German beer laws are famous. Most people who drink beer have heard about the Bavarian "Reinheitsgebot," or purity law of 1487, wherein only three ingredients were allowed in the brewing of beer; hops, barley malt and water (yeast was unknown at the time). This law is used for marketing beer even today: "Gebraut nach dem Reinheitsgebot" (brewed according to the purity law) or "500 Jahre Münchner Reinheitsgebot" (500 years of Munich purity law) are proudly displayed on beer bottles and in advertisements.
Beyond the question of why you would want to limit your beer ingredients, you may want to ask - Was this the first law about beer ever written in Germany? Also, is it still on the books?
And the answer is - no, to both.
Preview of the Purity Law
The Bavarian Purity Law for beer was passed on the 23rd of April, 1516 at the Ingolstadt "Landständetag," a meeting with representatives of the nobility, delegates from the city and markets, and church prelates. This law is the reason for the good reputation of German beer.
The modern version of the "Reinheitsgebot" is not the first attempt at steering the production of beer. It is however seen as the highpoint of several hundred years of regulatory development which was aimed at supplying the citizens with qualitatively good beer, a food staple at the time, while regulating the prices.
Forays into creating laws about beer had been made long before the "Bayrische Reinheitsgebot" of 1516. Augsburg passed one in 1156, Nuremberg in 1293, Munich in 1363 and Regensburg in 1447. There were many other regional price and manufacturing laws passed in the latter half of the 15th and early 16th centuries as well.
A concrete definition as to specific raw ingredients - water, malt and hops - for the manufacture of beer was determined in Munich on November 30th, 1487 by Duke Albrecht IV.
Another direct forerunner to the 1516 law was the 1493 Duchy of Lower Bavaria Beer Decree written by Duke George of Bavaria, which also limited ingredients for beer to malt, hops and water. The law also had very detailed paragraphs stipulating the price at which beer could be sold. This law was enacted to make sure the citizens had good beer at a good price, but also to protect grain which was better used in bread baking.
A high standard of quality was at that time already coupled with the idea of consumer protection. Beer in the Middle Ages was being brewed with all sorts of ingredients which altered its taste or had intoxicating effects, while skimping on the expensive ingredients; malt and/or hops, and the toxic effects were not taken into consideration. By 1486 a Decree for Brewing "Ordung des Bräuens," was already stating that "Es sollen ... keinerlei Wurzeln, weder Zermetat noch anderes, das dem Menschen schädlich ist oder Krankheit und Wehtagen bringen mag, darein getan werden." - "...no roots [...] which are deleterious or which can bring illness or pain to a human, may be used."
Before 1516, the northern German brewers with their strict guild rules had the best beer quality, but the "Reinheitsgebot" changed that. The Bavarians quickly increased their product quality and some think they surpassed the northern guilds.
In Germany There Were Two Systems of Law For Beer
In northern Germany in the Middle Ages beer was accepted as a basic staple food for the city's citizens. It was regulated by civil laws and was successfully defended from the nobility and the church. Beer production regulations were determined by the city government and the guilds.
In southern Germany, the local rulers had more influence over the beer regulations. This was good for the purity law, because it went into immediate effect over all of Bavaria.
The high quality of beer which was brewed after this law went into effect convinced many people of its value, who were also very proud of using only three ingredients, and the purity law continued to be followed through several centuries.
In 1871, the "Reichstag" (German parliament) enacted laws which included taxes on beer, but where the law described allowed ingredients (starch, sugar, syrup and rice), they made an exception for Bavaria, Baden and Württemberg, in order to preserve their "Reinheitsgebot."
The purity law first became binding for Northern Germany in 1906. At the end of World War I, when the Weimar Republic was founded, Bavaria refused to be a part of it unless the purity laws were effective in all areas of the country. After World War II, the "Reinheitsgebot" was written into the "Biersteuergesetz," or beer tax law, of 1952.
This form of the law remained until 1987, when a European Union court of law forced Germany to change the law to allow for free trade within Europe, as the purity law was seen as a kind of protectionism. Nevertheless, many breweries stick to the older law and advertise the fact.