On April 23 of the next year, the existence of the German purity law for beer records its 500th anniversary (RITTMANN, 2015). Reason enough to take a closer look at it. The purity law is enshrined in German legislation and contains, at least for lager-beers such as Pils, Export or Bockbeer, strict requirements concerning the brewing process and ingredients. Only the four raw materials water, barley, hops and yeast are allowed to be used in the production of these types of beer, additives are completely forbidden. Taking into account the massive advertising campaigns around the German purity law, not only concerning the 500th anniversary, but also in everyday media, the questions arise, how this law, considering today’s technology improvements throughout the world, can still be an indicator for superior quality? And how can the quality of a beer be defined after all? Looking for answers to these questions finally leads us to the following thesis:
The German beer purity law is nowadays rather a clever marketing tool, than a sign of quality.
By using the slogan "brewed according to the German purity law”, German breweries gain a unique selling point, especially in international markets, which they use excessively to commercialize their products.
Laws, especially in the food and beverage industry, exist to protect the consumer (HANDELSKAMMER HAMBURG, 2015). But then, in context to the purity law for beer, the question arises, of what exactly the German consumer is being protected by this law? Of a rice beer, like the worldwide well known Chinese Tsingtao (HUFSCHLAG, 2012)? Or of a Spanish San Miguel, produced with corn and drunken probably by the majority of Germans spending their holidays in Spain? The quality of a beer arises from two main factors: On the one hand, ingredients and the purity of its raw materials, in order to get a product free from harmful substances, play an important role. And on the other hand, taste and appearance of the beer are decisive, especially for the consumers (LOEBBERT ET AL., 2013). Thus, in order to be able to produce a high-quality beer, the quality of the raw materials is crucial. But whether this is barley, rice, corn, or even various fruits, makes no difference. There are countless beer creations on international markets that do not comply with the German purity law, but still have a high quality. For what reason should raw materials such as rice or corn, worldwide considered healthy foods and serving for huge parts of the world’s population as staple foods, lead to a reduced degree of quality, when processed in the beer production (GUDERMANN, 2015)? It is paradoxical, that it is, according to the purity law, not allowed to produce a beer with fruits, whereas a so called "Radler”, containing artificial flavors, is justifiable and compatible with the law.
The K&A Brand Research Agency has conducted a study concerning the awareness and the appreciation of the German purity law for beer within the German population. The research has revealed, that, for a large part of the population, the attribute "brewed according to the German purity law”, is highly relevant for their purchase decision. However, another finding was, that reasons for the origin and the formation of the purity law in 1516 are widely unknown (K&A BRAND RESEARCH AG, 2015). The excellent reputation of the law has been achieved primarily through immense marketing campaigns by German breweries and unions throughout the years. Virtually every major German brewery uses the purity law for advertising purposes on their websites and especially on the bottles themselves (WARSTEINER BRAUEREI HAUS CRAMER KG, 2015). The fact that the slogan "brewed according to the German purity law” can even be encountered on bottles of wheat beer, demonstrates how the breweries take advantage of the lack of knowledge of consumers. The original law of 1516 banned the production of wheat beer to preserve the wheat for bread making, because already one single bad harvest could cause a famine. Accordingly, the advertising slogan "brewed according to the German purity law” on wheat beer bottles, is simply wrong (BAYRISCHER BRAUERBUND, 2015). But since wheat beer is very popular in Germany and advertisements with the purity law have positive influences on purchase behaviors, this is overlooked generously.
The USP "brewed according to the German purity law” can be marketed very well not only in Germany. Also internationally, German beer enjoys a high reputation. About 16% of the beer produced in Germany is exported (DUETTMANN, 2015), whereas the share of international beers in the German beer market is relatively low with only 2% (SCHAEFER, 2006). One reason for this imbalanced export-import profile might be the highly successful advertising and marketing campaigns done by German breweries. There is a great interest in obtaining the purity law in the German legislation and this is primarily achieved by lobbying activities of the German Brewery Union, the biggest brewery association in Germany. The main purpose or objective of this union is to represent the interests of German brewers and to transfer their concerns to political leaders to sustain both the legal and social frameworks of their industry. Another objective of the union, which is communicated publicly, is to preserve or expand their economic share at both national and international level (DEUTSCHER BRAUER-BUND E.V., 2014). A legally embedding of the purity law assures the highest possible security that the law will not be abolished in the near future.
That the German purity law is not necessarily a synonym for purity, can also be observed when taking a more detailed look on the production process. Whoever thinks, that German beer is produced with natural ingredients, such as hops that everyone can grow in his garden, can be proven wrong. Large breweries mostly use hops extracts, a product generated by means of solvents, in order to produce their beer (NARZISS & BACK, 2009). Even the brewing water is, before being used in the beer production, adjusted to its desired characteristics with the help of certain chemicals (DEUTSCHER BRAUER-BUND E.V., 2014). A nice loophole, often exploited by German breweries, is the use of processing aid substances, which do not have to be declared on the list of ingredients (MEMMLER, 2010). The legislation requires, that these processing aid substances have to be removed from the finished product only down to technically unavoidable shares. Generally, German beer is an industrial product that is not necessarily brewed with natural ingredients and not necessarily free from small amounts of residues (MEMMLER, 2010). Many more than only the four basic raw materials are used in beer production or in processing of these raw materials themselves. They simply do not have to be declared.
The German beer purity law provides the excellent opportunity to distinguish German breweries from their international competitors. This is utilized with great success as a high number of consumers have stated the relevance of this law concerning their buying decision. But after having examined the purity law in detail, it becomes obvious, that it is not more than a clever marketing instrument. In any case, the German purity law is not an indicator for superior quality, since it is also easily possible to brew a high quality beer that does not comply with the German way of doing it. The purity law is rather preventing a higher variety of beers in the German market, than protecting the consumer from dangerous foods. There is a growing number of people calling for abolishing the purity law or at least its status as legally binding, but as along as German Brewery Unions continue their lobbying activities and politics is swayed by that, German breweries will retain their favorite promotional tool.