Germany's Beer Purity Law Is 500 Years Old. Is It Past Its Sell-By Date? : The Salt For centuries, German law has stipulated that beer can only be made from four ingredients. But as Germany embraces craft beer, some believe the law impedes good brewing.
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Germany's Beer Purity Law Is 500 Years Old. Is It Past Its Sell-By Date?

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Germany's Beer Purity Law Is 500 Years Old. Is It Past Its Sell-By Date?

Germany's Beer Purity Law Is 500 Years Old. Is It Past Its Sell-By Date?

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

So - thirsty? Want a beer? If you are a beer fan, then you probably know that Germany is famous for the quality of its beer. And there's a reason for that. For centuries now, German brewers have been governed by the beer purity law, the Reinheitsgebot, which requires that beer be brewed using four traditional ingredients.

But lately with new beer trends catching on, some Germans are looking for more flavor and - oh, the scandal - even thinking of adding fruit or other flavors. Germany's beer purity law just turned 500 recently. But now some are asking, is it keeping beer palettes from broadening? Esme Nicholson reports from Berlin.

ESME NICHOLSON, BYLINE: Germans like the ones in this bar in Berlin are deadly serious about their beer. There is even a word for it - bierernst, which translates literally as beer serious. This sober attitude applies particularly to the Germany beer purity law known as the Reinheitsgebot.

Introduced in 1516 by Duke Wilhelm IV of Bavaria, the decree allows for only hops, barley, water and later yeast in every Stein. For 500 years, this recipe has served Bavaria very well, and for the last century, the rest of Germany. But as one patron at the bar, 48-year-old Karlo Schorn, admits, tastes are changing.

KARLO SCHORN: German beer isn't as good as it was 20 years ago. Brands of beer have the same taste, or nearly the same taste. And good beers with awards now are not from Germany. They are from America or somewhere else.

NICHOLSON: Beer sommelier Sylvia Kopp agrees. She says until the arrival of craft beers, the most recent innovation in German brewing was the advent of the very successful Pilsner in the 19th century.

SYLVIA KOPP: Our brewing culture was paralyzed. All the innovations that we had in beer was packaging, new sponsoring ideas, a new bottle, so there was little innovation with the product itself.

NICHOLSON: One of Germany's newest breweries is trying to push the boundaries of the German beer palate. Robin Weber, CEO of Berliner Berg, says he and his colleagues used to work overseas and were impressed by the variety of flavors available in places like the U.S. and Australia.

ROBIN WEBER: Coming back, working in Germany, all of us were really disappointed of what the German beer market had to offer in regards of variety, diversity and quality, in some aspects.

NICHOLSON: Although Berliner Berg's beers are all currently brewed according to the Reinheitsgebot, Weber and his team say they won't let Germany's brewing standards stop them from adding other ingredients in the future, such as orange peel or coriander.

WEBER: The problem is not the small breweries experimenting with fruits or whatever. The real problems lie in mass production and agriculture that is not focused on healthy crops.

NICHOLSON: The recent discovery of traces of a herbicide in Germany's top-selling beers was a further blow to the industry's claims of purity. But polls say around 85 percent of Germans still have faith in the Reinheitsgebot. One of them is 42-year-old Michael Ziegler from Stuttgart.

MICHAEL ZIEGLER: (Through interpreter) The German wants his beer made according to the purity law, so when I vacation abroad I drink wine.

NICHOLSON: For Ziegler, the most important thing about his beer are the four traditional ingredients. Anything else is simply nicht sien Bier, literally not his beer. For NPR News, I'm Esme Nicholson in Berlin.

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