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Homebrewing, German Purity Laws And Yeasts Wild And Tame

Here's a quick tour through the history of homebrewing.

Three glasses of beer, bokeh

Photo: lindsey gee (Flickr)

Homebrewing beer is a lot safer than attempting to distill your own liquor -- and a lot more legal!

Nothing New About The Homebrew

Before the popularization of larger-scale craft brewing in the United States, one of the best ways to acquire beer that diverged from the mild pale ale style favored by macrobreweries was to brew yourself.

While homebrewing has recently enjoyed a rise in popularity, there has actually only been a relatively short period of time during which anything other than small-batch, locally-distinct beers were the norm. In the U.S., for instance, microbreweries flourished before prohibition, and it was only after repeal that large corporations began to dominate the market.

Reinheitsgebot

But long before the Teetotalers left their mark on the New World, one of the first enemies of regional beer variation was the so-called “German Beer Purity Law,” or Reinheitsgebot, which went into effect in Bavaria in 1516. This act restricted the ingredients permissible in beer to just malted barley, water and hops.

Beverages containing anything else could not legally be sold as beer. The law had a simple economic motivation: to avoid price competition over wheat between brewers and bakers, which would drive up the price of bread.

Bavaria agreed to participate in the 1871 unification of Germany only under the condition that the Reinheitsgebot apply to the entire country. As a result, pilsner-style beer rose to a dominance that it still maintains to a great degree today.

Yeasts Wild And Tame

Yeast was added as a permissible component of beer in the late nineteenth century. It had been omitted from the original Reinheitsgebot for a simple reason: Louis Pasteur had not yet discovered its role in fermentation.

Brewing yeast was originally transferred as a component of slurry from a previous batch or simply collected from the air. Wild yeasts are naturally occurring and vary from region to region, producing beers (and sourdough breads) with distinctive terroir. Nowadays, some homebrewers and craft breweries still make lambics and sour beers using wild yeasts, but most use commercial yeast, which takes some of the guesswork out of brewing.

Although innovative microbrewed beer is now widely available, many beer enthusiasts still turn to homebrewing as a way of learning about the science behind what they’re drinking and about the many variables that go into flavor. Homebrewing for private use is legal in nearly every state, and there are certainly no purity laws to contend with.

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Kira Bennett

Kira Bennett is a freelance editor. She experiments with cooking, canning and homebrewing.

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