This is part of my series to discuss 500 years of Reinheitsgebot.
In this part of my series of “frequently questioned answers”, I will discuss the question of diversity or lack of diversity that comes with the German purity law, as it was brought up in the FAQ on reinheitsgebot.de.
Question 9: Is the purity law a uniformity law – does it prevent diversity?
Despite the limitation on malt, hops, water and yeast, German brewers have an extreme diversity in ingredients to brew good beer. More than 170 different hop varieties, 40 different types of malt, about 200 different yeast strains, the liquor (brewing water) also has an influence on the beer, just like the brewing method itself. According to them, that gives the freedom to brew 1 million different ways of brewing a beer according to the purity law.
If there were a million different ways, then why is Germany’s beer landscape so uniform? Go to an average supermarket, and have a look through the aisles, what do you see? Twenty different brands of Pils, a few Hefeweizen, maybe a Kristallweizen, a Schwarzbier or two, if you’re lucky you’ll find a Helles, a Kölsch and/or an Altbier. In addition to that, the typical “world beers”, generic lagers from major international producers, and maybe bottled Guinness. And that’s it. Some focal points of great, local beer, like Franconia, remain local, and are hard to get in other parts of Germany, with the exception of specialty beer shops, of which there are only relatively few.
And even if you look at these mainstream beer styles, there is very little variation inbetween. In blind taste tests, people consistently fail to distinguish and identify major German Pils brands. I’ve even seen a blind test on German TV where people failed to identify what they claimed was their favourite Pils which they would always buy. This makes all the major brands essentially interchangeable, and the beer market cannot possibly be driven by variety, but by brand reputation only.
So, the question remains: if the purity law were actually an enabler in beer diversity, why is the German mass market so dominated by mostly uniform beer?