Beer: A Short and Bitter History of Regulation
“Brewed according to the German Purity Law,” a Hobräu München hefeweizen bottle proudly declares. This brewery is not alone. Other German and even American brewers brag about how their beer adheres to the 1516 Bavarian Reinheitsgebot, which originally limited beer’s ingredients to water, barley, and hops.
The pride in this law is strange—in 2013 the German Brewers Association tried to get UNESCO to designate it an intangible cultural heritage and its five hundredth “anniversary”1 in 2016 was widely celebrated and written about. The law was very restrictive—so much so that exceptions had to be made so that some drinks, such as wheat beers, could continue to be produced. Today, of course, most beer is bittered with hops, and the plant is integral to beer’s identity in the United States and Europe, if not the world.
Few know that beer used to be flavored and preserved with a variety of different herbs (bog myrtle and wild rosemary especially), resins, fruit, and animal products. The additives varied widely across northwestern Europe, but the mixture of ingredients, whatever it may have contained, was called gruit. Gruited beer was called ale in England and ael in the Low Countries—Holland, Flanders, Brabant, and Liège—while hopped beer was called beer (bier), but today people broadly refer to unhopped beer as gruit.
There is a small minority in the world of homebrewing and craft beer who are interested in making gruit. They have brought attention to its history, and in doing so they usually blame the Reinheitsgebot for the near-total extinction of the gruit tradition. In these histories, earlier laws related to gruit are mentioned, but usually vaguely and fleetingly.
The reality is that, hopped or unhopped, beer’s past is riddled with protectionist restrictions that hindered creativity and innovation for the benefit of sovereign authorities. Taking a look at this regulatory past takes the spotlight off hops and the Reinheitsgebot in particular, revealing government privileges and control in general as the haunting issue.
It’s true that in the Middle Ages brewing was decentralized and resulted in a great plurality of beers. Brewing was part of running a household, and women made beer for their families; talented brewers also sold beer out of their homes. Monasteries, manors, and other estates also produced their own beer. But this decentralization does not mean that there was freedom in brewing. The many local authorities of the Middle Ages asserted something called gruitrecht, the right to sell a gruit mixture exclusively in the area they controlled. Gruitrecht’s origins lie in the centralization that took place under the Holy Roman Empire, where it surfaced as an imperial right. As the eminent medievalist Richard W. Unger explains, “In the Latin Christian empire created by Charlemagne [c. 747–814], the ruler was able to establish a royal right to power over unexploited lands and it was uncultivated land from which bog myrtle [the most prominent herb in gruit] came.”2
Charlemagne’s successors assumed the gruitrecht imperial monopoly, but rather than keep it to themselves, they dispersed it across the land, with crony grants to bishops, monasteries, towns, and counts, dukes, and other elite laymen between roughly 950 and 1250. These benefactors, who could keep the proceeds of the gruit sales (gruitgeld) then made gruitrecht a hereditary right.3
This de facto tax on beer was hard to avoid. In some places, people had to bring their malted grain to a gruithouse (gruithuis or gruthuse, where the mixture was made and sold), where the gruiter (a tax farmer) would inspect it and then mix the prescribed amount of gruit into it. In other places, brewers just purchased the mixture, which was sold in proportion to how much brew was being made. Sometimes the gruit recipe was kept a secret or was otherwise disbursed such that it was difficult to replicate surreptitiously.4 And if beer was brewed with something else, word could get out and result in punishment.
Over the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, urban governments gradually bought up the gruitrechten, seeing this right as a potentially large moneymaker and a source of authority.5 Moving to a different jurisdiction was not always much of an option either, as by 1300, gruit taxes “were a common feature of life in towns throughout the Netherlands as well as up the Rhine Valley.”6
The gruitrecht was no small thing. Forcing people to use an official gruit in their beer that could only be bought from the gruiter, as opposed to allowing them to freely gather and mix their own components, gave the gruitrecht holders control over the character of their region’s beer (in addition to siphoning money from locals and raising the cost of brewing). All the beer made in an area would be more similar than might otherwise have been the case. After all, the official gruit was the only legal additive and therefore a common denominator, as, of course, was the amount used in a batch, which determined how much had to be purchased and thus the tax. In places where the grain had to be inspected, moreover, the grain bill (the mix of grains making up the beer’s sweet base [wort], which could be varying combinations of barley, wheat, rye, oats, and other cereals) and the amount of grain in the recipe were also being controlled by extension (if other laws did not do this already). The tax on gruit very slowly became an excise tax on beer, however, and by 1400 brewers in many, but not all, towns in the Low Countries could control what went into their gruit.7
Although hops were used in brewing as early as the 800s, it was not until the thirteenth century that hopped beer began to give gruited beer a run for its money.8 Increasing urbanization and accumulated technical knowledge of brewing with hops combined to give rise to a market in hopped beer for export in Hanseatic cities in what is now northern Germany, particularly Hamburg.9 Hopped beer was very different from gruit—much less sweet and thinner, because it didn’t need to have such a high alcohol content to be safe to drink.10 It t
Article from Mises Wire