German Specialty Brewer Fights Reinheitsgebot

There was a time in bygone centuries when German brewing offered a dizzying range of styles, many of them unique to their home regions. Then came unification in the latter part of the 19th century, and with it the nationwide adoption of a version of Bavaria’s centuries-old Reinheitsgebot, the beer purity law that limits ingredients used in beer to malt, hops, and water – and yeast, but the nature of yeast wasn’t understood in the old days, so it was added to the modern purity law. But many ingredients used elsewhere as brewing adjuncts remain forbidden to modern German brewers. From the end of World War II until the German Reunification, German brewing again went two separate ways for a while; the Communist government of the former German Democratic Republic allowed the use of some adjuncts in beer brewing. One such brewery that made use of these adjuncts was the small brewery in the town of Neuzelle, near the border with Poland. The brewery made a dark specialty beer with invert sugar syrup, an ingredient allowed by the former Communist regime, and permitted for a few years after Reunification. But eastern German brewers are now supposed to obey the country’s purity laws, and this has created friction between Helmut Fritsche and Germany’s regulatory authorities, making him something of a beer outlaw. Fritsche took over the Klosterbrauerei Neuzelle in 1993, buying it from the Treuhandanstalt, the agency set up to sell off former GDR state-run businesses. Now, German regulators are threatening Fritsche with a 20,000-euro fine. The charge is illegally labelling his brew, made with a mixture of black beer malts and sugar syrup, as “beer.” The addition of syrup to the brew makes it illegal to be labeled as beer under German law. Fritsche is not taking the matter lightly, declaring that the law is “infringing on the creativity of small brewers.”

Current German brewing law allows for exceptions to the Reinheitsgebot, calling such brews “special beers,” like the Gose beer style brewed in two Leipzig breweries. Fritsche applied to Brandenburg state authorities in the state of Brandenburg for permission to call his product “beer,” under the claim that he was continuing a regional brewing tradition in Neuzelle. The authorities repeatedly turned him down, causing him to take his claim to court, and the suit has made its way to Germany’s top administrative court. There’s no word on when a decision might come. Fritsche originally paid attention to the letter of the law, labeling his Schwarzer Abt (Black Abbot) brew carefully. The beer is technically a “black beer,” or Schwarzbier, but the original label skirted calling it “beer,” instead reading “A Specialty Made From Schwarzbier, With Invert Sugar Syrup Added Afterward.” In 2003, Fritsche shorted the label to simply read “Schwarzbier.” The local food-safety officials were not amused, slapping Fritsche with a cease-and-desist order to revert back to the previous lengthy labeling.

The German purity law doesn’t apply to beers brewed elsewhere in the EU, which may be sold in Germany regardless of content as long as they meet looser EU regulations. For Fritsche, this means that beers brewed just a few miles away, over the border in Poland, don’t have to meet the country’s stringent purity rules, but can still be sold in Germany as beer, while he’s not allowed to use the same word to describe an essentially similar product. The regulatory battle has had its upside, though; media coverage of the dispute has helped his small operation stand out among the country’s 1,200 breweries.

Klosterbrauerei Neuzelle brewmaster Christian Pohl points out that Schwarzer Abt is brewed according to the Reinheitsgebot until the very last step. The sugar syrup doesn’t replace the standard ingredients, but is added as an adjunct after fermentation as a means of balancing the bitterness from the darker malts used brewing the beer. Pohl notes that German beer consumption has been falling for years, and many brewers have experimented with so-called “mixes,” such as beer and lemonade, beer and cola, or beer and syrup. Such beer-based drinks must be labeled as “mixes,” but brewers see them as a way to sell more beer and boost sales. Pohl agrees with Fritsche that Germany’s brewing laws need to be relaxed to allow some experimentation with beer styles. Brewers in the neighboring EU nation of Belgium are known for their breadth and variety, and brewers there are allowed to add ingredients such as sugar, honey, spices, or fruit such as raspberries or peaches to flavor their beers, and Belgian beers have attained world-class reputations.