Beer Purity Law

Making Sense of the Reinheitsgebot

The Reinheitsgebot, aka Germany’s beer purity law, turns 500 in April. The law is familiar to beer lovers but, according to Joe Stange of All About Beer magazine, is widely misunderstood. To begin with, it wasn’t the first German law that regulated ingredients. It wasn’t called a “purity law” until 100 years ago, and it was more concerned with keeping beer and bread affordable—and curbing brewers’ use of wheat, which bakers needed—than with keeping beer pure. It didn’t apply across Germany until 1906; and when it did, the law killed many regional beer styles. And the law has been tweaked since 1516.

All that said, the law remains on the books, and is known in English as “The Provisional Beer Law”. Even though it no longer bans the importation of non-Reinheitsgebot beer, thanks to various free-trade laws and treaties, a German brewery still can’t market non-compliant products as “beer”.

On a recent trip to a Munich beer bar, Stange deliberately ordered a non-compliant beer, a milk stout brewed by the bar’s parent company, a brewery called Camba Bavaria. The barman explained to Stange that it wasn’t available due to “legal troubles with the Reinheitsgebot”.

Stange contacted the brewery for an explanation of the “legal troubles”, which began with the milk stout. According to the brewery: “officials told them (1) they can’t call it beer, since it has lactose (milk sugar); (2) they can’t call it ‘milk’ anything since there is no milk in it; (3) they can’t call it Klim Touts [‘milk stout’ spelled backwards] either, by the way, because don’t be cheeky; and oh (4) you’ll have to go ahead and pay taxes on it as if it were beer, even though we say it’s not beer, because ‘milk stout’ is clearly an established international beer style, even though you can’t call it that.”

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