A hoppy anniversary for the Reinheitsgebot | Business| Economy and finance news from a German perspective | DW | 22.04.2016
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A hoppy anniversary for the Reinheitsgebot

The famous Reinheitsgebot, a symbol of German product quality, is turning 500. It has been a mark of German brewing quality from the day it forbid wood chips as an ingredient. DW takes a look at the history of the law.

"In all cities and markets and in the countryside, only barley, hops and water may be used for brewing beer." And thus the formula was set by the Bavarian Reinheitsgebot, the beer purity law, which is to this day recognized worldwide as a seal of brewing quality across Germany.

The law was enacted by dukes Wilhelm IV and Ludwig X on April 23, 1516, to harmonize regulations as Bavaria's duchies reunified.

Back then, when hygienic conditions defied description, beer was considered a dietary staple. Drinking water was infested with pathogens, which had to be boiled out during the brewing process. Hops provided an antibacterial effect as well. With a low alcoholic content compared to today's brews, beer then was viewed as relatively healthy. Women and children even drank it throughout the day.

Protection or promotion?

On the one hand, the promulgators of what is now the world's longest-running food regulation were caring for the health of their subjects. Before the regulation, poppy, soot and even wood chips were popular ingredients among brewers.

Economic reasons were of course at play as well. A beer tax was levied on barley. Valuable grains like wheat and rye were reserved for staving off starvation.

Deutschland Bier 500 Jahre Reinheitsgebot

Hops and barley - two of the three crucial ingredients

But no one could have foreseen the business benefit the Reinheitsgebot- the world's longest-running food regulation and a selling point over the competition - would provide German brewers centuries later.

"Unlike their colleagues elsewhere, German brewers don't use artificial flavors, enzymes or preservatives," stressed Hans-Georg Eils, president of the German Brewers' Federation, highlighting the wide appeal of the nation's product.

A matter of national import(s)

The bigger Bavaria grew, the farther the Reinheitsgebot spread. Nearby areas followed the regulation's example.

A law applying to the entire German Reich came into being in 1907, with some updates from its Bavarian ancestor. Yeast and malt were also allowed to mingle with hops and water. Today, in some German states, brewers can add sugar and still call their product beer - though they can't claim the Reinheitsgebot seal of authenticity.

In the 1950s, Bavaria used the Reinheitsgebot as justification to forbid beer from being imported from other German states as well as from abroad. When West Germany became part of the European Economic Community, brewers throughout the country followed suit to block foreign imports.

It was not until a lawsuit filed to the European Court of Justice by foreign brewers that Germany opened its borders to beer.

Watch video 01:58

The secret of beer - the water

On top of the world

In 2013, UNESCO rejected a request to have it recognize the law as a World Cultural Heritage. Beer production in Germany has become too industrial, it claimed.

This did little to tarnish the popularity of the product though. In 2015, 95 million hectoliters (over 2.5 billion gallons) flowed from 1,350 German breweries through the throats of thirsty beer fans across the world - most of all in China and the US. Germany finds itself at the top of the list of European beer producers, with more than 5,500 brands available within the country. And it is the fourth-largest worldwide, behind China, the US and Brazil.

German brewers and beer-lovers alike are ready to party hard for the law's 500-year anniversary. Deustche Post has even released a special postage stamp for the occasion.

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