The Spy Who Saved the Reinheitsgebot
Walter Scheurle is one of my favorite people. He and I became acquainted some 25 years ago when he was technical director (brew master) of brewing operations at the old Blitz-Weinhard brewery. That establishment is just now being razed to make way for a shopping mall (not completely razed, because they are going to save the old brew house for the ladies room or some such).
I found him to be a good source of information on beer and brewing early in my career of writing about that beverage. He has always been informative and helpful.
Scheurle moved on to work for Iron City Brewing in Pittsburgh. There he came to brew Jim Koch’s Samuel Adams Boston Lager in 1985 on contract from Koch. Samuel Adams was (and is) the well-made American lager that made Boston Brewing the most successful contract brewer in America.
In 1987, Koch took his beer to then West Germany to have it contract brewed under Reinheitsgebot law at Nagold, Baden-Wurttemberg, near the famous Black Forest. The Reinheitsgebot is the Bavarian Purity law of 1516 that originally limited beer to only three ingredients: malt (malted barley or wheat), hops and water. Chemical additives, sugar, rice, corn, unmalted barley, oats or wheat are verboten. Yeast was added to the permissible list in 1847, but that’s the limit under the purity law.
About 1988, when the European Union ruled that Germany must allow non-purity-law beers into the country, all German brewers declared that they would always brew by the Reinheitsgebot.
In 1987, however, some German brewers did not adhere to the Reinheitsgebot with beers they sent overseas. One such brewer was Beck in Bremen, whose beer exports to the United States were alleged to include starch adjuncts. The reader should understand that this was not against German law, as a brewer could do whatever he wanted with beer exported from Germany.
In 1990, Walter Scheurle returned to Blitz to brew Sam Adams here in Portland, OR, where I live. He called me to meet with him at the Rock Creek Tavern near Hillsboro, 25 miles west of Portland. I hadn’t seen him in some time, so we sat talking at the front bar. We were sharing the new Sam Adams brewed in the old (but then still operational) Blitz-Weinhard plant in Portland.
I thought we were just going to sample some of that new locally brewed beer. Indeed that is what we did, but along the way, he told me a fascinating story of industrial espionage.
Scheurle’s boss at Samuel Adams was Jim Koch, an MBA from Harvard, who was widely criticized at that time for his sometimes outlandish marketing tactics. Van Munching, the American importer of the popular Dutch import, Heineken, called his tactics “classless.”
The Heineken gripe springs from Samuel Adams’s entry into Germany after conforming to the ancient Bavarian Reinheitsgebot purity law. At that time, Koch launched an American advertising campaign proclaiming, “When we asked for Europe’s tired and poor, we didn’t mean their beer.”
He was referring to the fact that Beck’s, St. Pauli Girl, and Heineken were brewed with adjuncts (cereal grains other than barley malt). These were illegal to be sold in West Germany at that time. Heineken, of course, has never claimed Reinheitsgebot purity, but Beck had an image to defend and was not inclined to allow such an insult to pass. Beck sued Koch.
That’s how Walter Scheurle became a spy.
Scheurle told me that Joe Owades, a San Francisco based beer consultant and major designer of the Samuel Adams beer, was convinced that Beck did indeed use adjuncts in its own export beer as well as in the St. Pauli Girl brands (brewed exclusively for export).
If you ever met Walter, you’d agree that he doesn’t look at all like a spy. He looks, acts and talks like the German-born brew master he is; but he traveled to Bremen, 007-style, armed not with an Uzi but with a microscope.
Scheurle’s task was to get proof that Beck actually did use brewing adjuncts. He said Owades had told him to look above the brew kettle for a telltale pipe through which corn syrup could be pumped directly to the beer wort during its long boil with hops. Scheurle traveled under his real name and listed his occupation as brew master, Pittsburgh Brewing, USA, his actual job at the time. He entered past three high-level security checks, each with a guard and video camera, and each requiring a show of ID. It was a process, Scheurle said, “like escaping from a German concentration camp,” only he was going in, not out.
Once in the main sanctuary, Scheurle signed on for a brewery tour with some other US technical people. The tour guide was not suspicious, but he resisted Scheurle’s efforts to enter another brew house that could be seen across the way. Eventually, the guide relented, and the group visited that brew house where, sure enough, Scheurle said, he saw the pipe just behind the main vent stack on the brew kettle.
On leaving the brewery, Scheurle was convinced he was on the right track. He lingered about, crouching and keeping low to evade the surveillance cameras. He hid behind a tree, where he attempted to observe the brewing process through an open window. He told me he was able to confirm the alleged violation of German purity law.
Then he had a stroke of fortune: as he exited the premises, he found himself driving alongside a truck loaded with treber, or spent grains. After crossing the bridge back to Bremen, he followed the truck and obtained a handful of the treber; which he stuffed damp into his suit pocket. He hurried back to his hotel room, and there, under the microscope, he found the telltale evidence of starch granules.
Beck not only dropped the suit but also changed its wicked ways by conforming to the Reinheitsgebot purity law. Another victory for the free world!
Fred Eckhardt lives, writes and drinks beer in Portland, OR. He is the author of Essentials of Beer Style and Saké (USA).