Category Archives: History

500 Years Reinheitsgebot? Let’s Discuss

In 2016, the German Reinheitsgebot (beer purity law) is being celebrated to be 500 years old. According to some official document from 1516, beer is only meant to be brewed from barley, hops, and water, and has been the only brewed like that since then in Bavaria, and later in all of Germany. Or so they tell us.

Briefmarke 1983 Reinheitsgebot

I, for one, am highly suspicious about this. My research into historic brewing, both in Germany and Bavaria, have shown me otherwise, that these are neither supported by documented historic brewing practice nor by the legal situation of that time.

The Reinheitsgebot’s lobbyists proponents is mainly Deutscher Brauer-Bund e.V. who have prepared a website with lots of information for the anniversary, including a list of Frequently Asked Questions, to inform the public about this supposed 500 year old tradition that only wants the best for all of us beer drinkers. Having sifted through that material, I stumbled upon imprecise language, which is corrected and/or justified in other places. I suspect that the Reinheitsgebot proponents exactly know about all these imprecisions and inconsistencies, and yet resort to them because they serve a purpose.

I find this highly problematic. I therefore decided that I will present my view on these matters in a “Frequently Questioned Answers” format, where I will point out and correct imprecisions and inconsistencies, all based on facts and backed by sources. In addition that, I will explain why I think the Reinheitsgebot, the official narrative around its history, and its practical implementation in the form of the current German beer-related legislation is not only unhelpful to German beer culture, but how it has also helped erase the rich historic Bavarian and German traditions that have gone beyond just barley, hops and water.

With this series, I plan to further and enrich the discussion about the state of German beer and the planned 500 year celebrations, and help the discourse about the future of German beer.

19th Century Brewing Methods in Germany and Austria

Only the other day, I stumbled upon a book called “The Art of Brewing“, written by one David Booth, published in 1834. It has a whole section of brewing in foreign countries, discussing differences in brewing between Munich, Prague, Vienna, and other cities. The basis for this section is credited to two unnamed guys, can you guess who?

For the greater portion of ” the Brewing in Foreign Countries,” I am indebted to the manuscript and oral communications of two German Brewers (from Vienna and Munich), who have been, and now are, visiting the principal towns of Europe, for the laudable purpose of acquiring information concerning their business.

Yep, that sounds very much like Gregor Sedlmayr and Anton Dreher.

I also found another book, “Vollständige Braukunde” by Johann C. Leuchs,  that discusses the brewing methods of various German cities. In this article, I will try to summarize and discuss different German brewing techniques from the 19th century, and how they would be seen from a modern (home)brewer’s point of view.

Munich

For the mash, a mash tun made out of copper, with a false bottom, and a second, smaller copper, were used. The second copper was used for boiling the mash. The standard recipe is described to be 8 quarters of malt and 60 pounds of best Bavarian or Bohemian hops to produce 27 barrels of keeping beer. Calculating what the outcome of that would be, that would be a beer with about 6 to 7.5 % ABV, with probably 35 to 50 IBU. It does mention the Munich beer as keeping beer, meaning it was matured, or lagered, for a relatively long time.

The coarsely ground malt is doughed in, while the small copper is used to bring liquor to a boil. The boiling liquor is then added to the mash, to result in a 40 °C mash. Then a decoction is drawn, and brought to a boil. The author mentions a thick froth that is beaten down back into the mash. I assume this is hot break, and nowadays you would rather skim the scum instead of beating it back into the mash.

The first boil takes about an hour, where it gets a darker colour, until it is put back into the mash, to raise the temperature to 55 °C. Immediately, another decoction is drawn, but only boiled for 30 minutes, and then put back, with a resulting temperature of 67 °C. A third, thin decoction is then drawn, both taken from the top and taken from the tap (the mash tun has a false bottom, after all). Then it is boiled for 15 minutes, and put back, to reach a temperature of 75 °C. That whole procedure takes about 5 hours.

After that, the wort is drawn off. Hops are added while the first runnings are still drawn off, so this constitutes a first wort hopping. The overall boil lasts 2.5 to 3 hours. Fermentation is bottom-fermenting, as expected. What’s interesting is that after primary fermentation, the young beer is drawn into casks. A batch is spread out over lots of casks, though, so it takes about ten batches to properly fill all the casks. I presume this is to blend all the batches and to end up with a very consistent product over all casks even when the individual batches differ. Lagering period in the cellar is mentioned as lasting eight to ten months. That is indeed a keeping beer.

Beer brewed for the winter differs from this, as less hops are used, more wort is drawn off, and it’s boiled for a shorter period of time. There is very little maturation, and secondary fermentation for carbonation is initiated with Kräusen, and essentially happens in the publican’s cellar. This very much sounds like a running beer. Comparing with modern drinking habits, this is very counter-intuitive, as you’d expect the lighter beer to be brewed for the summer as a refresher, and the bigger beer to be made as a warming, boozy drink.

Augsburg

Apparently, the brewing methods in Augsburg were quite different from the rest of Bavaria. It starts with the malt: it is ground finely. The boiled hops of the previous batch are put on the false bottom prior to putting malt and then cold liquor over it. This is left for six hours. Boiling liquor is then added, and mashed for half an hour, and then more hot liquor is added, to bring it to 60 °C. This is then left for two hours. Sweet wort is then drawn off and put into the cooler. More hot liquor is added, and mashed for half an hour, with the resulting temperature being 67 °C. Then “all the goods” (I presume this means all hard matter) are put into the copper with hot liquor, and boiled for 45 minutes, then put back into the thin mash. The resulting mash is then at 86 °C. After some time, the cooled wort is put into the copper, the wort from the mash is also drawn off, hops are added, and the whole thing is boiled for two hours.

Fermentation is bottom-fermenting, and the beer is ready after about 2 months of maturation. Usually though, it is kept in large vats for a year to 1.5 years.

According to “Vollständige Braukunde”, beer brewed like that requires more cleanliness than the Munich approach, but has a higher yield and produces a milder beer.

Overall, a rather weird method in today’s standards. It seems like an infusion mash in the beginning, but with a final decoction, which would extract complex carbon hydrates, but leave the mash at temperatures where all amylases would have already been denatured, and no enzymes would be left to convert the starches into more simple sugars. Did the Augsburgers like their Blausud? (a Blausud is when a wort sample, mixed with an iodine solution, turns dark blue: it is an indicator that there’s still unconverted starches in the wort)

Prague

Prague’s brewing methods are described as similar to Munich, but with a fermentation “of the opposite kind”, which I assume means that in the 1830’s, Prague was still brewing with top-fermenting yeast.

Dough in starts at 46 to 50 °C, with an initial rest of nearly an hour. During that mash, more hot water is added to reach 59 to 63 °C. Then a decoction is drawn, brought to a brief boil, and then put back to get up to 67 to 68 °C. Then another rest of an hour follows. Wort is then run off, a Vorlauf if you will, with the express purpose to get rid of any grains underneath the false bottom. This wort is brought to a boil, and put back, to bring the temperature of the mash to about 84 °C. It is also emphasized that the grains must not be disturbed. Then a small portion of the wort drawn before is brought to a boil together with the hops, and the hops are taken out after 45 minutes. In total, the wort seems to get drawn off in batches and boiled, with the hops getting reused. A sparge is done, and the runnings are boiled with the hops from the previous boils.

Fermentation is done at 20 to 22 °C, so obviously top-fermenting. Maturation then happens in ice-cooled vaults for four to six weeks, and is served directly out of that cold environment. Yep, ice-cold beer.

Anyway, what we can see here is that the Munich style of mashing is a triple decoction, while Prague employed a double decoction.

Vienna

The crushed malt is doughed in with cold water, and mashed for two to four hours. Then cold wort is drawn off, and is brought to a boil together with liquor, boiling for 45 minutes. The froth on the top is skimmed off. It is then put back onto the malt, with a resulting temperature of 40 °C. Now this seems quite odd to me, as it would mean that a lot of the enzymes in the wort would be denatured quite early on.

Then something truly odd is done: wort is drawn off, and pumped back onto the mash. This is done for over an hour. A certain amount is kept in the copper, and again brought to a boil, but as soon as it starts boiling, it is added back to the rest of the mash, to increase temperature to 57 °C. Then more wort is drawn into the copper, again brought to a boil, boiled for 30 minutes, then put back into the mash. This is now left for 30 minutes at 72 °C. And then more wort is drawn off, again brought to a boil of 45 minutes, put back into the wort, and left for another hour at 82 °C.

Then wort is drawn off once more, and hops are added. When all the wort has been drawn off, the grains are loosened, and water of 56 °C is sprinkled onto it. The wort is boiled for 75 minutes, and some of it is put into the cooler. Then the second runnings are drawn into the copper, and boiled for another 90 minutes.

Then the wort is cooled to about 30 °C, and yeast is added. That’s a crazy pitching temperature. Fermentation is vigorous, and the young beer that is thrown out during the fermentation is collected and fermented in a separate vessel. This sound vaguely like the idea of a Burton Union, although with a separate vessel instead of recirculation. Shortly after fermentation has finished and the yeast has settled, casks of the young beer are sent out to the publicans. This all happens within 3 days.

So, in total, quite a strange process. Kinda like a decoction, except only thin decoctions are drawn. I wonder what prevented this from resulting in a Blausud, as well.

Berlin

This gets interesting now. Berliner Weisse. “The Art of Brewing” describes it as a beer made from 5 parts of wheat malt and 1 part of barley malt. That’s quite different from the 2:1 or 1:1 recipes that are listed in other old publications. “Vollständige Braukunde” mentions 20 parts of barley malt, 10 parts of wheat malt, and 2 parts of oat malt.

The finely ground malt is doughed in, and hot liquor is added to bring the temperature up 52 °C. This is left for an hour. Then wort is drawn off, and boiled with hops for 15 minutes. A thin decoction is drawn to interrupt the boil, and when this has reached 93 °C, it is put back into the mash, and left for 30 minutes, with a resulting temperature of 67 °C. Then another thin decoction is drawn, heated up to 96 °C, then both the mash and the decoction are put into the “tap-tun”, what sounds like a lautering vessel with a false bottom which is covered with straw (some sources say straw used in lautering was previously boiled in water). The resulting temperature in this tun is 75 °C. The wort is then drawn off, very slowly, though, and hot liquor is used for sparging. The overall lauter and sparge takes 7 hours, to produce a very clear wort. The wort is then put into the fermenting vessel, where yeast is added. Fermentation quickly begins, and the beer gets already shipped out to the publicans at this early stage.

In “Art of Brewing”, the author mentions that brewers thus have no yeast, and must buy it back from the publicans. To keep their yeast strains reasonably clean, they preferably buy from publicans that deal with other breweries than their own. The publicans also take care of bottling and storing the beer until it’s drinkable, which is usually after 14 days.

In total, this is quite the interesting process, as it does a kind of decoction, with the hop boil during the mash, and no further boil. Berliner Weisse is often described as a no-boil recipe, and people often ask themselves how the hops are added to it if there is no boil: directly during the mash. This way, the amount of isomerization of the alpha acids is easily to control, which is usually not the case if you added hops to a thicker mash that would undergo several decoctions.

Summary

In this article, I tried to summarize descriptions of different brewing techniques in German and Austrian cities at that time, in particular Munich, Augsburg, Prague, Vienna, and Berlin. It is interesting to see how the approaches completely differ, in particular the amount of decoctions that are drawn, what kind of decoctions are drawn, what is boiled for how long and in what order, and what temperatures are kept. With today’s knowledge and understanding of brewing and the microbiology behind it, it is fascinating to see what would be considered good practice nowadays, and what wouldn’t. The Munich triple decoction is a well-researched and well-documented method, as is the Prague double decoction. You would find descriptions of these in most modern brewing literature. The other methods, not so much. There, we find temperatures that would extract more tannins, or early thin decoctions that would denature lots of crucial enzymes early on in the brewing process. I seriously wonder how these brews went fine, and whether they produced Blausude.

Tracing the origins of Vienna Lager

As an Austrian, I’m naturally interested in Austrian beer. One of the heritages of Austrian brewing is the Vienna lager beer style, a style that has actually long been forgotten in its country of origin, where the contemporary beer market has been dominated by beers that are almost, but not quite, entirely unlike German and Czech beers. Austrian Märzen is less alcoholic and a bit paler than Bavarian one, Austrian Helles is hoppier than the Bavarian counterpart, and Austrian Pilsner doesn’t have the same flavour profile like German or Czech Pilsners. The only German beer that to me that has a flavour profile similar to Austrian beers is Rothaus Pilsner.

Only recently, Vienna lager has been rediscovered in Austria: Brauhaus Gusswerk produces a very nice one, and with Ottakringer’s “Wiener Original”, there is even a mainstream supermarket beer of that old style (for the record, it’s one of my favourite local beers whenever I’m back in Austria).

Outside of Austria, and that’s what most literature will tell you, Vienna lager survived by getting picked up as a beer style by Austrian immigrant brewers in Mexico, and from there it was subsequently picked up by the thriving US-American craft beer scene. That’s a reason why the beer style’s definition is very much dominated by an American view on it, like the BJCP definition and the Brewers Assocation Beer Style Guidelines. And that’s where the problems begin.

Both style definitions contradict each other, with BJCP describing it with “Caramel aroma is inappropriate” and “No roasted or caramel flavor”, while the BA says “malty aroma, which should have a notable degree of toasted and/or slightly roasted malt character”.

I’m not entirely happy with either definition, just like I’m generally not very happy with what the BJCP writes about some other beer styles. So I wanted to find out what Vienna lager was actually like, originally, and whether an authentic recipe can be reconstructed.

To start of, I first needed to find out what the beer looked and tasted like. Emil Leyser, in his book “Die Malz- und Bierbereitung” from 1900, wrote (I only have excerpts, sorry) that Vienna beers have a golden yellow colour, a very rounded and full-bodied flavour with a low hop bitterness. He also explicitly states that the beer does not have anything caramelly or “assamar” (roasted bitterness).

In his book “Decoction!” (p.29), Ron Pattinson lists some beer analysis results from Viennese beers from 1870. One entry in that table is particularly interesting:

  • Beer: Lager
  • Brewery: Schwechat
  • Where sample obtained: direct from the brewery
  • OG beer: 1017.60
  • Balling wort: 13.25°
  • Balling beer: 4.51°
  • Apparent degree of attenuation: 65.94
  • ABV: 4.6
  • Lactic acid: 0.13
  • Colour: 6.3

It’s not entirely clear what unit of measure colour is. I assume SRM, for one particular reason: beers of that colour are usually described as golden, which would match Emil Leyser’s description.

What’s also quite interesting is how low the attenuation is. I assume “OG beer” refers to the gravity points of the finished beer, “final gravity” in modern terms. Balling is the predecessor of the Plato scale, and 4.51° for the final gravity are relatively close to 1017.6 gravity points. Full-bodied, indeed.

When going further in finding some bits and pieces, I also looked at what Ottakringer is writing about their modern version of Vienna lager: they say they use Vienna malt, Melanoidin malt, and Saaz hops. Their original gravity is lower than the 1870’s analysis (12 °P), and the amount of alcohol is higher, as well (5.3 % ABV), so their beer would be a lot drier than the historic beer. The ingredients are notable, though: Vienna malt as the obvious choice for the malt (it’s the malt that was expressly developed for Vienna lager, after all), Melanoidin malt, presumably to add more colour and to imitate the additional melanoidin production of a proper triple decoction, and Saaz hops as a classic noble hop variety. Saaz is considered a Czech hop variety nowadays, but don’t forget that in the 19th century, Bohemia was part of Cisleithania, the Austrian part of Austria-Hungary. At least from a historic point of view, it is an absolutely reasonable choice in hops.

Saaz was not the only hop growing region in Austria, though. In Mühlviertel, the part of Upper Austria north of the river Danube, there’s been (and still is) an active hop growing industry, as well. It’s hard to tell which varieties were grown in the 19th century, though, as production had ceased during World War 2, and after the war, hop gardens were repopulated with German, Slovenian and British hop varieties. Hops were grown in southern Styria as well, which is now part Austria, part Slovenia, but the hops there were replaced after problems with diseases in the early 20th century, and Styrian Goldings, a Fuggle with local terroir, and other hop varieties  bred from Styrian Goldings are grown there nowadays.

Now that we’ve generally established what malt and what hops would be appropriate, we still need to find the right yeast. Obviously bottom-fermenting, preferably Bavarian. Anton Dreher and Gabriel Sedlmayr had worked together in researching English brewing technology, and so it wouldn’t be unreasonable to think that Dreher would have gotten a bottom-fermenting yeast strain from Sedlmayr’s Spaten brewery.

Earlier, we already established the desired attenuation of only about 66 %. Wyeast has WY2308 “Munich Lager”, at 70-74 % attenuation, which is already pretty close to what we’re looking for. White Labs has WLP820 “Oktoberfest/Märzen Lager Yeast”, with an attenuation of 65 to 73 %. This looks much better already! They also offer WLP838 “South German Lager Yeast” (68-76 %), WLP860 “Munich Helles Yeast” (68-72 %) and WLP920 “Old Bavarian Lager Yeast” (66-73 %) that are a similar range of attenuation.

According to the Yeast Strain Comparison Chart, WY2308 is the same strain as WLP838, which apparently is the yeast strain “Wisenschaftliche Station #308” from Munich. According to the same chart, WLP820, the closest choice in terms of attenuation, is the “Weihenstephan 206” yeast strain, and the same as WY2206, which is specified to attenuate higher (73-77 %), though. Either the chart is a bit off here, or there has been some genetic drift in the propagation of one these strains. But for me, WLP820 sounds close enough.

So, based on this information, if I were to design a recipe for a Vienna lager, I would do it like that:

  • 100 % Vienna malt, enough to get a OG of 1053 (13 °P).
  • Ideally, a triple decoction mash.
  • A single bittering addition of Saaz hops, e.g. 3 g/l (3.5 % AA) for 90 minutes to gain 27 IBU*.
  • A cold fermentation with WLP820 yeast that should end up with a final gravity of about 1018 (4.5 °P).

(* I’d keep the bitterness at the higher end to counteract the very high final gravity)

Based on what I could find out, this would match the original beer style relatively closely. When you enter that into a recipe calculator, the typical colour you will get is about 6 to 7 SRM (about 12 to 14 EBC). This is much closer to how Vienna lager was described by Emil Leyser. It also is a lot paler than the style definitions of BJCP and Brewers Association, which specify a range of 10 to 16 SRM resp. 12 to 26 SRM.

(On a side note, the resulting recipe above is remarkably simple, in modern homebrewers terms, it’s a SMaSH (single malt and single hops) beer.)

Of course, this is not enough. A direct comparison with historic documents from the Klein-Schwechater Brauerei directly would be interesting, because this recipe is merely put together from bits and pieces, with plenty of (informed) guesswork to fill in missing gaps. If anybody has something like that, please contact me, as I would really like to see whether the historic original would confirm or deny what I put together here.

And of course, I haven’t brewed this beer yet. That’s an exercise for another time.