By Jeff Maisey
April 23 marks the 500th anniversary of the Reinheitsgebot, famously known as the German Purity Law regulating the ingredients used in the production of beer. Those ingredients, of course, are water, barley and hops.
The original purpose was to prevent price competition between bakers and ensure the affordability of bread – a staple in Europe for centuries.
Even with the restriction of brewing ingredients, there are many popular German beer styles including hefeweisen (Bavarian wheat beer), bock (strong lager), Maibock, Kolsch (Cologne region pale ale), pils (pilsner), altbier (old beer), gose (Leipzig style), Oktoberfest, rauchbier (smoked) and dunkleweisse (dark wheat).
I recently talked with two people who know a lot about German beer: Kevin Osfolk and Simon Hagen. Kevin and his family own and operate the Bier Garden in Portsmouth. The family-style restaurant is known for its extensive European catalog of beers.
Simon is a Lieutenant Colonel from the German Air Force who is stationed in Norfolk as part of NATO’s Allied Command Transformation headquarters. He also serves on the advisory committee to Norfolk NATO Festival on the topic of beer. It’s worth noting this year’s Norfolk NATO Fest (Saturday, April 23) will exclusively serve beer from Germany in commemoration of the Reinheitsgebot’s 500th. German military personnel will serving the beer. Afterwards, a NATO Fest after party will feature German beer at Cogans North in Norfolk begins at 4:30 PM.
Is there a sense of national pride regarding the Reinheitsgebot?
Kevin Osfolk: Absolutely. They do take a lot of pride in their beer. I know that recently in Germany some people in the brewing industry and politicians were saying it’s restricting them from expanding into other styles like things that are popular in Belgium and the US.
I taste beers from all over the world. I can see when they’re trying to hide the flaws with hops or this or that. German beer has proven itself. I’ve never had a German beer where I’ve said this is awful.
Simon Hagen: I wouldn’t say that the Reinheitsgebot is a matter of national pride, at least not for the entire population. We Germans have been living with the Reinheitsgebot for 500 years now. For most of us, the Reinheitsgebot is a fact of life. However, especially in the traditional German Beer regions, there is pride for the local style of beer, of course brewed according to the Reinheitsgebot. We are proud of our beer culture and the history of beer brewing in Germany.
What are some of your favorite German beers?
Simon Hagen: Due to my career as a soldier, I had the chance to get to know a lot of areas in Germany together with its local beer. I like Hefeweizen or Helles (Lager Style) when I am back in Bavaria. I always will have a Koelsch in Cologne or will have a dark lager (Schwarzbier) when I travel trough eastern Germany. But my favorite beer right now is Flensburger Pilsner, a very fresh Pilsner with a great hops aroma. The brewery is located in Flensburg, Germany, close to the Danish border up north. Even my motorcycle license plate shows FLENS, the short form of Flensburger.
Kevin Osfolk: I love bock beers, particularly dopplebock beers. They have a big, beefy lager taste. No matter what you’re doing; no matter what you’re eating or if you’re just relaxing and watching TV you can’t beat a nice Munich Helles. My dad loves altbiers. There aren’t many German beers I don’t like.
Simon, Europeans culture allows people to drink beer at an earlier age than here in America. Do you recall your first beer?
Simon Hagen: Hmm. That is a tough question. I grew up in Northeastern Bavaria in a region called “Oberfranken” or upper Frankonia. The nickname of that region is “Bierfranken” or beer Frankonia. Almost every town has its own brewery. In comparison, Germany has almost 1,400 breweries, with almost half of them are located in Bavaria. 160 Breweries alone are located in upper Frankonia, with just 1 million people living there. Just imagine 160 Breweries in the Hampton Roads area. So I got in touch with beer very early. As young kids we were allowed to try some beer every now and then from our parents, especially during our local Oktoberfest style festivities. I guess I bought my first beer at my home town Oktoberfest at the age of 15 (short before my 16th birthday which is the legal age for drinking beer in Germany. Of course it was a local beer – Wohn Pilsner.
Kevin, what are some of the biggest selling German beers at the Bier Garden?
Kevin Osfolk: Everybody knows us for Aventinus. That’s obviously always been a big one. And also Celebrator, a nice doppelbock from Ayinger, my favorite brewery period. Augustiner Edelstoff is a Munich golden. Ayinger Altbairisch Dunkel is a good one.
Simon, are German soldiers provided a daily ration of beer?
Simon Hagen: Beer is part of our German culture, therefore German soldiers are allowed to have two beers a day (0.5 liter each) when deployed to an operation – of course only after you have finished your duties. But this is not provided for free, we are allowed to buy two beers a day. Back at home, we have almost the same rules like the US military. No alcohol is allowed on duty, but you are free to drink beer after work.
Kevin, we are having a commemorative Kellerbier called 1516 from Weihenstephaner. What can you tell us about this malty, 5.6ABV beer?
Kevin Osfolk: It’s actually a brand new beer brewed to celebrate the 500 years. Weihenstephaner is the oldest operating brewery in the world. It is an amber beer. It has a very medium body. Honestly, it reminds me of an Oktoberfest.
Simon, what is the future of beer making in Germany look like?
Simon Hagen: I guess the answer to that question is, that the Reinheitsgebot wasn’t and isn’t set in stone. The Reinheitsgebot was adjusted several times in order to accommodate new findings in the brewing process, to add new ingredients like yeast or to adapt to regional specifications. And this adaptation was done without jeopardizing the basic rule of the Reinheitsgebot: use of selected natural ingredients without the use of preservatives.
Kevin, any additional thoughts on the Reinheitsgebot anniversary?
Kevin Osfolk: It’s wonderful to celebrate it. It’s neat to think of the history of that law. It was so much more than just beer. It was about keeping out competition between the bakers and the brewers while keeping prices down. There’s more to it than just the ingredients going into the beer.