The Uncertain Origins of Pure Beer

15 Apr The Uncertain Origins of Pure Beer

As well as roses and books, swords and dragons, for five centuries Saint George’s Day has also been a day the beer sector marks on its calendar. Exactly 500 years ago on 23rd April, the Reinheitsgebot or Beer Purity Law, initially applicable throughout the Duchy of Bavaria, was enacted by Duke Wilhelm IV and his brother Ludwig X in 1516. The date has been celebrated annually ever since.

According to the text of the law, the price of a mass, a jug containing approximately a litre of beer, could not be greater than the value of a Bavarian penny in the winter season—specifically, between the festivals of Saint Michael (29th September) and Saint George (23rd April)— while the limit rose for the summer period to tuppence for a jug and one and ha’pence for a glass.

Aside from the importance the regulation of the sales price held at the time, this law has ended up playing an important role in history for having established the basis for what we now commonly know as beer. It is a beverage that bears very little resemblance to the drink with origins dating back to the Neolithic Period, particularly in terms of the ingredients.

“Furthermore, we wish to emphasise that in future in all cities, markets and in the country, the only ingredients used for the brewing of beer must be barley, hops and water. Whosoever knowingly disregards or transgresses upon this ordinance, shall be punished by the Court authorities’ confiscating such barrels of beer, without fail,” stated the original document.

Although the 1516 version is considered to be the founding document for modern beer, the Reinheitsgebot was originally little more than an extension of the jurisdiction of two regulations published in Munich in 1447 and 1487. The latter obliged the city’s brewers to use only water, hops and barley and established a maximum price for a jug of beer, which was doubled during the summer period.

Meanwhile, the fourth basic ingredient of beer did not make an appearance as such until the mid-nineteenth century, when Louis Pasteur discovered that yeast was responsible for the changes which occurred in spontaneous fermentation of must depending on the ambient temperature. Hence the difference between high- and low-temperature yeasts (ale and lager, respectively), which were quickly adopted in Central Europe. This was partly due to the low mineralisation of their waters but also to their habit of maturing their beers in cool places with stable temperatures.

The arrival of Bavarian brewers such as Josef Groll to what we now know as the Czech Republic along with the use of local ingredients—the spring water, the Moravian malts and Zatecan (Saaz) hops—eventually brought about the development of pilsner lagers. This type of beer is a product of the five-hundred-year-old purity laws, Pasteur’s discoveries and the passion of the Central European brewers, who still have plenty to teach us even now.

(Translation by Sarah Marshall)