Brew Biz: Werts and All

Topic: Beer Purity and Purists

Written by Ken Carman

“And the Lord came down and said, ‘Thou shalt only use only hops, malt, water and yeast. Any brewer who does otherwise shall be tossed into brew kettles and boiled for one and a half hours, rapid boil. Hop additions every 15 minutes…'”

“Then the Lord immediately excommunicated himself because his own instructions weren’t pure enough.”

I know. The Bible doesn’t say that, maybe you believe that was my point. Ya, think?

The German Purity Law, better known as the Gesundheitcaflabin… OK, I made that up for fun: the Reinheitsgebot … (Not to be confused with the movie about drinking too much beer: Das Bloat)… was made law in 1516. Here are a few fun facts that some may not know…

1. If you use rye or wheat, according to the original GPL it has to be top fermented. (Hey, I’m all if favor of that, personally, but to defend lager lovers everywhere one must ask… why? This also had to be a later addition to the law too since lager yeast was invented many years later at Carlsberg Brewery.)

2. The Germans themselves repealed the GPL. Smart Germans.

3. Yeast wasn’t even mentioned; since yeast hadn’t been discovered yet. So my quote to begin with should satisfy Atheists everywhere as God goes all Treky: “Error, error, error…” and explodes into confetti. Or pasta. But the the Spaghetti Monster would demand we make beer out of meatballs. Yuck.

4. The penalty, unlike my comedy-based scenario, was confiscation of all the brew. Of course all of that was dumped and no official decided to quaffe’ legally gotten gains. Of course. Wink. Wink.

5. Brewers in some countries, like Belgium, considered the law protectionism: banning beers from countries with their own brewing traditions less “purity” oriented. I’m sure “the Church” loved it. What we now use hops for some brewers used psychotropics and aphrodisiacs. That’s right, beer was helping people get even higher and “get down” even more. Silly people. Don’t you know your lot is life is to be miserable and dangled over the pits of Hell until you’re dropped into that vat… or to spend the rest of eternity praising a being who apparently didn’t have enough praise with angels and the rest of Creation, so he had to create us and he would get lots more? Is it God that’s really this greedy and obsessed with praise, or the leaders/priests/ministers/bishops/holier than thou “knights” of various religious faiths who wants to rook us… pawns… out of life’s pleasures?

Yes, that was rhetorical. I think you know which one I blame, and it’s not God.

OK, “dangled over the pits of Hell” is a protestant reference, I admit. Proving the protestant reformation also improved the peasant’s lot in life… not.

There’s a lot more to all this historically speaking; more in-depth, but let’s leave it there and get on with it, OK?

When my wife and I were visiting a brewpub in Columbus, Ohio in the late 90s, I asked the assistant brewer at Hosters if they were going to do a spiced Christmas Ale. His response was to get real stuffy and say…

“That’s not Reinheitsgebot.”

I knew better than short circuit the conversation by responding…

“So?”

Most of the times, these days, I find brewers have abandoned beer fundamentalism and have become more experimental. Admittedly the results can suck more than the testing facility at an Electrolux factory sometimes, but this is how we learn as brewers. No deity came down and declared, “And there only shall be American Pale, Brit Bitter, Russian Imperial…” Never guess where these styles came from? Experimenting. Even the BJCP, amongst who there are probably more than a few style Nazis than the general public for obvious judging reasons, has a Specialty category. (I actually prefer the old Experimental moniker. I think it describes the category better and gives a welcome push to those who push the envelope.)

I would rather we have more beer styles, not less. Of course then BJCP exams would become impossible to pass except for those who keep storming the castle or those with photographic memories but, hell, they’re almost there now anyway. They claim that a BJCP judge should know brewing basics, and I agree. But brewing “basics” do not include knowing the exact amount of hops, malt and adjuncts to add in any given style, or knowing by heart the exact original and final gravity of any given style: all while the categories themselves shift over the years, or even the mathematic formulas that give you such stats. One can be a damn good judge and not know any of that.

And that’s not “basics.” “Specifics?” Yes. Basics? No.

One can make damn good beer and not comply with the GPL too. The BJCP makes note of that by having many categories that would have had sanctioned brewers under the old GPL crying everywhere, but in their beer.

As with all these things they are both interesting guidelines, with an emphasis on “guidelines.” I think making any of this law, or gospel, is a really bad idea.

Somehow I imagine God probably either doesn’t care, or is in favor of more flavor other than what’s allowed by purity laws or categories. And if there’s any guideline that should apply to beer and most other endeavors in life, it’s the following..

“Good. And if not, be try to be better, or… ‘make it so!'”

And no, God is not Jean-Luc Picard.

Wiseass.

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Brew Biz: Werts and All, is a column dedicated to review, discuss and comment on all things beer including, but not limited to: marketing, homebrewing and homebrew/beer related events, how society perceives all things beer. Also: reviews of beer related businesses, opinions about trends in the beer business, and all the various homebrew, judging and organizations related to beer. Essentially, all things “beer.”