This month, the editor of Brewers' Guardian, Larry Nelson, is starting the celebration of the Reinheitsgebot a little early. Looking back, however, has prompted Larry to look forward and ask; what future for the ancient beer law?

Like many, you’ll probably have heaved a huge sigh of relief when the sun rose on 22 December. The universe continued to unfold as it should despite the assurances of Mayan calendar calculators that the jig was and truly up on 21 December.

Phew. But, not so fast, beer lovers. Note the following date well, because it's one that should give the brewing industry pause for considerable thought: 23 April 2016.

This day will mark the 500th anniversary of the Reinheitsgebot - the famous Purity Law - a decree of Bavarian Duke Wilhelm IV that specified forthwith that only water, barley and hops could be used in the production of beer. (The role played by yeast, that marvellous alcohol-generating unknown, wasn’t understood until Louis Pasteur got busy in his lab in the late 19th century.) 

The Reinheitsgebot was intended not only to ensure beer purity, but it also eliminated competition with bakers for other gains such as rye and wheat.

It’s a remarkable bit of legislation, one whose influence shaped the European understanding of beer, one that spread across the world and today remains a byword for quality in the practice and marketing of many brewers, not just those in Germany.

Barley. Hops. Water. (Yeast.) Beer Q.E.D. 

But, it’s not the so much the ingredients that are of interest here, it’s the causation. Our historical understanding of beer stems not so much from the work of brewers per se, but from two intertwined factors: a government edict, and the Northern European climate that this govenrment enjoyed/endured. 

You can make a fairly compelling argument that, over the years, governmental interventions have had as much to do with our understanding of what beer is than brewers themselves.

You think I’m kidding? Consider Nigeria in 1988 when, in an effort to preserve scarce foreign exchange availability, the Government introduced a ban on the importation of barley and malted barley. Brewers, left without a convertible source of starch for their wort, developed sorghum-based alternatives in a hurry.

Today, sorghum clear beers are becoming commonplace on the African continent. Research has spread to other indigenous raw materials, especially cassava. Beers from this material are now entering commercial production, beginning with SABMiller’s introduction of Impala, a cassava-based lager in Mozambique 18 months ago, and since the beginning of this year, Guinness Ghana Breweries launch of Ruut Extra Premium Beer in its domestic market.

Consider also Japan, where again a taxation system based on raw materials rather than, say, alcoholic content or brewing output, has given rise to beers that aren’t quite beers anymore. The highest rate of tax is applied to the products brewed with malted barley accounting for more than 67% of the grist weight; these can be referred to as ‘beer’. To avoid this tax burden, Japanese brewers launched low-malt content products, substituting malt with sorghum, potatoes, fruits extracts. These beers, with less than 25% malted barley, became known as happoshu, which translates literally as ‘sparkling spirits.’ Subsequently ‘new genre’ drinks were developed by brewers, which are completely devoid of barley content. 

As mentioned, government also skews the outcome of the brewer’s art by differentiating taxes on the volumes produced by the brewery. The K’s astonishing growth in microbrewery openings, with the number more than doubling over the last decade, can trace its origins to then Chancellor Gordon Brown’s introduction of progressive beer duty, where the smallest of producers received a 50% reduction in standard rates. It has proven to be a huge spur to market entrants: here, a perhaps anticipatable benefit is that, with so many competitors, the country’s range of beer styles is broadening as points of difference are sought in the on-trade. 

It’s worth remembering, too, that reduced beer duty rates are on offer in many European Union member states, spurring on the growth of microbrewing across the continent. Beer duty is banded in favour of smaller producers in the US as well. In short, not all government interventions will lead to negative outcome for beer as we understand it – but there will certainly be unforeseen consequences, and not always for the better.

Figurative landscapes

Perhaps, just as importantly as the ingredients itemised by Bavaria’s rulers, was where these decisions took place. Beer was defined in the context of a landscape in which grains could be grown with relative ease, one where the balancing bitterness of hops could be plucked from gardens not far away in southern Germany and neighbouring Bohemia.

But, in a global context, over time, market differences were bound to emerge, because of differences in tastes and the availability of raw materials. The staples of mainstream American beer, brands such as Budweiser, Miller and Coors, from the outset have relied on adjuncts such as rice and corn and reduced hopping regimes for reduced bitterness on the finish. The Chinese market is today heading in the same direction, with notable reductions in colour and bitterness evident in beers brewed for the domestic market.

In the context of the Reinheitsgebot, these are negative developments – the gold standard remains malted barley, hops, water and yeast. 

But imagine this: What if beer had originated in India, a vast subcontinent devoid of hop fields? The result might be something akin to Indus Pride, a recent SABMiller launch of a range of four beers that by-and-large substitute spices for hops to balance the taste. The most challenging is Fiery Cinnamon, which does what it says on the label, but there are others such as Citrusy Coriander that are much gentler and certainly sessionable. 

Indus Pride challenges our northern European understanding of what good beer should resemble. And, in contrast to the sorghum beers of Africa and happoshu in Japan, it is unique in that it is packaged, priced and positioned as a premium product.

So, we’re three years out from the 500th anniversary of the Reinheitsgebot. Given all that is happening in a global landscape, with unintended consequences of government policies and the possible upsides of rethinking beer from a local perspective, the question is this:

Is there a need for a new 21st century Reinheitsgebot?