Which Additives Are Prohibited When Brewing According To The Reinheitsgebot?

This is part of my series to discuss 500 years of Reinheitsgebot.

Last time, I wrote about whether German brewers still brew according to the purity law. After a detailed discussion about what is actually allowed according to modern law and how reinheitsgebot.de is imprecise and conflates the historic purity law with the modern law that is actually in effect, I will answer a follow-up question to shed more light on what the “according to Reinheitsgebot” thing is actually about.

Question 3: which additives are prohibited when brewing according to the Reinheitsgebot?

We previously established that you’re allowed to use barley malt, hops, water and yeast for bottom-fermented beers, and for top-fermented beers, you can also use malt made from cereal other than barley, various brewing sugars, and food colouring made from sugar. And, what I didn’t mention last time, because it’s such an obscure niche, artificial sweeteners for some low-alcohol beers.

reinheitsgebot.de in their answer insists that it’s only malt, hops, water and yeast for beers according to the Reinheitsgebot, and say anything else is prohibited, while the EU allows a whole lot of other things to be put into beer. This list contains things from food colouring made from sugar, to lactic acid, to various artifical sweeteners and stabilizers.

Now, what they don’t mention is that the modern Vorläufiges Biergesetz does allow some of these ingredients. And for others, in particular lactic acid, there’s a way how German maltsters and brewers “cheat” the system.

Lactic acid, among other things, is often used to treat the liquor (brewing water) to change the pH level. Lactic acid is naturally produced by lactic acid bacteria, and commercially available in food-grade quality. Now, as a German brewer, you can’t just add lactic acid, so there’s a type of malt, called Sauermalz, that German maltsters produce: the malt is inoculated with lactic acid bacteria, which then produce lactic acid. The malt spec tells you how much lactic acid it contains, and based on how much lactic acid you want to have in your mash, you adjust your grist to use more or less Sauermalz.

But there’s another aspect about the Reinheitsgebot that reinheitsgebot.de isn’t very clear about: there’s actually a restriction on what beers you can call “brewed according to the Reinheitsgebot (of 1516)”. And it’s not all beers that adhere to the Vorläufiges Biergesetz. No, the use of that phrase is controlled by a different decree with the wonderful name “Zusatzstoff-Zulassungsverordnung“. It regulates what kind of additional things you’re allowed to put into all kinds of food and drinks, including maximum quantities. It also regulates the use of the phrase “nach dem
deutschen Reinheitsgebot gebraut” and says that beer sold under that label can’t contain certain ingredients that are actually allowed according to the Vorläufiges Biergesetz. In particular, it excludes food colouring, sugars, and any other gas than nitrogen and CO2 that has been produced through beer fermentation.

And that’s the mess of how this more strict Reinheitsgebot that vaguely resembles that law from 1516 is implemented within the legal framework that is the Vorläufiges Biergesetz of 1993. It’s a patchwork, it’s confusing to customers that try to understand the legal basis and limits for beer producers, and in the end only comes down to a marketing phrase that brewers can use on their beer labels and their advertising if they restrict themselves even further beyond the limits that are imposed by the law.

But at least we got to bottom of what the marketing phrase “Reinheitsgebot” really means and how it’s implemented legally.

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