This is part of my series to discuss 500 years of Reinheitsgebot.
The website reinheitsgebot.de has an FAQ with questions and answers that are supposed to explain the purity law. This is my first article of a series of “Frequently Questioned Answers” where I will discuss these explanations. Unfortunately, I can’t directly link to the individual questions and answers, but bear with me. I will summarize the website’s answer, and add my own comments.
Question 1: do German Brewers still brew according to the Reinheitsgebot of 1516?
Their answer: according to reinheitsgebot.de, the purity law of 1516 forms the basis for the current law, the Vorläufiges Biergesetz of 1993, and because of that, beer is still a natural product like 500 years ago. But the production has changed and has been modernized, where all steps and the natural ingredients are closely monitored. But even nowadays, German breweries aren’t allowed to use artificial aromas, artificial colouring, artificial stabilizers, enzymes, emulsifiers, or preserving agents. Beer is still made out of malt, hops, water and yeast, and is as natural as ever.
My answer: the claim that the purity law forms the basis for current legislation is indeed a bold one. As discussed in a previous article, the original purity law allowed barley, hops and water, with a most likely implied use of yeast or spontaneous fermentation. When you compare this with the Vorläufiges Biergesetz, § 9 (1), this seems indeed true: it says only barley malt, hops, water and yeast may be used for bottom-fermented beer.
Wait a second… barley malt? Bottom-fermented beer? There is a difference after all! Yes, compared the historic predecessor, the German law is stricter for bottom-fermented beer. So lager beer uses a subset of the ingredients that were allowed back in 1516. On the other hand, though, it means that modern beer can’t necessarily be brewed with all the freedoms that the 1516 law gave: brewing beer with unmalted barley, which was allowed 500 years ago, is prohibited under current law. But only for bottom-fermented beers.
So what about top-fermented beers then? Just have a look at Vorläufiges Biergesetz, § 9 (2), which states that other ingredients are allowed as well, specifically malts made from other grains (such as wheat, rye, oats, spelt, buckwheat, …), “technically clean” cane sugar, beet sugar, invert sugar, starch sugar, and colouring made from these sugars. These are all ingredients that are allowed in the current law, but definitely fall outside the 1516 law. So, depending on the beer that you’re talking about, a top-fermented beer brewed according to the current law, may or may not conform to the 1516 law.
In summary, the modern law shows some similarities with the historic law, but even greater differences. Any beer style brewed with any other malt than barley malt, is perfectly legal in the current law, but falls well outside the historic purity law. The claim that German beers are brewed according to the 1516 purity law is definitely true for some of them, but is not reflected at all in either the current legislation or some of the popular German beer styles nowadays. And that’s just when we’re looking at the ingredients.
The Vorläufiges Biergesetz (§ 9 (6)) contains some more points in what other things may be used in the production of beer. It specifically allows anything as clearing agent for wort and beer that works mechanically or adsorbing, and that can be removed from the wort or beer again, with the exception of small amounts that are “technically unavoidable” and hygienically, olfactory and taste-wise harmless. So beer can be filtered, as long as the stuff that is used for filtering can be mostly filtered out, but don’t worry about it, because anything that is left behind in the beer won’t harm you, and you won’t taste or smell it.
Beer is filtered to remove haze and other matter that may have a negative impact on the shelf-life of the beer itself. That process is usually called stabilization. As long as the stabilizers that are used are natural, it’s still okay, right? Unfortunately, no. A very common and popular filter is PVPP (polyvinylpolypyrrolidone), which is sold under brand names such as Polyclar, Divergan, or Crosspure by various manufacturers. PVPP is added as a powder to the beer, clarifies and stabilizes the beer, and leaves behind a slurry on the bottom of the bright tank. This is perfectly fine under current law, but it’s also something that at least I would consider an artifical stabilizer.
So, when carefully considering the current law, and comparing it to what reinheitsgebot.de says about German brewers still brewing according to the Reinheitsgebot, my conclusion is that German brewers can still brew according to the 1516 law, but the 1993 law gives brewers much more freedom in what is used. And, to my knowledge, German brewers do use these freedoms.