Reinheitsgebot RIP?

I am currently finishing up a print article for All About Beer on the subject of Reinheitsgebot--which as many of you know, turns 500 next year. By one of those strange coincidences of the universe, Stone brewing yesterday released its first Berlin-brewed beer. I don't want to step on the thesis of my article, but all this did get me thinking. As I talk to German and German-American brewers about the legacy and significance of Reinheitsgebot in its native land, everyone seems to agree that something's gotta give.

There is a current of change running through the center of the beer industry that is not only changing the way beer is made (in small batches to be sold locally), but the kinds of beer (vivid flavors in place of blander, industrial ones). Germany has been somewhat immune to these forces, both because it already had a robust network of local, small-batch breweries and because Germans have long been proud of the quality and superiority of their beer--thanks largely to the marketing success of Reinheitsgebot. But it hasn't been entirely immune, and small breweries have been opening and making what other countries call "craft beer," often in styles not native to Germany. The introduction of Stone beer will only accelerate the process.

None of this spells the death-knell of Reinheitsgebot necessarily. I've spoken with brewers who feel that it's due for an upgrade for the 21st century. The notion of "purity" isn't impossible to police, but the definition may need tweaking; brewers aren't using henbane quite as much as they used to, and cherries and coriander seem fairly wholesome. There may be some wiggle room. In any case, I guess the upshot of all this is that at exactly the moment we're celebrating this wonderful, weird artifact from the early 16th century, there may be some hard discussions about how much longer it should be embedded in the German tax code.

No doubt we'll come around to this topic again soon enough--