Germany’s beer purity law: the Reinheitsgebot of 1516

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Stuart Forster looks at the origin of Germany’s beer purity law, the Bavarian Reinheitsgebot of 1516.

Ever heard of the Bavarian Reinheitsgebot of 1516? It’s the basis of the beer purity law that applies across Germany today.

Enjoy your ale? If so, you’ve probably noticed that labels on German beer bottles state the contents have been brewed in accordance with the Reinheitsgebot.

The German term Reinheitsgebot is usually translated into English as “beer purity law”.

Germany’s beer purity law

Some people think the law means you can drink as much German beer as you like without suffering from a hangover. That’s not the case.

(Today an empty chair in the office, following a night of robust research into German beer, may well be silent evidence of that.)

It’s more than 500 years since Bavaria introduced the Reinheitsgebot as a state-wide statue. The renowned Bavarian beer purity law permitted only barley, hops and water to be used in brewing beer.

Inside the Schlenkerla brewery tavern in the Altstadt of Bamberg, Germany
Inside the Schlenkerla brewery tavern in the Altstadt of Bamberg, Germany.

The Schlenkerla Brewery in Bamberg

Interviewing Matthias Trum, from the Schlenkerla Brewery in Bamberg, to gain a rounded understanding of the Reinheitsgebot.

Six generations of the Trum family have held the post of Bräu, meaning brewery owner, brew master and innkeeper.

Head to Bamberg’s Dominikanerstrasse 6 and you can sample Trum’s work, including critically acclaimed Rauchbier (smoke beer), at the Schlenkerla tavern.

Matthias Trum, General Manager of the Schlenkerla brewery in Bamberg, Germany
Matthias Trum of the Schlenkerla brewery in Bamberg.

The Bavarian Reinheitsgebot of 1516

“The Bavarian Reinheitsgebot of 1516 did not revolutionise brewing,” says Trum, whose has a passion for the history of brewing as well as a knack for doing it.

“It was the logical consequence of centuries of beer legislation in various [today Bavarian] cities. Bamberg had its purity law, with the same ingredients, already in 1489, Regensburg in 1469 and Augsburg as early as 1155. The new thing about the Bavarian issue was the fact that it counted for an entire country; all precursors were only valid within the city limits of the issuing city,” he explains.

The first food law?

Many people regard the Reinheitsgebot, the beer purity law of Bavaria, as the world’s first state-wide food law.

“All these purity laws had the main purpose of controlling the beer tax, and only secondarily the quality of the beer. Even today the  Reinheitsgebot is still part of the vorläufiges Biersteuergesetz (the preliminary beer tax law), and not of any food control law,” clarifies Trum.

“It had, of course, a large effect on the brewing world in Bavaria. The whitelist of ingredients prevented the use of ingredients such as, in part, poisonous herbs and disgusting ingredients, such as ox gall bladder. The former were used to increase the effect of beer, the latter to bring down the costs, and both to evade taxation. Hops were taxed, so was milling at the city malt mills,” explains Trum.

“The purity laws not only limited the ingredients allowed, they also made regulations regarding malt to water ratio, and price level of beer, as it was a major food source and necessary for everyday survival of the citizens,” he says.

People at Obere Bruecke (Upper Bridge) by the Rathaus (Town Hall) in Bamberg, Franconia, Germany
The Obere Bruecke (Upper Bridge) by the Rathaus (Town Hall) in Bamberg.

Still influencing brewing today

So, more than 500 years on since Bavaria introduced the beer purity law of 1516, how relevant is it today?

“The relevance for the basic quality of has diminished with the arrival of general food laws and all the hygienic rules of modern societies. All food we have today is subject to rigid controls and regulations, which minimise the risk of harm to the consumer…When the first purity laws came up, that was different, and so making the product beer safe to use was more important,” says Trum.

“The real legacy today, in my opinion, is that the Bavarian purity law defines what we—Bavarians, Franconians and Germans—mean when thinking of beer…Even in the age of craft beer, most Germans wouldn’t consider, say, [Belgian] kriek or geuze ‘real’ beer. And—at least for some time—we exported this understanding to many countries worldwide, as one can see by the dominance of lagers around the world,” he explains.

The tradition continues to have a major influence brewing in Germany, where in 2014 average of 104.7 litres of beer per person was consumed.

If you’re in Bamberg, which has nine breweries, swing by the Franconian Brewing Museum to find out more about the history of beer production in the region.

Sign outside the half-timbered Schlenkerla brewery tavern in Bamberg which serves beers brewed in accordance with Germany's beer purity law
The sign outside the half-timbered Schlenkerla brewery tavern in Bamberg.

Useful information

The Germany Travel website has ideas about things to do and see during a trip to Germany.

These days the permitted ingredients of the beer purity law are barley, hops, water and yeast.

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