The Law Revisited

This is the thirty-eighth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XXXVIII: Harvey, Jenner, Lister, Pasteur

The label on this week’s beer (pictured below with a pretty sweet lava lamp) makes the same claim as innumerable other German beers. In case you do not read German, bottle says that this beer is brewed in accordance with the Reinheitsgebot, the Bavarian “Beer Purity Law.” I have railed against that law in the past, but there are a few things that I would like to set straight.

For some background, the original Bavarian Reinheitsgebot was enacted in 1516. In short, the law regulated the ingredients allowed in beer. Under the Reinheitsgebot, beer could be made only with water, malted barley, and hops. Ostensibly, the law was intended to protect consumers from beer made with inferior ingredients. In practice, it stifled the innovative use of other sources of fermentable sugars, such as wheat or rye, as well as herbs or spices that could be used as an alternative to hops. It also proved to be an effective barrier to the importation of foreign beers that might include such ingredients.

When I discussed the Reinheitsgebot before, I claimed that the Reinheitsgebot was enacted as part of a scheme of protection for the local bakers’ guild. By reducing the demand for wheat and rye, the law reduced prices for those grains, much to the advantage of the bakers. However, I have also heard that the Duke of Munich owned virtually all of the hops farms in Bavaria. As if monopoly status was not enough, the duke used the law to force brewers to buy from him rather than use other herbs or spices to bitter their beer. Either way, the Reinheitsgebot is economic protectionism disguised as consumer protection. Whether it was for the benefit of the baker’s guild or the hops growing monopoly, it was certainly at the expense of everybody else. This sort of economic law was called “legal plunder” by French economist Frédéric Bastiat.

Additionally, I have asserted that the law is now only a marketing ploy. However, a version of the law does still exist on the books in Germany. It only applies to domestic beer production though, so non-conforming imports are now allowed into the country.  Its value other than as a marketing ploy is totally unclear to me, especially at a time when innovative brewers around the world are experimenting with new styles and ingredients.

Finally, astute readers will have noticed that yeast is not listed as an acceptable ingredient. Back in 1516, yeast was still centuries from being discovered. It was not until Louis Pasteur’s scientific experiments in the middle of the 19th century that we learned that alcoholic fermentation is the product of living yeast cells. Consequently, the modern version of the law lists yeast as a valid ingredient, as well as ground hops and hops extract. Obviously, yeast has always been used in beer making, even if the brewers did not actually know what it was. Hops extract, however is anything but traditional.

I still think that the Reinhietsgebot was a bad law when it was passed and that the current version is no better. I am glad that my own beer choice is not limited by that law.

Beer of the week: Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier Märzen – This dark brown rauchbier – German for smoked beer – comes from Bramberg, Germany. The name refers to the fact that the malt is smoked in a kiln over burning beechwood. It pours with plenty of tan head. The aroma is primarily of smoke, as is the flavor. For all the smoke, it is not overbearing. Especially as it warms, Schlenkerla shoes itself to be a very well-balanced brew.

Reading of the week: The Physiological Theory Of Fermentation by Louis Pasteur – For thousands of years before Pasteur’s discoveries, humans have used yeast for brewing and baking. In this excerpt, he describes in part how brewers unknowingly created the ideal conditions for yeast growth and fermentation.

Question for the week: Is yeast really an “ingredient” in beer? Usually, it is added to the wort, where it multiplies and ferments the sugars, and then it is filtered out. That makes it seem more like a process than an ingredient.