SATURDAY MARKS the 500th anniversary of Reinheitsgebot, the German law that simply decreed beer can be made with only water, barley, and hops. Yet there is nothing simple about Reinheitsgebot, starting with its name, which Americans can correctly pronounce only after a liter of lager or two.
For, even after half a millennium, the edict remains a lightning rod for an unsettled argument among beer-lovers – one that pits tradition against modernity.
The traditionalist sees it as the benchmark of beer purity, a law whose tight brewing restrictions are responsible for the finest beer in the world.
The modernist looks at it as repressive, a law that stifles the creativity responsible for the most diverse beer in the world.
The traditionalist says: “Water, barley, hops – what else do you need to make a great beer?”
The modernist says: “Really? How about yeast to ferment it into alcohol?”
Traditionalist: “Five hundred years ago, brewers didn’t fully understand the role of yeast in fermentation. Besides, later versions of the law included yeast as an acceptable ingredient.”
Modernist: “As knowledge evolved, so did the law. Why not apply the same rationale to other ingredients?”
Traditionalist: “Because we need controls to ensure the quality of beer. That’s why the law was written in the first place – to make sure brewers didn’t add other cheap, dangerous ingredients, such as wormwood and chicken feet.”
Modernist: “Not true! The original law was designed to prevent brewers from buying up other grains – such as rye and wheat – that should be saved for baking bread.”
Traditionalist: “Well, we had to eat.”
Modernist: “Yeah, until the royal family of Bavaria wanted to make wheat beer. Then it changed the law to suit its needs. It’s the same old story: The laws only protect the established order.”
Traditionalist: “And what’s wrong with that? Those laws also mean Germany doesn’t have to suffer the crime against humanity that is light beer made with rice or corn.”
Modernist: “Blah! German beer is still all fizzy, yellow liquid.”
Traditionalist: “Be serious. A fresh, hoppy pils. A bready helles. A full-bodied bock. If you call yourself a true beer lover, you have to appreciate the craftsmanship that can create such complex, well-balanced beers. Under Reinheitsgebot, there are no trendy flavors of the week, like pumpkin ale or black IPA.”
Modernist: “And no choice, either. In most places in Germany, you’re lucky to find three, maybe four different styles of beer. In America, we’d call that T.G.I. Friday’s.”
Traditionalist: “C’mon, there are plenty of unusual styles in Germany: Hoppy altbier, sour Berliner Weisse, smoky Rauchbier.”
Modernist: “And they’re all niche styles that you’re more likely to find in an American craft beer bar than in most towns in Germany. “
Traditionalist: “Still, you can’t blame the Reinheitsgebot for limiting creativity.”
Modernist: “Are you kidding? Some of the world’s greatest beers would be illegal if they were made in Germany. Russian River Pliny the Younger is made with sugar; Firestone Walker Wookey Jack is made with rye; Cantillon Kriek has cherries.”
Traditionalist: “That’s why Germany is one of the leaders in the development of new hops varieties that can create a huge variety of flavors – even fruit.”
Modernist: “Big deal. You still can’t drink a beer made with raspberries or chocolate.”
Traditionalist: “So, you’re telling me you’d rather have a pint of Shock Top Strawbanero Wheat than a perfectly made Dortmunder?”
Modernist: “Ooh, low blow! But there are plenty of bad Reinheitsgebot beers, too. Oettinger is just plain nasty.”
Traditionalist: “OK, you named one bad . . . “
Modernist: ” . . . Beck’s, Heineken, Tuborg, Holsten. There are dozens of really awful beers that meet the old rules. The idea that ‘Reinheitsgebot equals quality’ is just wrong.”
Traditionalist: “Still, rules provide discipline. A true craftsman shouldn’t be allowed to disguise his lack of expertise by adding sugar or spices.”
Modernist: “But brewers are artists, too. Limiting their palettes to three or four colors is mindless tyranny. As long as it tastes good, beer should be made with anything the brewer chooses.”
Traditionalist: “That’s anarchy! Before you know it, they’ll be making beer with wormwood and chicken feet.”
Modernist: “Too late. I think Dogfish Head is already doing that.”