April 23rd, as you may be aware, is St George’s Day, and while we Brits might not celebrate Saint George with the same passion that the Irish celebrate Saint Patrick or Americans celebrate July 4th, it’s still a great excuse for a decent beer.
However April 23rd 2016 also marks a couple of significant anniversaries, the four hundredth anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare and, a century earlier, the five hundredth anniversary of the Reinheitsgebot.
The Reinheitsgebot, you might recall, is the world’s longest lasting piece of consumer legislation, created to protect and ensure the purity of Bavarian beer recipes.
It states that beer can only be brewed using barley, hops and water.
Yeast is an obvious omission, but as I wrote here, Louis Pasteur only isolated yeast in 1857 and the Bavarians were perhaps unaware of its contribution to the magic that is brewing.
Wheat was initially excluded, but in 1602 licenses to brew wheat beer were granted and promptly bought by the family of Maximilian Wittelsbach – the Elector of Bavaria – who effectively monopolized wheat beer production for the next two hundred years.
While the Reinheitsgebot was a Bavarian law, it was adopted by other German states as they coalesced during the 19th century into what we now consider to be ‘Germany’. The adoption of the Reinheitsgebot was made a condition of Bavaria accepting amalgamation into the new Germany.
Almost inevitably the law was repealed, in 1988, by the European Union, who considered it a restraint of free trade, but many breweries stay true to the ‘law’ as a guide to the quality of their brews.
It’s also interesting to consider why the Reinheitsgebot came into effect on St. George’s day as that was the traditional end to the spring brewing season. Without adequate refrigeration or cooling techniques, Bavarian summers were too hot to brew beer with any expectation of consistency, so brewing ceased between St. George’s day – April 23rd – and St Michael’s day – 29th September.
Through the summer months Bavarians would drink those Marzen and Lager beers that were brewed through the spring months and stored – or ‘lagered’.
So today, just this once, I propose that we should dust off our steins and toast St. George with a classic German brew.