This year, the German Purity Law is celebrating its 500th anniversary. However, there are a number of bizarre legends surrounding what is claimed to be the world’s oldest food law. Join me for a journey through the history of beer.
It was a turbulent time when the law was introduced back in 1516, with peasant uprisings, the Reformation, rebellion, famine, and war. Crops failed, and the wheat and rye needed to make bread were scarce. At the time, anybody could brew as much beer as they wanted, which meant that people in some places went hungry. In these times of extreme hardship, Duke Wilhelm IV of Bavaria took drastic measures and passed a law, still valid today, that only the use of barley, hops, and water was permitted when brewing beer.
The ruler’s strict decree was, in principle, intended to prevent the entire wheat harvest from finding its way into the brewing vat. After all, there were armies of men that needed to be fed. There were, however, also financial concerns: North German brewers produced beers of a far higher quality, some of which were even exported to countries around the North Sea and the Baltic Sea. In the 16th century, in other parts of the country, beer was still something of an improvised concoction. Producers were certainly not averse to carrying out sometimes dangerous experiments of their own. To refine the flavor they would mix pine tree root, caraway, yarrow, sloe, or juniper berries into the beer. But they didn’t stop at herbs and spices: In order to intensify the intoxicating effect, they would also stir toadstools, jimson weed, lily of the valley, or henbane into the brew. Oxblood, sheep’s testicles, and cattle gall were also added in order to strengthen virility.
These kinds of concoction not only produced hallucinations for many drinkers; inedible ingredients could also lead to nausea, dizziness, and loss of consciousness. People would often remain delirious for days and, in particularly extreme cases, beer consumption could lead to infirmity or even premature death. For this reason, it was a welcome development when the pleasure-loving sovereign stepped in with his purity decree and put a stop to the uncontrolled adulteration of beer in Bavaria.
However, the Purity Law only came to prominence centuries later, thanks to Otto von Bismarck’s embargo policy. The Imperial Chancellor used the wording of the law as a means of protectionism to implement a trade boycott of English beers, which were particularly popular at the time. Finally, Bavaria also made the adoption of the Purity Law a condition of their agreement to join the German Empire. From 1906 onward, the Purity Law applied in an amended form throughout the Reich.
For tradition-conscious brewers, this is considered the ultimate quality standard but, for creative young brewers, it is often an obstacle in terms of flavor diversity and the joy of experimenting. Nonetheless, in a time where food often makes the headlines for the wrong reasons, this ordinance from 1516 still ensures effective protection for consumers to this day.
However, for the Purity Law, as with all legends, the line that separates fact and fiction is somewhat blurred. In any case, it has been discovered that the Bavarian state regulation passed in 1516 was actually only fairly short-lived in reality: Just a few years later, a ducal decree permitted coriander and bay leaves to be used as additional ingredients in Bavarian beer. Shortly thereafter, the use of salt, juniper berries, and caraway was also once again permitted. Duke Wilhelm himself, who had a reputation as a legendary drinker, strictly refused to follow his own beer law. Boozing continued to be commonplace at the Bavarian court and the sovereign’s glass was filled with whatever he so desired!