When you are into beer, you will eventually hear about the Reinheitsgebot. And superficially you’ll be impressed: 500 years of tradition, single handedly saved the German people from starvation and from getting poisoned. Once you read a bit further, you will realize that these heroic tales are more legend than reality. And while it’s okay for a little child to believe Robin Hood and Wilhelm Tell were actual people that lived, as a grown up it’s time to accept the fact that these people are fictional characters, just like the Reinheitsgebot.
There has been a lot written about the Reinheitsgebot just being a legend used as a marketing tool (for example here and here and here and here). This is not another explanation. This post is trying to offer one of the best ways for how to treat the Reinheitsgebot, namely with a respectful indifference. Which also means that these shall be the last words we will ever utter about the Reinheitsgebot on here.
We created Wortspiele as a celebration of – not even what beer can be, but – what beer is. Therefore the term “Gegenveranstaltung” as used in the NZZ am Sonntag is not correct – we didn’t protest against anything. That article was one of many that picked up the anniversary, with the articles ranging from the good to the bad to the ugly. There was the article in the Sonntagsblick were a president of an organization with “Biervielfalt” in its name said he doesn’t care for fruit beers and is an advocate of the Reinheitsgebot – and then went on to suggest three dark lagers to the readers. There were more articles defending the Reinheitsgebot in Germany than we cared to count and even Mr. Schneider of Schneider Weisse was writing an official statement about how much he loves the “original Reinheitsgebot” of 1516. The irony that none of his wheat beers are according to that is beyond comprehension.
Why was there this gigantic and at times desperate effort to declare loyalty, as if the Reinheitsgebot is a religion and you would have to fear draconic repercussions if you don’t declare your affiliation? We have a very controversial theory which can also be considered a metaphor and which we came up with while brushing our teeth. Therefore, there will be holes in this theory and we are happy for you to point them out to us.
The Reinheitsgebot is ethnocentric cultural imperialism – or culinary imperialism. With enormous arrogance, it declares that only their kind of beer is actual beer. Those savages in Finland that do Sahti, those barbarians in Belgium that do Wit, those wildlings in Peru that do chicha or even those backwardly brewers in Leipzig that do gose, they are brewing lesser beers – actually, they don’t even brew beer at all! This thinking is driven by the same dynamic that is behind the success of the SVP and UKIP. It is a fear of losing a privileged status, not being the height of development anymore, having to accept that others are just as good as one is. It is a fear that is getting stronger with the growth of globalization and the shrinking of theories of better and lesser countries and races.
And here is where the obvious disclaimer is necessary. The Reinheitsgebot and its proponents are not racist. But defending its status stems from the same arrogance and sense of superiority that lies at the core of ethnocentric thinking (and thus is similar to the irritating fanboy behavior of Apple fans). It cannot fathom that their beer is no longer the best and the envy of the world. If an American brewery wins the German Beer styles categories at the World Beer Cup, then the competition must be rigged, the judges must be faulty. The proponents of the Reinheitsgebot cannot handle the idea that their beer is no longer by default the best. They are incapable of using the result as motivation or inspiration to brew a better Märzen.
Because of all of that, we feel that there is only one way to deal with the Reinheitsgebot: respectful indifference. Understand the value it had and the part it played in developing the art of brewing. But at the same time, refuse to let it dictate anything we do, like, appreciate or promote.
P.S. Actually, indifference is not enough in Germany – see for example the battles of the Klosterbrauerei Neuzelle oder Camba Bavaria or Riegele. We are hoping that the brewers in Germany and Bavaria in particular will finally be able to rid themselves of the shackles of the Reinheitsgebot. This anniversary is as good a moment as any to pick up the good fight!