Opening the lid of a huge brown boiling vessel, Stefan Fritsche flings a handful of hop pellets into the frothy whirl of liquid. Elsewhere in his brewery, a malt grinder rumbles away, a lab technician is busy testing new flavours and crates of Schwarzer Abt (Black Abbot) beer bound for far-flung places are being lifted on to a lorry by a forklift truck.
But the air of industry at Klosterbrauerei Neuzelle, a monastery brewery north of Berlin, feels like “a daily act of defiance,” says Fritsche. For years, authorities in the region tried to claim that Schwarzer Abt– a thick, malty, smokey-tasting black beer containing sugar – was not beer at all.
Neuzelle’s signature tipple, which has been brewed to the same monks’ recipe since 1410, fell foul of Germany’s “purity law”, known in German as theReinheitsgebot, a medieval food safety rule which deemed that beer could contain nothing other than water, barley, hops and, later, also yeast.
The law was decreed in 1516 by Munich’s Duke Wilhelm IV over concerns that contaminants such as soot, poisonous roots and sawdust were being added to the beer-making process.
The bitter legal battle that ensued over Schwarzer Abt was won by the Brandenburg brewery more than a decade ago.
But as German beer enthusiasts prepare to mark the purity law’s 500th anniversary later this month on what is known as German Beer Day, it is still upheld as a vanguard in the fight against the strictest beer-making rules in the world.
“Up to the point we add the sugar, we brew according to the purity law,” says Fritsche, “but the agriculture ministry told me it could not be called beer. If I made it here and sold it abroad I could call it that, or if I made it abroad and exported back to Germany that would also be OK, but because we were brewing on German soil, it could not carry the name beer – even though we’d been doing it for far longer than the purity law.”
He recalls the legal battle as being “very emotional”, not least because he and his father, Helmut, had bought the brewery in the former communist East Germany, close to the Polish border, following the fall of the Berlin Wall, and hoped to bring new jobs and enterprise to the region as they built up the business. “But the battle we ended up fighting nearly sank us, just because we refused to fit in with the norm,” Fritsche says.
Small brewers like Fritsche, who produces 35,000 hectolitres (6m pints) a year, and a growing number of craft beer producers who are keen for more freedom to be able to experiment with different ingredients such as fruits and spices, say the purity law stifles creativity and innovation. Fritsche cites a recent scandal over traces of the herbicide glyphosate that were found in many different German beers, as well as the lack of restrictions on using genetically modified ingredients, to suggest it is “far from pure”.
But the majority of German breweries who brew according to the regulations argue that they are central to the reason German beer has such a towering reputation around the world.
“Anyone who believes that the Reinheitsgebotserves to limit creativity and gives rise to monotonous beers merely has to look to the immense diversity of the country’s beer, which is the envy of the world,” says Marc-Oliver Huhnholz, of the German Brewers Federation. “Germany’s brewers never stop trying to develop new beer styles from the ingredients stipulated in the purity law, proving that the potential involving those four ingredients has still not been fully realised.”
He points out that the Reinheitsgebot continues to enjoy an extremely high degree of acceptance, with a recent survey finding that 85 per cent of German consumers saying that it should continue to be upheld.
“So there’s absolutely no incentive for German brewers to let a 500-year-old decree fade into the past,” Huhnholz adds. “It has perpetually provided brewers with the impetus to breathe new life into Germany’s beer culture.”
Traditionalists who argue that experimentation with the permitted ingredients offers scope enough for innovation point to the current trend to search for new hop and yeast varieties – there are about 200 of each – which all help to add new twists to established beers.
Craft beers – broadly speaking, those not brewed by large corporations but by small, independent brewers – constitute, at 100,000 hectolitres or 0.1 percent, a tiny proportion of the German beer market, though they are increasingly making their presence felt.
When the independent Scottish craft beer maker BrewDog opens a 200-seater bar and beer garden in central Berlin later this year, under the German rules they will not be allowed to brew in Germany. They will have to import, and even then will not be allowed to call their beer “beer”.
“We have to call it ‘beer-style’ or refer to it specifically as an IPA, pale ale or stout,” says Kerry Allison, the company’s Germany representative and brand ambassador. Nevertheless, she senses the beginnings of a beer revolution and says BrewDog hopes to contribute to it, not least by showcasing a wide variety of German craft beers.
Huhnholz argues that German brewing methods have changed immeasurably over the centuries, as have food safety standards. “The likelihood of falling victim to an irresponsible brewer who might once have spiked your beer with deadly nightshade has faded, but that doesn’t mean that the Reinheitsgebot should be considered a relic of the past,” he says. “The indisputable fact is that over the years it has endured as a natural product, free of artificial flavours, enzymes or preservatives.”
Meik Forell, a beer market specialist with the Hamburg consulting firm Forell & Tebroke, says the law is often wrongly perceived as “the gospel truth”. It is frequently referred to as the world’s oldest food safety standard when in fact “it is first and foremost a protectionist measure reaching back to the middle ages”. He points out that it was not until the 1990s that imported beer was allowed to be sold in Germany. “The fact is as long as the Reinheitsgebot is retained, it makes life difficult for foreign brewers in Germany,” he says, “but much of the innovation is coming from outside, so it’s high time German brewers woke from their fairytale slumber or else they’re going to find their market share shrinking even more.” He insists tha while the majority of Germans might be in favour of keeping the purity law, “few people really understand what it means”.
Meanwhile, the Fritsche family of Klosterbrauerei Neuzelle continues to test the boundaries with a range of beers that seem purposely intended to stir the wrath of purists, from apple, cherry and anti-ageing beers, to those you can bathe in and one made from distilled Bavarian hay.
They ended up taking their battle to the highest constitutional court where a judge ruled an exception should be made to their Black Abbot, a decision that was widely interpreted as a softening of the purity law.
Still their battles with the authorities continue to this day over everything from what constitutes a beer to the size and style of type faces on its labels.
Standing over an open fermenting vat full of a golden brown froth and checking its temperature gauge, Stefan Fritsche recalls how, in the midst of the row, just when he thought it could not get any more absurd, he was contacted by the finance ministry.
“They ordered a crate of Black Abbot, and then got in touch to say despite what the agriculture ministry said, as it tasted like beer to them it was beer, and we had to make sure we continued to pay our beer taxes,” he says. “Of course, we were delighted to do so.”
Fazit: Eine Bier-Revolution der BRD ist ebenso unwahrscheinlich wie eine politische.