Wednesday, May 17, 2023

The Price of Reinheitsgebot

Anyone with even the most cursory interest in German beer knows about Reinheitsgebot, the famed Bavarian "Beer Purity" law enacted in 1516 that defined the ingredients allowed in Bavarian beer as "barley, hops, and water", with yeast being added later. It is, however, not the brewing aspects of this law that I have been pondering lately, rather it is this bit:

"the following rules apply to the sale of beer: From Michaelmas to Georgi, the price for one Mass or one Kopf, is not to exceed one Pfennig Munich value, and from Georgi to Michaelmas, the Mass shall not be sold for more than two Pfennig of the same value, the Kopf not more than three Heller. If this not be adhered to, the punishment stated below shall be administered. Should any person brew, or otherwise have, other beer than March beer, it is not to be sold any higher than one Pfennig per Mass."

and further

"Should, however, an innkeeper in the country, city or market-towns buy two or three pails of beer (containing 60 Mass) and sell it again to the common peasantry, he alone shall be permitted to charge one Heller more for the Mass or the Kopf, than mentioned above."

First some background, Michaelmas is celebrated on September 29th in the western Christian tradition, and "Georgi" refers to Saint George's Day, which is April 23rd. A "mass" in this context is slight more than the modern litre, while the "kopf" is a bowl type vessel that is just a bit smaller in volume than the mass. So far so easy, right? Money, there is nothing new under the sun, complicates everything. The law refers to Pfennigs and Hellers, and there were 2 Hellers to a Pfennig, and that's about all I can say for sure given the weird and wonderful world of Central European currency in the 16th century and it's thalers, florins, guldens, and schillings. 

Officially though, just a few years after Reinheitsgebot was decreed, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V declared that a Thaler (named for Bohemian town Joachimsthal, modern day Jachymov) consisted of 24 Groshen, 288 Pfennige, and 576 Heller. However, this being Central Europe it ain't that easy, because some areas used the Gulden as their top level currency, which consisted of 60 Kreuzer, 240 Pfennige, and 480 Heller. From what I can ascertain, Bavaria used the Gulden side of the equation, but just for fun also had coins called Thalers. Yeah, Central Europe - regardless of subject if anyone thinks understanding the lands that once made up the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation is simple and neat, they are idiots.

Anyway...1516 and the Duke of Bavaria has decreed the price of a litre of beer is a single Pfennig in the dark and dreary winter months, and two Pfennigs in the busy summer season of sowing and harvesting etc. According to Ernest Bax, writing in "German Culture: Past and Present", published in 1915, a day labourer could earn up to 18 Pfennige a day without keep or 12 with, assuming a 6 day work week, our agricultural labourer could pocket between 72 and 108 Pfennige a week. According to Bax, a Pfennig would buy you a pound of sausage, and 2 Pfennige a pound of the best beef. All this got me thinking, how would modern beer prices stack up against Reinheitsgebot?

It is difficult to do a like for like comparison with prices from 500 years ago to today, and of course the market place is wildly different, but one thing I find particularly interesting with Reinheitsgebot is not just the ingredient defining, or even the price setting, but it also defined how much profit a retailer could make from selling beer to the general public:

"he alone shall be permitted to charge one Heller more for the Mass or the Kopf".

As such, in the summer months an innkeeper's markup would be 25%, while in the winter months it was 50% for a Mass and 33% for a Kopf. 

It's interesting to think about the role of beer in wider society, and why regulations are written the way they are. Reinheitsgebot makes beer cheaper in the dark miserable months of winter, which is also the time in a pre-industrial revolution world when there is less work to be had. The harvest has been gathered and the transient labourers have moved on to some other endeavour. When the farming world comes back to life the prices go up, after all you don't want your workforce getting merry on cheap beer when there is work to be done.

While direct comparisons are difficult, and perhaps even futile, it is interesting that the average price of beer, it would seem, in my part of Virginia is $7 for a 16oz pint. According to ZipRecruiter the average wages for a day labourer in Virginia would be $130.88 per day. In terms of purchasing power, a Bavarian day labourer without keep, if he spent a whole day's wage on beer could buy 18 litres of beer, or 38 16oz pints, while our modern labourer could purchase just shy of 19, basically half as much.

Perhaps we need a Reinheitgebot re-issue for the 21st Century?

Wednesday, May 3, 2023

A Definitive Thing

This reference will definitely give my age of my favourite films as a kid was the Jim Henson classic, "The Dark Crystal". I also loved the Netflix prequel "Age of Resistance" and was heartbroken when the philistines in Scotts Valley cancelled it after a single season. I may have mentioned this before, but the mother of a friend was involved in the costume design of the original film, but that is irrelevant here.

If you haven't seen the film, then please do so, it is as I say an absolute classic, the basic premise is that in breaking the Crystal of Truth the UrSkeks split into two distinct races, the Skeksis and the UrRu, and it is at this point that using the Dark Crystal as my analogy of the beer world completely falls to pieces, like a Garthim at the end of the film - but heck, no analogy is perfect.

This post really has nothing to do with The Dark Crystal other than the fact that the existence of two distinct species where previously there was one came to mind as I mulled over the question "what is craft beer?"

Now, I have no interest in rehashing arguments about whatever small and independent means these days or whether certain business models are more "craft" than others, or even if ownership structures of the businesses making our favourite tipple have any real impact on the taste of the brew. It is very common though to hear the refrain, or at least some variant on it, "it's what's in the bottle that counts", and I think that phrase gets to the very core of how I have been feeling about the beer world for quite some time now.

I feel as though there is something of a parting of the ways in the offing between what I have started labelling in my own head "craft" beer versus "artisanal" beer. I am perfectly ok with the fact that "craft" and "artisanal" are largely synonymous, and there is an element of trying to define how many angels can dance on the head of a pin here, but I feel there is starting to be a divergence in perception, at least in my head, between "craft beer" and "artisanal beer".

When I think about what makes a beer "craft", my perception is broadly something that is distinctly "modern" - whether that be in the style, ingredients being used, the focus on being innovative, and using lots of what I would term non-standard ingredients, such as fruit syrups, breakfast cereals, sweets, and the like. In contrast, as I consider the concept of an "artisanal" beer my perception is one of being "old-fashioned" or traditional, again in terms of style, ingredients, and process. Of course there is a wealth of overlap between the two camps, after all it is a very rare brewery that can survive in the modern world by making a single beer.

I am perfectly happy to own the possibility that this mindset is purely a VelkyAl thing, and what is happening as I come to the latter stages of my 5th decade on earth is that I am not interested in chasing after whales any more. I actually have very little interest in trying every brewery in a 30 mile radius of my house, which is just as well as I haven't and I doubt I will ever bother. Even at the breweries I frequent on a regular basis there is often a choice between beers that I would label "craft" and those I would consider "artisanal", so this isn't a binary thing of "modern" bad, "traditional" good - traditions by definition change as they handed down through the generations.

Perhaps we should just give up on the adjectival epithets altogether and just drink beer that we like, regardless of how, who, and why it was made?

Homebrew - Cheaper than the Pub?

The price of beer has been on my mind a fair bit lately. At the weekend I kicked my first keg of homebrew for the 2024, a 5.1% amber kellerb...