How a German craft brewery works around the German Beer Purity Law

Photo by Kae Lani

How a German craft brewery works around the German Beer Purity Law

Beer + Breweries

How a German craft brewery works around the German Beer Purity Law

“There’s a beer I’ve been meaning to try that’s been brewed with pizza and money.” I’m pretty sure the moment those words came out of my mouth was the moment the German I was chatting with lost all respect for me. “Why would you crazy Americans drink such a beer?” he asked with a look of disgust and horror. The Big Ass Money Stout, which features mashed up frozen pizza and fat stacks of cash, is the brainchild of Evil Twin Brewing – a brewery originating in Denmark and currently making its beers in New York – and Lervig Aktiebryggeri, a brewery in Norway. It’s just one of the many examples of breweries worldwide using peculiar ingredients to entice beer drinkers.

The global craft beer movement, spearheaded by the United States, has been on the rise for years. According to the Brewers Association, the number of craft breweries in the U.S. has exploded from 1,511 breweries in 2007 to 6,372 in 2017. And countries like Denmark, Japan and even Italy have saturated craft beer markets. As the amount of beer choices has gone up, so has the number of stunts brewers pull to help them stand out.

Among some of the most the wild experimental brews are Dogfish Head’s Beer for Breakfast Stout, which is brewed with pork scrapple; Wynkoop Brewing Company’s Rocky Mountain Oyster Stout, which is brewed with bull testicles; and Rogue Ale’s The Beard Beer, whose special ingredient is yeast grown in the beard of the company’s master brewer. The list goes on and on.

But while brewers in the United States can play with wacky ingredients, brewers in Germany – a country that reveres beer – are restricted to four basic ingredients. The German Beer Purity Law, or the Reinheitsgebot, has been enforced since 1516, and it limits the ingredients used to brew beer to water, barley (or malt) and hops. Yeast is the fourth ingredient that is allowed, but it’s not listed in the original law because yeast’s role in the fermentation process had not yet been discovered at the time that it was written.

Photo by Kae Lani

The decree had three purposes: to protect beer drinkers from high prices, ban the use of wheat to ensure the availability and affordability of bread, and most importantly, to stop brewers from using dubious and sometimes toxic ingredients.

Prior to the passing of the Purity Law, medieval German brewers were using wood shavings, soot, thorn-apple, poisonous roots, deadly nightshade and other ingredients to enhance the flavors, aromas and intoxicating effects of their beers. But if the brewer didn’t measure out the ingredients properly, it could’ve meant serious illness or death for the poor soul who drank the contaminated beer.

The 500-year German tradition is no longer about safety; it’s main purpose is to ensure quality for every beer produced in a country that takes pride in its beer culture. So it’s no surprise that centuries after the law was written, Germans are appalled by the idea that pizza and money are going anywhere near the brewing process.

Photo by Kae Lani

Unfortunately, for craft beer fans, that means no citrus-flavored beers, no spiced ales, and especially no chocolate porters in Germany, right? Not quite.

There are rebel brewers who don’t abide by the rule and use things like chocolate, orange rind, and sugar (tame ingredients compared to what other brewers worldwide are playing with), but they can’t market these products as beer. Instead, they must call them by the name of the specific style (IPA or stout, for example) and market them as Biermischgetränke, “mixed beer drinks.” Still, according to The Guardian, 85% of Germans still trust in the German Beer Purity Law and insist that any beer with more than barley, hops, water and yeast is simply not beer.

Most German brewers are traditionalists who still abide by the rule and believe that with 100 varieties of hops, 40 kinds of barley and malt, and 200 strains of yeast, there is plenty of room for innovation. Maisel & Friends, a craft brewery in Bayreuth is among the traditionalists exploring the boundaries of the Purity Law – and trying to prove that the possibilities are limitless.

When the Maisel Brewery started out in 1887, it quickly became known for taking the traditional Franconian style of brewing and marrying it with innovation. Whenever a new technology was introduced – such as steam engines and semi-automatic bottling machines – the Maisel Brewery adapted, enabling it to become known throughout the Franconia region for quality and consistency, especially when it came to its Maisel Weiss, a classic Hefeweizen.

Photo by Kae Lani

Maisel & Friends is a byproduct of that pioneering spirit. The experimental craft beer brand, which is an offshoot of Maisel Brewery, started in 2015 and quickly set to work playing with new brewing technology and a variety of local ingredients. Maisel & Friends has achieved some pretty bold and complex flavors, many of which you wouldn’t think were possible under the German Beer Purity Law.

Most of the brewery’s secrets lie in the carefully selected local ingredients. The clever brewers have spent much of their time and expertise searching for just the right barley (or malt), hops and yeast strains. The Choco Porter, for instance, tastes like dark chocolate with hints of espresso and sweet caramel, to the point where you’d swear they used those ingredients in the brewing process. But those flavors are thanks to a selection of dark roasted malts, allowing Maisel & Friends to get a robust flavor while still adhering to the German Beer Purity Law.  

Along with the Choco Porter, Maisel & Friends inventive line of beers include the Citrilla, a citrusy hybrid of a Bavarian Weissbeir and American IPA, as well as a special Bavarian ale that has notes of Asian spices. All of these creative brews can be sampled at Maisel & Friends’ brewpub, Liebesbier.

Photo by Kae Lani

A trip to Maisel & Friends in Bayreuth is a whimsical and immersive beer experience. In addition to a brewery that bends the reality of the German Beer Purity law, the facility is also home to Maisel’s Brewery Museum.

The museum is a Willy Wonka-esque labyrinth leading visitors through rooms of decommissioned brewery equipment preserved so well it looks like brewers just left for the day. The copper brewing kettles and old timey temperature gauges look like they’ve been taken from the set of a Wes Anderson film.

The museum also houses a record-breaking collection of beer memorabilia, which includes more than 5,500 beer steins and glasses, as well as more than 400 rare tin beer signs. It’s an educational and enlightening beer extravaganza for beginners and experts alike.

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