It is generally believed to be the oldest food law in the world, although this is not historically proven: The German, or rather Bavarian, “Reinheitsgebot”, known as the Purity Law. At a gathering of knights and landed gentry in Ingolstadt on April 23, 1516—precisely 500 years ago—the Bavarian Duke Wilhelm IV issued an order on “how beer should be brewed and served in the country in summer and winter”. The name “Reinheitsgebot” came much later, in 1918.
This pronouncement regulated the price of beer and the ingredients that were allowed to go into it. The key passage was as follows (with updated wording):
“In particular we want from now on in all of our towns, markets and in the countryside that nothing else should be used or processed in beer other than barley, hops and water.”
One important reason for this decree was the often poor quality of beer in the late Middle Ages and the early modern era. All kinds of herbs were being used to spice the beer, with no official controls at all. Some of them, like henbane and deadly nightshade, were even poisonous. Historical research has, however, uncovered other reasons for this ducal edict besides the health risk: the more valuable wheat and rye were to be reserved for bakers. There is also an indication that there may have been certain competitive advantages for the Bavarian breweries as a result of the new law.
The Purity Law of 1516 still applies essentially through to the present day, at least for beer that is produced and sold in Germany. Still today, beer has to be made exclusively from malt, hops, yeast (the microorganisms were not yet known about in 1516) and water. As such, says the German breweries association, the Purity Law is the oldest food law in the world that is still in force.
This week German and European brewers are marking this 500th anniversary of the Purity Law with several days of celebrations in Ingolstadt. Even the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, will be coming. And, of course, in the midst of all this: the drinktec Exhibition Director, Petra Westphal.