Momentous occasions in history are often associated with entire years: 1492 Columbus crossed the Atlantic, 1776 Declaration of Independence, 1415 Agincourt, 1969 Moon Landing, 1903 First Flight. In the history of brewing we can also cite 1516. This was the year Bavaria passed its famous Reinheitsgebot Purity Law. It stipulates that brewers may only use malted barley, hops, and water in the brewing process. Once yeast was “discovered” it was added retroactively. Beer was literally liquid bread, barley was listed specifically to leave wheat and rye to bakers, and it was essential that this foodstuff be protected. While not technically the oldest consumer safety law on record – that award most likely goes to the Romans – it has been followed, more or less, for over 400 years.
Operating what began as a traditional Bavarian Brewery, it was definitely our guiding principle from day one and we haven’t varied much from the original ordinance. A few years after we opened the Weeping Radish, Uli came across a list of ingredients, additives, flavorings, and other chemicals found in domestic, mass produced beers. To hear him tell the tale, the list was given to him in a shadowy parking lot by a man in a fedora and dark suit, never to be shared with the public. So naturally Uli blew it up, framed it, and put it on the wall next to a list of our four ingredients. Dramatic origin stories aside, that list was a striking reminder of what made our beers, and microbrews in general, unique. Let the craftsman and real ingredients do their jobs and the benefits will speak for themselves.
But we didn’t just open a brewery, law decreed it come with a full size restaurant. It was very difficult to stare at that list of chemicals in beer every day and not make the connection between the beer we refused to serve in our pub and the food that we did serve. In those dim pre-internet days, Uli called a friend in Germany and placed an ad in a Bavarian butcher’s magazine. He was looking for a master butcher with an interest in expanding his operations across the Atlantic and making all natural sausages. A brave man answered the advertisement and came over with equipment and recipes to help us get started. A fifth generation master butcher, even Gunther Kühle was surprised by what Uli was asking. Sausages would be identifiable by farm of origin and additives like MSG, surprisingly common in Germany and the rest of Europe, were verboten. Uli was after Reinheitsgebot sausages and charcuterie. And we got it.
However, there is no simple purity law for food. No Reinheitsgebot to keep butchers in line. Instead there is a USDA codebook with over a thousand pages of rules, regulations, appendices, guidelines, and updates. Yet in all of that incomprehensible jargon the word “quality” does not appear at all. Your average butcher’s shop won’t have to worry about most of these requirements, but because of the services we offer we are exposed to the full force of the USDA Food Safety Inspection Service and their Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) plans. We not only sell and serve value added products in our restaurant and other local establishments, but we also make them for small farms. They bring us either whole animals or cuts of meat they don’t have a market for and we turn them into sausages and charcuterie that they in turn can sell in their local markets. This service has helped many small producers maximize profits from their animals, growing and sustaining their family farms. However providing it is a daily struggle. Our one room butchery is forced to comply with the same FSIS regulations as Smithfield Foods, a massive international corporation with thousands of employees. There is at least one inspector at our butchery every day for anywhere from 5 minutes to 8 hours. Imagine driving across the country with a policeman in the passenger seat ticketing you for any and all violations – that’s pretty much what we’re dealing with. Hours have been spent re-cleaning a shining stainless steel table because the inspector felt a “residue,” product has been condemned for lack of initials on a pre-op cleaning chart, and we were investigated as a threat to national security for using the phrase “cat amongst the pigeons” in an email to inspection personnel.
There are dozens of butcher’s shops opening up across the state and the parallels to the micro-brewing boom are obvious. Uli needed CIA clearance to open a brewery in 1986 and hosted ATF agents on a near constant basis for years. Now you can get a brewery license online and we’ve never seen an ATF agent in Currituck. As more customers demand local meat products, more shops will open to cater to them. The size appropriate inspection that developed in the beer industry is the only way to effectively provide safe food to consumers in the food industry as well. Until that happens, we’ll just stick with the original nickname for the HACCP system: Have a Cup of Coffee and Pray!