Reinheitsgebot
and
Belgium Beers

By
Jim Attacap


When referring to the purity of a beer, people often point to the
Reinheitsgebot, a Bavarian law dating back to 1487 that was initiated in
1516. However, the Reinheitsgebot was actually instituted to curtail the use of
wheat and rye in brewing, being grains suitable for bread production. The idea
was that these grains would create more food rather than more beer, keeping
bread an affordable commodity for Bavarian citizens.

In fact, this law was used for trade leveraging when Germany unified in 1871.
By leveling the playing field, German beer could be held to one standard, but
even then there were exceptions and revised definitions. Regardless, it
eventually led to the extinction or near-extinction of several native beer styles
in Germany.

Originally, the Reinheitsgebot  claimed that only barley, hops, and water could
be used. Yeast had yet to be identified as a contributing factor in alcohol
production.

Many German brewers still proudly claim to follow the Reinheitsgebot, and
beers that do comply get special protections as a traditional food. It’s used as
a marketing tool, and the beers have “Gebraut nach dem deutschen
Reinheitsgebot” (brewed according to the German Purity Ordinance) on the
label.

Today the penalty for not abiding by the Reinheitsgebot may only be the
upturned noses of some American craft brewers. But in the 16th century, the
consequences of brewing an offending beer were far more dire: They lost the
beer.

“Whosoever knowingly disregards or transgresses upon this ordinance, shall
be punished by the court authorities’ confiscating such barrels of beer, without
fail.”

Over time, homebrewers and beer enthusiasts rejecting American light lagers
that brew with corn and rice in their grain bill cast their tacit support for the
Reinheitsgebot, deeming it a way to gauge the purity of a beer. But the truth is
that German breweries had been using adjuncts and different ingredients to
produce a variety of beer styles before the Reinheitsgebot became national
law.

So what does all this have to do with Belgian beer?

Belgian brewing tradition also dates back centuries, and Belgians took a
completely different approach to beer than some of their German
counterparts. Belgian beer often incorporates what are known as “adjuncts,”
or added ingredients that are not hops, malt, water, and yeast.

Were you aware that sugar is often added to Belgian beer? Sugar acts as a
way to increase attenuation, or bringing down the final gravity of a beer. The
more sugar the yeast can easily consume, the more it creates a dry,
refreshing characteristic that is essential to many Belgian beers. This practice
is not new by any stretch of the imagination, nor is it a way to cut costs or
reduce the quality of the beer.

In fact, Belgian brewers often have a flair for the eccentric, adding all sorts of
herbs and spices to their beers, while some simply stick to a method of
manipulating fermentation temperatures to create incredible flavors from their
yeast. This free approach to brewing has produced some of the most unique
and interesting beers on the planet, and their approach is being adopted by
brewers around the world.

So, when you hear someone use the term “adjunct” as a pejorative, take their
words with a grain of salt – or sugar.
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