Beer brewing began as early as 3500 – 3100 BCE, in Mesopotamia, now modern-day Iran, where people used fermented grains to produce a mildly alcoholic beverage, by a similar process to the one used today.
The history of German beer dates back to 800 BCE, where large numbers of beer jugs, still bearing traces of their amber nectar, were discovered in a tomb in Bavaria. To this day, Bavaria, in Southern Germany, is still the heartland of beer, home to a solid fifth of the nation’s 1300 breweries, and of course to the Bavarian capital, Munich. Every year since 1810, Munich has hosted the original Oktoberfest, the first beer festival and Volkfest (amusement fair) of its kind in the world, and an essential part of Bavarian culture.
In many parts of the word, particularly North America and outside Europe, the word beer is synonymous with any kind of pale lager. But that’s not even the tip of the iceberg – there are currently well over 7000 varieties of beer brewed in Germany. And Germans take their beer very seriously – it has to be excellent, and unadulterated. German beers still adhere to the Reinheitsgebot, the German beer purity law passed in the early 16th century, which specifies that beer may only contain water, malt, and hops. (This was before yeast was identified as the fermenting agent in beer – nowadays, although there’s still natural yeast on the grains used to brew it, it’s ok to add additive-free brewer’s yeast too).
Beer aficionados will find beers of every description in Germany. With lagers, ales, dark beers, pale beers and bocks, German beers cater to all palates. There’s one for every occasion, and for all seasons. So let’s take a look at the best of what German beer has to offer.
Beer Basics – A Breakdown of Germany’s Main Beers
Brewing for Beginners
There are basically two types of beer – lagers and ales. By the Middle Ages, beer brewing had become firmly established in Europe and was a part of everyday life. The beers of this period were ales, brewed at ambient temperature, from only water, barley (or occasionally wheat), and malt. Towards the 16th century, hops became a standard ingredient in brewing, and the resulting beverage became known as just beer. Not long after that, lager beer emerged. Lager was brewed in the colder months, in even colder cellars, initially so as to stave off the microorganisms that can spoil beer and make it undrinkable. As a result, a new, low temperature method of brewing was born, with slower fermentation, using different types of yeast.
So, while for many, lager is a beer pale in color and light in body, it actually describes beers brewed in the above manner. The cold environment makes fermentation slower, and causes the yeast to accumulate at the bottom of the barrel – hence lagers are also referred to as bottom-fermenting beers. In contrast, ales are fermented at higher temperatures, they mature more quickly, and the yeast gathers at the top – which makes them top-fermented beers. As a result of rapid fermentation, most ales are significantly stronger than lagers.
Germany’s Top Eight Kinds of Beer
Pilsner is the beer that conquered the world when German and Czech migrants introduced it to the UK and North America (where Bud and Miller’s are among its US incarnations). It subsequently found its way to the four corners of the world. It is by far the most widely drunk type of beer in Germany and across the world.
Authentic all-malt German Pilsner is crisp and dry, light and refreshing. It has a Czech cousin, which is spicier and more hoppy. Helles is basically the same beer, but brewed in Southern Germany in Bavarian style. It has a stronger malt flavor, and is sweeter as a result.
Märzen and Oktoberfest refer to the same beer, with Dunkel a slightly darker, close variation on a theme. When brewers in the Middle Ages realized beer stopped ‘going off’ so easily if brewed over the winter, it was decreed that beer could only be made between late September and March. Märzen, meaning March beer, was special, and the last one of the brewing season. Malt takes the limelight here, with the hops discreetly in the background.
Amber brown with toasty, nutty hints and touch of caramel, Märzen is crisp and mildly bitter. Dunkel is just slightly darker.
Both of these beers are ales, top-fermented local specialties of Düsseldorf and Köln (Cologne) respectively. Both balance the tastes of malt and hops well, with Albier a little darker and more malty, and Kölsch a tad paler and more hoppy.
Altbier is fermented at temperatures barely higher than lagers, which gives it time to embody a rich, bready flavor from the malt, while the hops come out slightly bitter and spicy. Kölsch is brewed at a slightly higher temperature, which gives it a mildly fruity taste. The hops are assertive, and give it a spicy touch, while the malt is less rich.
Weissbier – Kristall, Hefe and Dunkel
Wheat beers, are among Germany’s most famous ales, (though in fact the malt is half wheat and half barley). They are generally served in characteristic tall glasses. Kristall is a clear, filtered beer, with a crisp, refreshing taste. Hefeweizen, as the name – ‘yeast beer’ – indicates, is all about the yeast. The most common wheat beer, it is a cloudy southern German ale. The yeast lends it both taste and aroma – of spicy cloves, and a suggestion of banana. Dunkelbier is the darkest, with a roasted malt and caramelly flavor.
Berliner Weisse, Gose
Ask people to describe German beers in a single word, and few would say hip, or modish! Classy, traditional, pure, famous, delicious, unique and other words would be more likely candidates. But Berliner Weisse and Gose, two of Germany’s finest sour beers, are not only trendy, they’ve become favorites among craft brewers in the US and beyond.
Both these wheat beers draw their sourness from Lactobacillus, the same bacteria used to ferment yoghurt and sour cream, and which creates that tangy taste on the tongue. Berliner Weisse is tart and dry, the perfect beer for warm, summer evenings.
Gose has a sharp and spicy taste from two unusual ingredients, coriander and salt! It is mildly cloudy, and so refreshing just one is unlikely to be enough!
Rauchbier – meaning ‘smoke beer’, originates from the modest Bavarian town of Bamberg, and is admittedly not for everyone – but those who love this one-of-a-kind lager swear by it. Its powerful smoky aroma and flavor comes from the malt used to brew it being smoked over a beech wood fire. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Rauchbier is a great accompaniment to food, and especially meat dishes.
Schwarzbier – black beer – is the darkest German lager, almost as dark as Guinness but much lighter, dry and crisp. The malt taste is mellow, but solid, and nicely complements the bitter twist of the hops.
Here we have a class of beers that are malty and quite sweet – we also jump up a notch in alcohol content, as the tamest of Bock beers is around 6% ABV. Bocks range from a fairly light, chestnut-amber color, to darker, stronger brews like Doppelbock and Eisbock.
Traditional bock is very malty, with undertones of malted bread, that will give you around 7% alcohol’s worth of well-being. Maibock, or “spring bock” is slightly paler and lighter, with a little extra surface bitterness from the hops.
Doppelbock, or “double bock”, and Eisbock are beers not to be trifled with –the latter is anything from 9 to 14% ABV! This style of beer was created by monks in their abbey breweries, before Paulaner Brewery in Munich produced a doppelbock of reference that still defines the style
Strong, dark, rich, malty and sweet, some Dopplebocks even suggest chocolate or caramel flavors. Eisbocks are the heavyweights of this type of beer. They are cooled to below the freezing point of water, but not that of alcohol – the ice (composed only of water) is then discarded, leaving a seriously potent beer behind. Expect a similar experience to a Doppelbock, but more fruity, more intense, and more intoxicating!
This is all well and good, you may say, but how do I identify these beers from among the thousands in Germany’s repertoire? Well, the good news is, you may not need to. You really can’t go wrong with a German beer. If you drink out, look at what other people are drinking, or ask the bar tender what to go for. If you shop, look at the labels on the shelves. And with Germany’s stringent beer purity laws and quality control, wherever you go, whether you opt for a classic lager, a traditional ale, or a local craft brew, you won’t be disappointed.
And if you’re lucky enough to be in Germany in late September and early October, the Oktoberfest runs for a full 15 to 18 days and is the highlight of the year for many beer lovers. Featuring only local, Bavarian breweries – the most prestigious six – what better place for a crash course in German beer? Taste purpose-brewed beers from Augustiner, Munich’s oldest brewery founded in 1328, or offerings from the city’s youngest – Paulaner – with a history stretching back barely 400 years. And of course, there’s the range of beers from other sibling breweries.
One thing’s for sure, if you work up a thirst in Germany, you’ll find just the beer the doctor ordered close at hand!
If you’re planning a trip to Germany and would like to tour Bavaria, the heartland of beer, we’d be happy to help you plan your journey! Contact us today!