seem to want to get on the same page about things. Why not? The short answer has to do with power. Nobody wants to give any of it up. They want control and what comes along with it, money. Most of which comes from the little guy just trying to scrape by and feed a family.

Is it necessary that we be protected from ourselves? Well…. some might say that if the government didn’t maintain strict control over alcohol production and distribution it might become be too available, maybe even too cheap. A lot more people might over indulge, become alcoholics and create problems for law enforcement and society in general. In other words, as a society we couldn’t handle too much availability of alcohol. Is it just me or does that sound pretty ridiculous? When was the last time you had trouble finding booze?  Consumerism would seem to be at odds with restriction and the average Joe or Jill gets caught in the middle by paying higher prices and taxes.

Why the soapbox and what the hell does hops and Gruit have to do with it anyway? Fair enough question and I want to give an example to address it:

Let’s say you go out into the woods and pick some wild herbs. Perhaps you want to make some “wild-crafted” pesto with the herbs. You’re looking to make a little   extra money to catch up on bills or put into your retirement account. You take your pesto and try to sell it at a farmers market or swap-meet. Is it legal? Probably not. You may have to pay a fee and be inspected to get a permit showing you’re in compliance with Health Code standards. If you don’t do it and you happen to get caught you probably won’t end up in jail. Maybe a small fine or slap on the wrist for a first offense or just a warning.

Now, what if you went out in the woods and harvested some wild herbs to brew Gruit. You bottle that Gruit, stick a label on it and try to sell it at the farmers market or swap-meet. I would say there’s a fairly good chance you’re going to be perp-walked out of there in hand cuffs and looking at as much as 6 months in the slammer. Why the difference? The government in its infinite wisdom and regard for our health and wellbeing has determined that bad things will happen to us as a society if they don’t keep a tight rein on who can and can’t sell alcohol. Processes for restricting the availability of alcohol (I won’t even get into other more benign “drugs”) must therefore be put in place and we lowly common folk must be made to pay the costs for enforcing such restrictions. If not……too many of us would get drunk too often? Too many of us would become alcoholics and put a strain on health care, law enforcement and other resources?

I agree there needs to be some regulation and perhaps even restriction but why does it have to be so incredibly complicated and costly. Government is supposed to work for us not against. Almost any type of cottage industry is probably a good thing. It helps the economy, especially the local economy in a number of profound ways. With home brewing it’s a no brainer that some home based brewers will go on to build successful enterprises that employ lots of income tax paying people, purchase plenty of supplies and equipment (which are taxed) and sell scads of a product that will be heavily taxed.

So what am I missing here? Oh, yes I forgot. Government needs to protect us from ourselves and we, to our detriment, need to pay them for the service of preventing us from doing ourselves harm. That’s why home brewing beer, made illegal during the prohibition, didn’t become legal again until 1978!

What if more money was spent on education and rehabilitation and less on enforcement and incarceration? Could it be that current restrictive laws would become anachronisms just like the “Reinheitsgebot”?

Happy International Gruit Day! February 1st

Published by Bill Hoover