Medieval beer purity law has Germany’s craft brewers over a barrel
When is a beer not a beer? When German authorities say it violates a 500-year-old decree, but some brewers are fighting back
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.
Neuzelles signature tipple, which has been brewed to the same monks recipe since 1410, fell foul of Germanys purity law, known in German as the Reinheitsgebot, 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 Munichs 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 laws 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.