Does UNESCO really believe that the beer culture of Belgium is worth protecting over that of Germany?

At the end of November 2016, the eleventh session of the UNESCO Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage took place. During this session, the decision was finalised to inscribe “Beer culture in Belgium” into the Representative List of ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity’.

In 2013, the German Brewer’s Association had launched a similar application for UNESCO “World Heritage” status, but were ultimately rejected by the close of 2014.

Here, I compare the differences between the German and Belgian bids for UNESCO recognition; why only the latter succeeded and what parts of the German beer heritage are genuinely worth preserving.


UNESCO & World Heritage

UNESCO is the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization. One of its key assignments is the fostering of intercultural understanding by recognising, protecting and preserving cultural heritage.

Although the initial remit of the UNESCO ‘World Heritage’ status listing was to recognise and protect only locations and monuments (i.e. ‘tangible culture’), in 2006 the remit was expanded to include ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage” – i.e. traditions, customs and practises – that are also worth protecting.

Belgian Beer Culture – © Stephanie Radermacher

The UNESCO Decision To Inscribe Beer Culture in Belgium

In December 2016, “Beer culture in Belgium” was inscribed onto the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

The formal UNESCO announcement described in detail the positive beer culture in Belgium and made specific references to brewing and appreciating beer, beer in daily life and at festive occasions, the wide variety of over 1,500 types of beer, the rising craft beer movement, regional varieties, beer in cooking and beer paired with food, knowledge transfer and amateur (home) brewing.


Germany’s Failed Application

The positive inscription awarded to Belgium was not awarded to the German application two years earlier. On 29th November 2013, the German Brewers Association (Deutscher Brauer-Bund e.V.) announced their intention to apply for UNESCO “World Heritage Status” for the original law signed by Duke Wilhelm IV in Ingolstadt on 23rd April 1516, that would later become rebranded and popularised as the ‘Reinheitsgebot’ or Purity Law. According to the president of the association, Dr. Hans-Georg Eils, “Germany owes its unchallenged reputation as a brewing nation to the Reinheitsgebot” and “It guarantees the purity, quality and digestibility of beers.”

The German Brewers Association’s corporate branding for the 500 year anniversary – © picture-alliance/dpa/F. Schuh

However, in spite of a year-long campaign, as 2014 came to a close, the German application was rejected. According to Dr. Christoph Wulf, the Vice President of the German UNESCO Commission, the German application “failed, because it was not presented convincingly to the committee. Regulation of the food industry was too much in the foreground. We also had the impression that beer production is now very industrial. Human beings seem to be playing a lesser and lesser role as carriers of the brewing tradition.“ (Author’s translation from the original German interview)

Here we have a representative from the German UNESCO Commission stating clearly that protecting a regulatory framework does not align with ‘World Heritage’ status and that the modern, industrialised German beer industry has lost its link to its historic brewing culture.

In short, the German bid (co-ordinated by the German Brewer’s Association) failed because it was trying to gain prestige for a restrictive, regulatory framework that serves the modern industrial brewing industry and did not highlight the positive, cultural aspects of the long German brewing heritage.


Does UNESCO really believe that the beer culture of Belgium is worth protecting over that of Germany?

So, back to our original question: does this mean that UNESCO really believes that the beer culture of Belgium is worth protecting over that of Germany? Of course not!

Belgium succeeded, because their application highlighted genuine cultural contributions that were worth protecting: the making of and the appreciation of beer. Germany failed because the application attempted to protect a negative restriction, that only serves the modern industry.

It is to the detriment of our shared world heritage and the work being done by UNESCO that Germany’s genuine historical and present-day contributions to beer and brewing were not fairly represented.


What parts of German beer & brewing culture are worth protecting?

Taking a lead from the successful Belgian application, if the application were co-ordinated by a group that was interested in protecting Germany’s positive brewing heritage, rather than just the commercial interests of the modern industry, what should it include?

The following is just a subset of what should be included in any serious application:

  • World-leading technical brewing expertise (process & technology development & education)
  • The invention of bottom-fermentation techniques; culture of bottom-fermenting yeast strains
  • Expertise in barley & wheat agriculture; malting expertise, quality & variety
  • Hops growing, cultivation, harvesting technology, processing
  • Region-specific beer styles, including Kölsch, Düsseldorfer Alt, Berliner Weisse, Gose, smoked Rauchbier and Steinbier of Franken
  • Seasonal variation in brewery output (e.g. Märzen, Maibock, Festbier, Winterbock)
  • The annual Oktoberfest on the Wies’n in Munich (Festival)
  • Unique serving locations & traditions, including as beer halls, Bierkeller, Biergarten and Kölsch-houses.


A typical Biergarten in Munich, Bavaria


2 thoughts on “Does UNESCO really believe that the beer culture of Belgium is worth protecting over that of Germany?

  1. Thank you for the details about the German application. The Reinheitsgebot is definitely not a cultural heritage, the Unesco decision is o.k.
    Supplement: Apart from Munich’s Biergärten, do not forget the Berliner Eckkneipe and the Stammtisch in Franconia.
    Amother item missing: Zoigl. More important than Steinbier. Maybe the Zoigl culture is an heritage of it’s own?
    The Octoberfest would not be on my list, but that is personal view.

    1. Hi Ludger, thanks for the feedback.

    2. I’m surprised that Eckkneipen are unique to Berlin and that the Stammtisch is unique to Franconia. To play devil’s advocate, I would make the case that these may not be so unique, if you compare the “corner pubs” and “regulars tables” around pubs in Britain – and wculd therefore dilute the application/bid. But, if there are unique aspects to both Berliner Eckkneipen and Franconian Stammtisch, these should be added to the application.
    3. I had considered adding Zoigl and you are probably correct. I just see it as a rare, outdated form of brewing, that has been taken over by homebrewing & gypsy brewing today and is highly unlikely to grow in popularity again. However, as a long-standing cultural tradition unique to one geographical area, you are correct in that it should be added.
    4. Lastly, the Oktoberfest: I have never been myself and I have no interest in going. However, since the original is such a key part of Munich’s cultural calendar and it is known the world over – and often copied in other cities / countries as an excuse to have a beer festival, I would argue that it would be a key element in a serious bid to UNESCO.

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