“Brewed according to the German Purity Law,” a Hobräu München hefeweizen bottle proudly declares. This brewery is not alone. Other German and even American brewers brag about how their beer adheres to the 1516 Bavarian Reinheitsgebot, which originally limited beer’s ingredients to water, barley, and hops.
The pride in this law is strange—in 2013 the German Brewers Association tried to get UNESCO to designate it an intangible cultural heritage and its five hundredth “anniversary” in 2016 was widely celebrated and written about. The law was very restrictive—so much so that exceptions had to be made so that some drinks, such as wheat beers, could continue to be produced. Today, of course, most beer is bittered with hops, and the plant is integral to beer’s identity in the United States and Europe, if not the world.
Few know that beer used to be flavored and preserved with a variety of different herbs (bog myrtle and wild rosemary especially), resins, fruit, and animal products. The additives varied widely across northwestern Europe, but the mixture of ingredients, whatever it may have contained, was called gruit. Gruited beer was called ale in England and ael in the Low Countries—Holland, Flanders, Brabant, and Liège—while hopped beer was called beer (bier), but today people broadly refer to unhopped beer as gruit.
There is a small minority in the world of homebrewing and craft beer who are interested in making gruit. They have brought attention to its history, and in doing so they usually blame the Reinheitsgebot for the near-total extinction of the gruit tradition. In these histories, earlier laws related to gruit are mentioned, but usually vaguely and fleetingly.
The reality is that, hopped or unhopped, beer’s past is riddled with protectionist restrictions that hindered creativity and innovation for the benefit of sovereign authorities. Taking a look at this regulatory past takes the spotlight off hops and the Reinheitsgebot in particular, revealing government privileges and control in general as the haunting issue.
It’s true that in the Middle Ages brewing was decentralized and resulted in a great plurality of beers. Brewing was part of running a household, and women made beer for their families; talented brewers also sold beer out of their homes. Monasteries, manors, and other estates also produced their own beer. But this decentralization does not mean that there was freedom in brewing. The many local authorities of the Middle Ages asserted something called gruitrecht, the right to sell a gruit mixture exclusively in the area they controlled. Gruitrecht’s origins lie in the centralization that took place under the Holy Roman Empire, where it surfaced as an imperial right. As the eminent medievalist Richard W. Unger explains, “In the Latin Christian empire created by Charlemagne [c. 747–814], the ruler was able to establish a royal right to power over unexploited lands and it was uncultivated land from which bog myrtle [the most prominent herb in gruit] came.”
Charlemagne’s successors assumed the gruitrecht imperial monopoly, but rather than keep it to themselves, they dispersed it across the land, with crony grants to bishops, monasteries, towns, and counts, dukes, and other elite laymen between roughly 950 and 1250. These benefactors, who could keep the proceeds of the gruit sales (gruitgeld) then made gruitrecht a hereditary right.
This de facto tax on beer was hard to avoid. In some places, people had to bring their malted grain to a gruithouse (gruithuis or gruthuse, where the mixture was made and sold), where the gruiter (a tax farmer) would inspect it and then mix the prescribed amount of gruit into it. In other places, brewers just purchased the mixture, which was sold in proportion to how much brew was being made. Sometimes the gruit recipe was kept a secret or was otherwise disbursed such that it was difficult to replicate surreptitiously. And if beer was brewed with something else, word could get out and result in punishment.
Over the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, urban governments gradually bought up the gruitrechten, seeing this right as a potentially large moneymaker and a source of authority. Moving to a different jurisdiction was not always much of an option either, as by 1300, gruit taxes “were a common feature of life in towns throughout the Netherlands as well as up the Rhine Valley.”
The gruitrecht was no small thing. Forcing people to use an official gruit in their beer that could only be bought from the gruiter, as opposed to allowing them to freely gather and mix their own components, gave the gruitrecht holders control over the character of their region’s beer (in addition to siphoning money from locals and raising the cost of brewing). All the beer made in an area would be more similar than might otherwise have been the case. After all, the official gruit was the only legal additive and therefore a common denominator, as, of course, was the amount used in a batch, which determined how much had to be purchased and thus the tax. In places where the grain had to be inspected, moreover, the grain bill (the mix of grains making up the beer’s sweet base [wort], which could be varying combinations of barley, wheat, rye, oats, and other cereals) and the amount of grain in the recipe were also being controlled by extension (if other laws did not do this already). The tax on gruit very slowly became an excise tax on beer, however, and by 1400 brewers in many, but not all, towns in the Low Countries could control what went into their gruit.
Although hops were used in brewing as early as the 800s, it was not until the thirteenth century that hopped beer began to give gruited beer a run for its money. Increasing urbanization and accumulated technical knowledge of brewing with hops combined to give rise to a market in hopped beer for export in Hanseatic cities in what is now northern Germany, particularly Hamburg. Hopped beer was very different from gruit—much less sweet and thinner, because it didn’t need to have such a high alcohol content to be safe to drink. It took time for the medieval palate to come to prefer the bitter beer, but its long shelf life gave it a leg up.
Towns throughout northwestern Europe began importing hopped beer. But this beer was expensive due to tariffs, shipping costs, and increasing regulation of the Hanse brewing industries over the eleventh and twelfth centuries by the greedy city governments, who wanted to keep the gravy train going through “quality control” measures such as licensing requirements and recipe controls; price controls at all stages of production; taxes on capital goods such as copper brew kettles; and other insane and cumbersome measures. So, many urbanites continued to drink local beer for some time, and in the countryside domestic production continued unhindered even as the Hanse brewing industry prospered.
However, the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries saw importing markets wise up and start trying their hand at making their own hopped beer. Hops were initially out of reach of the gruitrecht monopolies, and they also grew wild in rural areas, allowing country folks to produce hopped beer as well.
At this point local commercial brewers and governments in the Low Countries and England felt threatened and conspired against innovation. Some localities banned brewing with hops; some limited imports or banned them outright; some imposed tariffs; and some converted the gruitgeld into a hop(pe)geld (hop tax) or just excises on all beer production and purchases. The bans were usually temporary, but the burden of taxes remained.
As what is now southern Germany—the Rhineland, Bavaria, and Bohemia—originally a wine region, became a beer-drinking and -making area over the fifteenth century, the earliest version of the Reinheitsgebot was decreed in 1487 by Duke Albert IV (r. 1467–1508, Bavaria-Munich, and 1503–08, Bavaria-Landshut). It required that Munich beer be made with only barley, water, yeast, and hops. Duke William IV (r. 1508–50, Bavaria) reissued the edict in 1516. This time, all Bavarian beer had to be made with only barley, water, and hops (yeast was clearly implied, having been mentioned in the last decree and being a fundamental and known brewing ingredient, harvested from previous batches). The rule was repeated again in 1553 and 1616 for the entire duchy. More local Bavarian purity laws predated these, however: Augsburg (1156), Munich (1363), Nuremberg (1393), Weißensee/Thuringia (1434), Regensburg (1447), Landshut (1493), and Ingolstadt (1516) all had their own purity laws.
The Reinheitsgebot’s many iterations were meant to “protect” the Bavarian public from their preference for gruited beer, since many allegedly undesired “impurities,” toxins, and intoxicants allegedly made it into much of the local beer; unsurprisingly, the law also likely helped funnel tax revenue to the local governments more easily and may have also been an effort to direct the region’s relatively young brewing industry in hopes of a more fruitful tax harvest. In terms of grain, the goal was to control the supply of grain centrally so that there would be enough of each cereal for its most common uses, particularly wheat for breadmaking. The conceit was that fluctuations in the supply and thus the price of grains caused by climate and pests could be undone and the market response improved on by governments. These kinds of laws were adopted throughout southern Germany over time, but with the consolidation of power under the German Empire in 1871, they became more widespread, and finally, in 1906 an iteration of the purity law was codified in all of now unified Germany.
By the sixteenth century, hops were the most common additive in beer throughout the Low Countries and what is now Germany (England would get there by the 1580s). In Holland, taxes on gruit had mostly disappeared over the previous century, though some jurisdictions simply expanded them to include hops and extracted less and less from gruit as production fell.
It would be false to say that purity laws in one region stamped out gruited beer. Clearly, hopped beer successfully fought its way into earlier markets in spite of widespread resistance. This was due to its longer shelf life and superior quality in general (its rise was accompanied by other technological improvements in brewing, as Unger notes).
The purity laws did help stamp out gruit in the late-blooming holdout area where they came into force, however. And the challenges that the early hopped beer industry faced, and its increasing regulation and professionalization over time, rippling outward from the Hanseatic League, mean that the story of innovation, creativity, freedom, and simple pleasure stifled by government interference and legitimized theft still holds true in beer as in almost every industry under the state.
The fact is that beer industries around the world continue to be stifled by all kinds of regulations and definitions of what constitutes beer, such as ingredients and alcohol content, and Germany remains a prime example. Many brewers have complained that commercial brewing is fettered by a narrow definition of beer, which as recently as 2016 limited beer to malted grains, hops, water and yeast. Unfortunately, the solution often seems to be to broaden what legally constitutes beer, at the very least sentencing the unforeseeable innovations of the future to a vicious hazing before entering the market, if not barring them and perhaps even their conception altogether.
What the world really needs is to repeal all beer-related regulations, excises, and tariffs (at least). The open markets and free entry—no more talented homebrewers out of reach of a thirsty world—would likely lead to increased variety and brews at price points that could meet more people’s budgets and tastes. They would also aid the exchange of ideas and the rise and spread of improvements in industry practices at all orders of production. Most importantly, the competition engendered by the wider variety of options available and the lack of sequestered local markets would likely tend to keep the quality of beers as high as their consumer bases want it.
Politicians should leave the brewing to brewers and the quality control to vendors and drinkers. Free the gruit, free the hops, free the grains, free the (home)brewers, free the bar owners and restaurateurs, free the beer merchants and distributors, free the people!