UNESCO and the Reinheitsgebot

"Heritage is our legacy from the past, what we live with today, and what we pass on to future generations. Our cultural and natural heritage are both irreplaceable sources of life and inspiration."

Wow. That is one of the most powerful quotes I have ever read depicting the sheer importance and enduring value of "heritage." It is a direct quote from the official website of UNESCO, a specialized agency of the United Nations. "UNESCO" stands for United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. It is known as the "intellectual" agency of the UN. It is dedicated to developing global education strategies for the 21st century, adhering to scientific objectives for a sustainable future, and fostering intercultural understanding through the protection of... heritage! According to its website, UNESCO is keenly aware that "heritage" constitutes a source of identity and cohesion for communities disrupted by "bewildering change." To this end, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee catalogues a "World Heritage List" of places and items that meet their identification and protection criteria. They quarterly publish World Heritage, the official UNESCO publication from the World Heritage Centre, featuring in-depth articles on cultural and natural World Heritage Sites. It is produced in English, French, and Spanish. They even provide a 138-page manual entitled: Preparing World Heritage Nominations for the purpose of assisting those who are interested in or actually involved in the process of nominating an important place or cultural aspect to be considered one of their heritage treasures.

So...what does this have to do with beer? A whole lot, if you take into consideration the remarkable heritage of beer. And the German Brewers Association is doing just that. In 2013, they began the exhaustive process of studying and following the UNESCO guidelines to formally nominate the original text of the Reinheitsgebot to be considered a cultural treasure by UNESCO. They want the Reinheitsgebot included on UNESCO's World Heritage List.

Reinheitsgebot” is, of course, commonly known as the “Bavarian Purity Law.” Written in 1516, it mandates that only water, barley, and hops can be used to brew German beer. Yeast was added to the list of ingredients when scientists discovered yeast's fermenting contributions centuries later. Reinheitsgebot has been synonymous with the pure, outstanding, high-quality German beer that the world has grown to love and expect. Thousands upon thousands of German and even American craft brewers see tremendous value by claiming to abide by its centuries-old mandates. It is popular with the general beer-drinking public. Translations of its original text are everywhere. And there are hundreds of images of it available...even sold on t-shirts!!

To be included on UNESCO's World Heritage List, the nominee must be of “Outstanding Universal Value” by meeting one or more of ten selection criteria. After a bit of study, it appears to me that the Reinheitsgebot meets UNESCO's criteria #3, that the nominee must “bear a unique...exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared.”

The attempt to make the Reinheitsgebot a UNESCO Cultural Treasure is not without its critics. Some contend that the law only ensured that crops necessary to make bread could not be used on brewing beer. Others claim that the purity law lingers from a long-bygone era and that Germany would be free to create a wider variety of more diverse beers better able to compete in the world beer market without adhering to its ongoing constraints.

I first learned about this "World Heritage List" effort through a quarterly newsletter that my wife and I receive. We are members of the Palatines to America German Genealogy Society, Ohio chapter. The April 2015 edition of their newsletter, Palatine Heritage, included a small piece entitled: “German Brewers Push for UNESCO Status of 500th Anniversary of Bavarian Purity Law.” It piqued my interest, and I spent some time researching it further and studying UNESCO's guidelines for inclusion.

As MBAA's Heritage Chair, I love the idea! The timing couldn't be better as 2016 marks the 500th anniversary of the Reinheitsgebot's writing and implementation. To me, the Reinheitsgebot's cultural public perception is firmly associated with the ongoing worldwide recognition that so many German beers have attained. Regardless of style, the list of German classics rolls off the educated tongue: Munich Helles... Marzen... Dunkel... Hefeweissen... Kolsch... Alt Bier... Berliner Weisse... Rauchbier... just to name a very few. The German Brewers Association's effort in attaining UNESCO World Heritage Status is commendable. It represents yet another example of Hands-On-Heritage, this time extending beyond international borders. If successful, it could certainly help to create more awareness of UNESCO's World Heritage Mission and its enduring recognition of heritage as an..."irreplaceable source of life and inspiration."