German beer outlaw

Brewer who adds sugar to schwarzbier threatened with fine

July 12, 2004 - A 67-year-old beer outlaw is taking on German's famed five-century-old beer purity law, the Reinheitsgebot. The law has threatened $25,000 fine for daring to label what he brews as "beer" because he adds sugar syrup to his product.


"It's infringing on the creativity of small brewers," said Helmut Fritsche, who brews in Neuzelle near the Polish border.

"It's like taking a cup of tea, or coffee, and adding milk or sugar to it," Fritsche said. "Some people drink it black, and some people take it white - it's a small difference in taste."

Fritsche's battle with the government goes back to 1993, shortly after he bought the formerly state-run brewery from the government agency disposing of the assets of communist East Germany after reunification in 1990. The brewery had been making a dark beer with added sugar syrup - allowed under East Germany's more permissive brewing laws - like many other breweries in the region.

In Germany's beer laws, only malted grain, hops, yeast and water are permitted. The modern laws incorporate the original Reinheitsgebot, first set down in Bavaria in 1516. Adding anything else is not allowed.

The law allows exceptions for "special beers," however, so Fritsche applied to the local authorities in the state of Brandenburg, arguing he was continuing a regional brewing tradition. He was turned down repeatedly, and eventually took it to court. His suit is now before the country's top administrative court.

In the meantime, Fritsche finessed the labeling on his dark brown Schwarzer Abt, or Black Abbot, brew, which he calls a Schwarzbier. The original label didn't call it beer, reading "A Specialty Made From Schwarzbier, With Invert Sugar Syrup Added Afterward." Last year, he went a little farther - and changed the labels to read simply, "Schwarzbier."

That led to a cease-and-desist order last month from food safety officials in Beeskow, the local government center.

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