The announcement by Stone Brewing Company to construct their new brewery in Berlin has resulted in a renewed look at Germany’s beer culture, including a recent article in The Economist, that I contributed to. In the discussion that followed a German Huffington Post article this week, several commentators joined in defence of the Reinheitsgebot: “Four ingredients force the brewer to show off his/her skill”, “Let’s explore all the possibilities of changing mash temperatures, using different yeasts etc.” (These are all valid statements, but they do miss the point: a brewer can always chose themselves just to use these four ingredients if they so wish and if it is suitable for the beer they wish to brew – in fact most already do!)
However, one defence of the Purity Law (Reinheitsgebot) was made that I find particularly revealing: “… with the four basic ingredients you can brew beer that is at least as good as beer brewed without a Purity Law.”
I focus my attention on this argument today, because I have heard it repeated many times, in different forms in the past. What appeared to me at first to be just an illogical, nonsense statement actually reveals a lot about attitudes to brewing ingredients and brewing methods in Germany.
Note: Because the Vorläufiges Biersteuergesetz from 1993 does allow more flexibility for top-fermented beers than bottom-fermented beers, I will use unmalted cereals (oats, roasted barley) in my examples for simplicity, as this applies to both.
Set Theory, Existentialism and the Purity Law
To most non-German brewers, who have never been restricted by what they can put into their mash tun or brew-kettle, the Purity Law captures an historical snapshot of natural ingredients that were once used. Expressed in Set Theory, the Set of beers brewed with ingredients limited to water, malted barley, hops and yeast is a Subset of any beer brewed with all natural ingredients. The use of roasted barley to give a dry, roasted character to a stout, or the use of unmalted oats to give a silky body to an oatmeal stout are obvious examples of using natural ingredients in novel ways to give a beer style a particular characteristic, not possible with malted barley alone. These are not modern gimmicks, but historical adjuncts discovered in different beer cultures, long after a snapshot of one particular beer culture, in one part of the world in 1516. We can call this framing of beer ingredients the existentialist point of view – if you are open to creating a beer with natural ingredients only, the arbitrary description of what you can call a “Bier” is only a historical relic, a snapshot in time. By relaxing these shackles, the brewer has more options to create a wider range of beers. This is a result that logicians call “necessarily true”.
However, if you look at the brewing of beer from the essentialist point of view, “Bier” has been given a strict definition tied to history. The ingredients themselves and the construction of a recipe are no longer up for debate. Beers brewed according to the Purity Law, strictly limited to these four ingredients are not a Subset of beers brewed with natural ingredients, but a seperate Disjoint Set that does not intersect with it and has no common elements. The essence of this Set called “Bier” has been decided centuries ago and brewers have stuck to it. If you brew a stout with oats, you may have an interesting result, but goes beyond the essence of “Bier” and therefore belongs to another Set entirely: the Set of Beermix-Creations (“Biermisch-Kreationen”), as posited in the Huffington Post article.
As long as the four ingredients (water, malted barley, hops and yeast) define the essentialist Set called “Bier”, the debate about what ingredients could improve the character of any beer style is not a meaningful one. The existentialist will debate against the essentialist at length and neither will get anywhere, as each is using different Sets to define what is important in the brewing process.
I don’t expect to have convinced any proponents of the Purity Law with this article, but I hope I may save some time and frustration on both sides of the debate, by framing the discussion in this way.