Great German Beers

by Sharon Hudgins

Fifteen years of living in Germany convinced me that I was in beer-drinker’s heaven. Actually, I think it took only 15 minutes of intimate contact with my first mug of the local brew to convert me into a lifelong lover of “the national drink of Germany.”

I also discovered that Germans take their beer seriously. In 1516 the Dukes of Bavaria issued an edict in the city of Ingolstadt specifying that only water, barley and hops could be used in the brewing of beer.

Known as the Reinheitsgebot, or Purity Law, it was later amended to include processed yeasts (instead of wild yeasts from the air) and wheat (the only grain allowed besides barley). Still in effect, this early food safety law protects the integrity of German beers and insures the quality of the product. And today, German brewers of “organic beers” even go a step further, using only grains and hops that haven’t been treated with chemical pesticides and artificial fertilizers.

Germany boasts more breweries than anywhere else on the globe—1,282 throughout the country, nearly half of them concentrated in the southern state of Bavaria. And Germans happily consume most of the output, quaffing 115 liters (more than 30 gallons) per person annually, while exporting only 13% of the tasty brew to the rest of us.

Beer brewing is a controlled, scientific process, developed over centuries of experimentation. And German brewers are masters of the art. Germany claims the world’s oldest brewery—Brauerei Weihenstephan, in Bavaria, where beer has been brewed on that site since 1040. It’s also home to the world’s oldest monastic brewery—Klosterbrauerei Weltenburg, in Bavaria—dating from 1050, and the oldest wheat beer brewery, established in the Bavarian town of Kelheim, in 1607.

Large or small, old or new, secular or monastic, German breweries now produce more than 5,000 different beers in a variety of colors, tastes and strengths. Each of these beers belongs to a specific category, or style, determined by the way it’s made. But whatever the particular style, all German beers are either top-fermented (an older method in which the yeast rises to the top during heated fermentation) or bottom-fermented (a process perfected in the 19th century in which the yeast sinks to the bottom during a cooler fermentation). Today, the majority of German beers are of the bottom-fermented type.

Many of these beers are also categorized as lagers, which means that they have been lagered, or stored, in wooden barrels or steel tanks to mature over a period of time in a cool place such as a cellar, cave or under refrigeration.

Alcohol content is another way of classifying beers. Beer described as Schankbier is lightest in alcohol, with 2% to 3% alcohol by weight. Most German beers fall into the Vollbier category, with an alcohol content of 3.5% to 4.5% by weight. Stronger beers, such as Bocks and Double Bocks, with 5% or more alcohol, are called Starkbiere.

Germans also produce a few alcohol-free beers, as well as a type called Mälzbier, with little or no alcohol and a sweet, malty flavor, made from malt extract.

Sure, you can enjoy drinking German beers even if you don’t know much about them. But it’s a lot more fun if you know what to order when given a choice between a Helles or a Dunkles, a Rauchbier or a Weissbier.

Germany produces several classic styles of beer, which also have variations within each style. Bottom-fermented styles include:

* Hell / Helles – “Light-colored beer,” a common style of pale-colored, full-bodied lager, most often a Bavarian brew.

* Pilsener – A premium-quality pale lager with a distinctive flavor of hops and a dry finish; brewed throughout Germany but particularly associated with the northern part of the country, especially the city of Hamburg.

* Export – A light-colored but stronger lager, typically from the city of Dortmund, one of the largest producers of beer in Europe.

* Bock – Stronger in alcohol, traditionally brewed in the spring, especially in the cities of Einbeck and Munich.

* Doppelbock – “Double Bock,” an even stronger beer, traditionally dark in color but sometimes pale, made for wintertime, particularly in Munich and Kulmbach. Double Bock beers with names ending in “-ator” are especially strong in alcohol (Kulminator, Triumphator, Celebrator, and others).

* Märzenbier – “March beer,” a medium-strong, malty-tasting, amber-red beer traditionally drunk at Oktoberfest. In the past, before refrigeration, March was the last month that beer could be brewed before summer, and the beer had to be strong enough to remain in storage during the warmer months without spoiling. The last March beer in the barrels was drunk in September and Oktober as the next brewing season was about to begin.

* Dunkel / Dunkles – “Dark beer,” brewed in several locations but especially in Bavaria.

* Rauchbier – “Smoky beer,” a dark beer with a distinctly smoky taste, brewed in the city of Bamberg; sometimes described as the beer equivalent of single-malt Scotch whisky because of its smoky character.

Top-fermented German beer styles include:

* Altbier – “Old-style beer,” copper-colored and with a distinct taste of hops, brewed in the city of Düsseldorf.

* Kölsch – Pale, golden, light-bodied beer. By law, only beers brewed in the north German city of Köln (Cologne) may be labeled Kölsch.

* Weizenbier or Weissbier – “Wheat beer,” so called because it’s brewed from a combination of wheat and barley (instead of barley alone); also known as “white beer” because of the light-colored yeast that floats on the top during the brewing process. Most wheat beers are pale golden to light amber in color, although a dark type is produced, too. “Hefeweizen” beer is a richly flavored, cloudy looking, unfiltered wheat beer with the yeast sediment floating in the brew. Wheat beers are especially popular as summer drinks, often served at a slightly cooler temperature than other German beers and sometimes garnished with a slice of lemon. Wheat beers are made in many parts of Germany, but are especially associated with Bavaria in the south and Berlin and Bremen in the north.

In addition to the classic beer styles, German brewers produce a variety of specialty beers for holidays, festivals and other important occasions. Other beers are local types made only by a single brewery and seldom available beyond that locale.

Special beer types include heavy Bock beers brewed for the Lenten season; Oktoberfestbier for Germany’s most famous beer bash, in Munich; and Weihnachtsbier, or “Christmas beer” for the Christmas and New Year season.

Unique Steinbier (stone beer) is a top-fermented brown beer whose smoky flavor comes from stones heated over a beechwood fire, then added to the liquid at two different stages during the brewing process. A very strong beer known as Eisbock (ice beer) is produced by freezing Double Bock beer, then removing the ice that forms in it, leaving a brew with an even higher proportion of alcohol.

Germans also occasionally add flavorings other than hops to their beers. Under an exemption from the Beer Purity Law, top-fermented Gose, a spicy-tasting, deep-amber-colored beer from Leipzig, is flavored during the brewing process with coriander and salt. Berlin’s refreshing, low-alcohol Berlinerweisse white beer—sometimes called “the champagne of beers”—is often served with a splash of raspberry syrup, which sweetens the beer and tints it rosy-red, or with Waldmeister Sirop made with woodruff, a natural herbal additive, which colors the beer green.

A brewer in Abensburg even concocted a Spargelweissbier (asparagus white beer) for a special dinner during the Spargel (asparagus) season in Germany. And special beers are also brewed for the annual Tag des Deutschen Bieres, “German Beer Day,” on April 23, when Germans celebrate the establishment of that Beer Purity Law (Reinheitsgebot) enacted nearly 500 years ago.

“Wherever you travel in Germany, you’re never far from a glass of good beer.”

Although the state of Bavaria—and especially the region of Franconia—has the largest number of breweries per square mile, beer direct from the barrel (vom Fass, or Fassbier) or in bottles (Flaschenbier) is available at almost every place that serves food, from snack bars to the most upscale restaurants.

Some of the best places to taste barrel-fresh beers are the big beer halls owned by major breweries, especially those in Munich; at any Brauerei-Gasthaus (brewery with a restaurant attached) in many parts of Germany; historic monastic breweries such as Kloster Andechs in the scenic Bavarian Alps; open-air beer gardens shaded by spreading chestnut trees; friendly little family-owned inns throughout the country; and at the hundreds of festivals held every year in Germany, from local fests in tiny villages to the world-famous 16-day Oktoberfest in Munich.

German beer is drunk from a wide variety of containers. Beer tankards and mugs are an art form in themselves, made from glass, ceramics, wood, pewter, and even leather and ivory in earlier times. (Several German museums display fascinating collections of colorful, intricately crafted, beer mugs.) And certain beers are traditionally served in specially shaped glasses: Dortmund’s Altbier in short cylindrical glasses; Kölsch from Köln in tall, narrow, cylindrical glasses called Stange; Bavarian wheat beers in tall glasses, narrow at the bottom and wide at the top, that show off the beer’s carbonation; and Berlinerweisse wheat beer in large, heavy, bowl-shaped stemmed goblets like schooners or oversized Champagne coûpes.

But be forewarned: When you order “ein Bier, bitte” (“a beer, please”) at a Munich beer hall or Bavarian beer garden, your beer is likely to be served in a heavy glass or stoneware Masskrug, a mug containing a whopping one liter (just over a quart) of foamy beer. No, it’s not a pitcher for the whole table—so don’t ask for extra glasses. That one liter is entirely for you! If you want a smaller beer, ask for “ein Halbe,” meaning a half liter.

In other parts of Germany, however, “ein Bier” or “ein grosses Bier” (“a large beer”) is .5 liter or only .4 liter, and “ein kleines Bier” (“a small beer”) will be half of that, .25 liter or .2 liter (barely enough to quench your thirst, in my humble opinion).

“Beer is even considered one of the basic food groups in Germany.”

“Made from the same ingredients as bread—grain, water and yeast—beer is known as “flüssige Brot” (“liquid bread”). And like bread, German beer is an excellent accompaniment to many foods. Connoisseurs match beers with foods in the same way that wine lovers pair reds, whites, and rosés with different dishes: heavy dark beers with roasted meats, Bavarian Helles beer with thinly sliced white radishes, Kölsch with blood sausages and raw onions and elegant pale Pilseners with lighter fare.

Guzzling and gastronomy go hand-in-hand in Germany. At beer halls, beer gardens, and festivals you’ll find a variety of foods traditionally consumed with German beers: roast pork with sauerkraut, smoked ham, grilled sausages, rotisserie chicken, braised pork knuckles, smoked fish, potato pancakes, goulash soup, red cabbage, rye bread, sliced cheeses and cheese spreads, soft yeasty pretzels and German potato salad. There are distinct regional differences, too. Typical beer cuisine in Bavaria is different from what you’ll taste in Hamburg or Dortmund. Beer also shows up as an ingredient in many German dishes, from soups to sauces to desserts. Would you believe Prussian hot beer soup or Mälzbier ice cream?

As you drink your way through a meal in a German beer hall, brew pub or beer garden, whenever the waiter brings you another beer he often keeps tab by penning a mark for each beer on the coaster under your glass. These colorful cardboard coasters—many with the logo of the brewery or tavern—are nice little souvenirs to bring back from your trip to Germany. The waiters don’t mind if you take a couple of them from the table (after all, beer coasters are advertisements for the brew), and they’re lightweight to pack in your luggage.

Zum Wohl (Here’s to you!) and Prosit! (Bottoms up!)

For more information about Germany’s tasty beers, go to:

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