Friday, 23 April 2010

Saint who?

I am told there is some sort of saint's day today which certain brewers in England are trying to attach to promotion of their beer, presumably because it's so crappy they can't sell it any other way.

Today is, however, also German Beer Day, or Tag des deutschen Bieres, celebrated by the German brewers' association since 1994. It's an equally transparent marketing gimmick, with its own dose of nationalism attached, but at least it has something inherently about beer to it.

It's on the 23rd of April because that is apparently the day on which the Beer Purity Law, the Reinheitsgebot, was first promulgated in Bavaria in 1516.

When I started learning about beer, it was received wisdom that German beer was the best in the world. I read about how the Purity Law guaranteed pure beer, and watched Prince Luitpold of Kaltenberg explain on TV how it meant brewing beer using malt, hops and water, with "no chemical additives, and no other raw materials such as sugar, or potatoes, or God knows what other people are sometimes using." Tasting Altenmünster and Löwenbräu for the first time and comparing them to the Tennent's and McEwan's available at home seemed to confirm the theory.

Times have changed now. Over the years voices emerged to attack the very principle of the Law, arguing that it was essentially a financial measure not a consumer protection one, and that its extension over the entire Reich in the 20th century led directly to the demise of many north German styles of beer which were unable to comply with it.

Both arguments have a good deal of sense to them, but nowadays you even hear some people saying that it makes the German beer scene worse than it would be without it. There's also a clear transatlantic divide. Lots of American beer geeks think the Reinheitsgebot is terrible because it prevents German brewers making cherry marshmallow porter or coffee pils. The Germans themselves revere it for the same reasons.

Restraint is not always a bad thing. Many bands like to stick to the classic guitars, bass and drums line-up, and some brewers like to stick to using only malt, hops and water. On the other hand, when I hear about some of the beers being made in the USA today, they strike me as the beer equivalent of Rick Wakeman on Ice. Self-indulgent. Too many flavours. Smelly fucking hippies.

The Reinheitsgebot doesn't guarantee making good beer. You only have to drink Beck's to realise that. I do think it prevents you making something really, really bad, though. I'd still rather drink Oettinger than Stella any day of the week and if you condemned me to only drink the top ten mass-market beers from any one country, I'd choose the German ones. And there's surely a reason for that.

1 comment:

  1. Yeah, but I don't think it's because of the 'gebot. It's because the average consumer is used to, and expect, some minimum standard. Similar to what happens here in CZ, that never had a law like that...

    What really drives me mad about this fiscal relic are those people that still believe, or those marketers who will want you believe, it is a guarantee of quality...

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