This year’s German Beer Day marks 500 years since Munich’s Duke Wilhelm IV decreed the beer purity law, or Reinheitsgebot. It stipulated that beer could only be made with water, hops and malt. None of the nasty stuff that unscrupulous brewers were adding to their brews at the time. Yeast was allowed later as its importance in the fermentation process became better understood (thanks Louis Pasteur!), although it would have always been present in wild forms of course.
500 years sounds like a long time ago, but beer’s history goes much further back. During the agricultural revolution, humans transitioned from nomadic hunter gatherers to form permanent farming communities. They began to cultivate grains, and when these grains fermented, the seeds of brewing were sown. The earliest records date back to 4000BC when the Sumer people in Mesopotamia fermented bread to create a “divine drink”. So beer made with bread isn’t such a novel idea after all!
The Ancient Babylonians in 2000BC continued the tradition and are known to have brewed 20 different varieties. If only they’d had Instagram – it’d be great to be able to look back and see who was drinking what #BabylonBeers. Over 400 years later, the Egyptians were still enjoying locally produced beers, toasting to the gods as they built the Great Pyramids. There is evidence that they buried beer in Pharaohs’ tombs to provide sustenance for the afterlife. What better drink than liquid bread!
By the middle ages, the monasteries were the largest brewers. They adapted the methods used and were often reliant on profits from the sale of beer. Rightly so, beer was considered a gift from God. It was safer to drink than the water supply, which was contaminated with disease-causing bacteria, and therefore consumed by everyone as part of their staple diet. Monks consumed up to five litres a day, even during times of fasting.
Hops were first introduced to the brewing process in Germany around 822AD to reduce beer spoilage (hop compounds are toxic to some bacteria), and arrived in the UK in the 15th century. As brewing became increasingly commercialised, brewers started to include additives to preserve the beer and the wort was often contaminated with things like sawdust. The demand for grains also increased wheat and barley prices, making bread more expensive. And so, Reinheitsgrebot was introduced in Germany to protect beer drinkers, bakers and, presumably, ducks (yes ,we know, never feed bread to ducks
500 years later, German brewers still largely abide by the purity law. They can make beer to their own recipe if they sell it abroad, or make it outside of Germany and export it back. But if they brew it in Germany using ‘unlawful’ ingredients, they can’t call it beer. Meanwhile, brewers across the world are experimenting with all kinds of interesting ingredients. Toast being just one.