Is beer from Germany the best?

When people think of beer, they invariably associate Germany with it, and they extol its virtues. To be honest, I’m accustomed to the wide range of craft beers available. In addition, I believe that part of the reason I have trouble with German beer is that it’s often lager-based rather than, say, IPA, porter, or something else, and I’ve never been a huge fan of lagers. However, given that beer has been made in what is now Germany for at least three millennia, it would be irresponsible of me as a fervent beer consumer to dismiss the effect Germany has had on the beer world.

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However, without context, no conversation can ever be had. The German Beer Purity Law, or Reinheitsgebot, provides the framework for German beer.

The Reinheitsgebot: What is it? What is the purpose of the Reinheitsgebot?

The Reinheitsgebot is a German legislation pertaining to the purity of beer. Originally, it stated that only water, barley, and hops may be added to beer throughout the nation. It’s interesting that it didn’t include yeast; the rule was written before the specifics of brewing science were established. It has since been somewhat loosened and enlarged. Now, seeing that water was stated would surprise you since you might think that was a “given.” Though I find it hard to think that anyone in the medieval ages was actually attempting to produce beer out of, say, milk, it does put a stop to German attempts to create an IPA milkshake, particularly one that includes blueberries or mango.

This is an extremely condensed history of the Rheinheitsgebot because there is some misinformation about it. It was first written down as early as 1516, more than 350 years before the idea of “Germany.” Germany as a nation did not exist before then; instead, the region was mostly composed of a confederation of free states united under the name of the Holy Roman Empire—famously the worst-named nation in history. [And you believed that the “Democratic People’s Republic” was a myth?]. The primary motivation for the Rheinheitsgebot’s implementation—which was limited to the relatively large state of Bavaria—was more of a secondary goal than the actual purity and standardization of beer. Instead, the original regulation aimed to control how grains were used, making sure that bakers stuck to wheat and rye and brewers stuck to barley. To be fair, there have been allegations of certain brewers adding unusual ingredients to their beer, such as belladonna, which is, let’s face it, not something you should be ingesting a lot of, and wormwood, which is typically found in Absinthe and has, well, “interesting effects.”

Initially limited to Bavaria, it eventually “spread” throughout the Confederation and became a “law” at German Unification in 1871, though complete acceptance would not happen for another 40 years. This was mostly due to the agitation of the Bavarian state, which was, let’s be honest, too big to be ignored in the newly formed German nation. The legislation is still in effect, but it only covers German beer—not beer from other countries—and excludes items like gluten-free beer. The list of ingredients has been extended to encompass all varieties of malted barley. Additionally, it no longer stops domestic brewers from producing beer in violation of this legislation; it just stops them from referring to it as “beer.”

The Rheinheitsgebot defines German beer in a way that is somewhat at odds with American beer, which feels much more free there after decades of prohibition and homebrewing restrictions that ended (at least in my living memory). In the USA, beer is generally associated with the attitude “ah, stick it in and we’ll see if it works.” since of this, American beer is now more varied—and some may even say more interesting—but German beer ought should be of a higher caliber overall since its components and manufacturing methods are more understood and managed. Naturally, this isn’t always the case in either direction; although some American beers are truly amazing, others make you wonder, “Why on earth did you put that in?” when you finish them. The main reason for the variations in Germany is the brewer’s expertise; it is quite simple to produce poor beer, just as 100 bakers using the same recipe but using different components can produce 100 distinct cakes, not all of which will be edible.

Why is lager the most popular beer in Germany?

Because lager was the most popular beer style created by Bavarian brewers at the time of the Rheinheitsgebot’s implementation and they felt protected by it, they never really saw the need to alter, hence lager has historically made up the majority of German beer.

The Rheinheitsgebot actually only applied to “bottom-fermented” beer. These days, the words “cold-fermenting” (bottom) vs “warm-fermenting” (top) are used to describe the different stages of the brewing process, depending on where the yeasts resided. I have produced my own beer, although it’s conceivable you would not want to taste it because the nature of brewing is outside the purview of this site (and this blogger, let’s be honest); the scent of hops to me smells just like cannabis. The most noticeable consequence is one of time: in “warm-fermented” beers, fermentation occurs relatively quickly (a few weeks), but in “cold-fermented” beers, the yeast ferments over a considerably longer period of time (sometimes several months). This is despite the fact that there is a brewery in Andorra that produces beer using hemp, so ymmv. In colloquial language, “warm-fermented” beers are referred to as “ales,” and “cold-fermented” beers as “lagers.” This was never a problem since the legislation governed what they were already doing, which was lagers, which made up the bulk of beers brewed in Bavaria.

In addition to the Rheinheitsgebot’s influence, there was another historical consideration. One of the issues with Bavarian beer at the time was that it tended to spoil rapidly and taste awful because it was made in the summer and was typically “warm-fermented.” Duke Albrecht V forbade brewing in 1553 from taking place between late April and late September in order to stop this. Although this rule was later overturned in 1850, the Bavarian brewers felt there was no need to alter a successful recipe after 300 years of virtually solely using lager yeasts. Furthermore, lager became the most popular type of beer throughout the region as Bavaria was the leading beer-brewing location in Central Europe.

Why does Bavaria have so many breweries?

It appears that Bavaria has been brewing beer for thousands of years. In fact, the earliest known evidence of brewing in Europe comes from an enormous pot containing flavored weissbier that was discovered in the burial of a Celtic chieftain close to Kulmbach in what is now northern Bavaria, about 800 BC. This establishes the German beverage known as Bavarian beer as having a longer history than Rome.
It appears that brewing has been a pillar of the Germanic tribes and their successors as well as their enemies. For instance, there is proof that the Roman Empire began brewing when they conquered a portion of the region surrounding Regensburg. Keep in mind that this is a civilization best known for its dependence on wine.

The climate and agriculture in Bavaria especially may contribute to the growth of barley and other flavorings. It’s noteworthy to note that, although hops weren’t always necessary to make beer, the first instances of hops being used for beer dates back to the eighth century in what is now south-central Bavaria. Just over a quarter (26.66%) of the hop crop grown worldwide is reportedly grown in the region known as Hallertau.

The religious element is another. Numerous monasteries can be found in Bavaria, and just like the well-known ones in Belgium, monks have been making beer for more than a millennium. Indeed, Weihenstephan and Weltenburg, two Bavarian monasteries, are home to two of the world’s oldest continually running breweries.