- - Monday, April 25, 2016

BERLIN — It’s a law that has been on the books more than twice as long as the United States has been a country, protecting Germany’s dedicated quaffers from the dangers of inferior brews.

Frothy mugs of beer were clinking across the land over the weekend as Germans toasted the 500th anniversary of the country’s famous beer purity law, or Reinheitsgebot, which mandates that German beer may contain only malt, water, hops and yeast.

But the country’s fledgling craft beer makers may not be raising their glasses in celebration.

Nina Klotz of the Berlin-based craft beer magazine Hopfen Helden said Germany has three kinds of brewers: those who adhere to the purity law and revere it, those who adhere to the law but wish they didn’t have to, and those who say the law violates their right to put whatever ingredients they want into their beers.

“The largest group, by far, are those who follow the law but don’t like it,” Ms. Klotz said. “They would like more freedom to go for crazier or more innovative beer. But they still stick to the law to avoid running into any trouble with bureaucracy.”

The anniversary comes as the craft beer movement, already in full swing in the U.S. and other countries, is starting to catch on in trendy German restaurants and bars, especially in the capital, which is filled with cosmopolitan millennials craving more variety in their mugs.

“Four years ago, there was virtually no place to get craft beer in Berlin,” Ms. Klotz said. “But now it is becoming mainstream. Restaurants that are into innovative food definitely have it.”

While many types of popular craft beer, like India pale ale and stout, can be made under German guidelines, beers that incorporate spices and fruit are strictly verboten.

The Bavarian Brewers’ Federation says that’s a good thing.

“The law promotes natural ingredients and excludes foam stabilizers, coloring and preservatives,” said Lothar Ebbertz of the federation. “It ensures a high level of brewing artistry and doesn’t limit the selection. In Bavaria alone, there are over 40 traditional beer varieties and more than 4,000 beer brands.”

He denies that the law is crushing innovation of craft brewers.

“We have lots of malt, yeast and hops varieties that can create an unlimited number of combinations,” Mr. Ebbertz said. “The law gives a lot more leeway than many would like to admit. It just sets limits where spices, herbs and fruits are concerned.”

Nearly 90 percent of German brewers adhere to the purity laws, he said.

Raising a glass

To celebrate a half-millennium of beer purity, the Bavarian Brewers’ Federation organized celebrations over the weekend in the town of Ingolstadt, where Chancellor Angela Merkel made an appearance with Marlene Speck, a college student who was elected beer queen of Bavaria. Ms. Speck wore a dirndl, the traditional German dress commonly associated with stein-wielding barmaids.

Established in Ingolstadt on April 23, 1516, the Reinheitsgebot is arguably the oldest consumer protection law in the world. It was originally intended to keep beer prices low, to prevent brewers from cornering the market on wheat at the expense of bread bakers and to keep poisonous ingredients out of beer.

Even though the purity law is no longer used for safety, Frank-Juergen Methner, a brewing researcher at the Technical University of Berlin, said the standards provide a good marketing tool for the German beer industry.

“Consumers in Germany and all over Europe are looking for pure food,” Mr. Methner said. “With the Reinheitsgebot, we know exactly what is in the beer.”

Still, some Germans envy the freedom of American brewers and are willing to break the law and take risks with their batches. In many German states, brewers can apply for permits to make “noncompliant” beer legally, but Bavaria is notorious for cracking down on “impure” breweries.

Regulators banned the Camba Bavaria brewery’s milk stout last year for using lactose. Three other of the brewery’s beers are under investigation on suspicion of purity law violations.

The head brewer at Camba Bavaria told the German newspaper Suddeutsche Zeitung in March that the brewery may move to Austria if more of its beers are outlawed for Reinheitsgebot violations. (The European Union, acting on complaints from French brewers in 1987, struck down the purity law’s ability to ban imports as a protectionist measure.) Camba Bavaria could then continue selling its brews in Bavaria because beers that don’t follow the purity regulations can still be sold in Germany, just not produced there.

Other “rebel brewers” have managed to stay under the radar of the Bavarian authorities.

Not all craft brewers want to throw out the 500-year-old law, of course, Some just want to amend it.

“Most brewers would favor a law saying that beer had to be natural instead of ‘pure,’” Ms. Klotz said. “This way, they can still use fruits and spices, but artificial flavors and preservatives would be outlawed.”

Those iconoclasts are not about to get any help from the country’s biggest names, such as Hofbraeuhaus, Krombacher and Beck’s — all of which profit from the purity regulations, Ms. Klotz said.

Mr. Methner, meanwhile, insisted that there is a greater demand for pure German beer than popular and creative craft brews.

“Foreign breweries often ask how to make beer according to Germany’s Reinheitsgebot,” he said. “People in other countries are also looking for simplicity and purity. It’s a trend that will endure.”

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