It’s a country whose beer culture is so ingrained and recognised that Oktoberfest is celebrated around the world. It’s the birthplace of lager, and one that is full of life and flavour (a far cry from the insipid mass-produced stuff). In fact, the word ‘lager’ just means cold-stored, and is a method of making beer rather than a specific style.
Most German beers are also held to the Reinheitsgebot, the German Beer Purity Law, that originated in the sixteenth century. It specifies that only water, malt and hops could be used to make beers – they didn’t know that yeast made beer ferment in those days.
All this adds up to a huge range of beers, but navigating the menu in a crowded Munich beer hall, or even in the bottle shops and online retailers, can be bewildering. So, to hunt out Germany’s essential brews, we’ve compiled this handy guide to the best German beers and their styles.
So, let’s take a look at the different styles of German biers;
The Pilsner beer was first brewed in Bohemia, a German-speaking province in the old Austrian Empire. Pilsner is one of the most popular styles of lager beers in Germany, and in many other countries. It’s often spelled as "Pilsener", and often times abbreviated, or spoken in slang, as "Pils."
Classic German Pilsners are very light straw to golden in color. Head should be dense and rich. They are also well-hopped, brewed using Noble hops. These varieties exhibit a spicy herbal or floral aroma and flavour, often times a bit coarse on the palate, and distribute a flash of citrus-like zest--hop bitterness can be high.
This ‘March’ beer is a deliciously malty lager from Bavaria (and very similar to the Oktoberfest style). It’s usually a couple of shades darker than a lager, with a rich caramel flavour, but has that same crisp finish. It’s becoming more popular among craft brewers, and rightly so – it’s eminently quaffable.
This beer made in Cologne (Köln) looks like a lager, but is fermented warm like English ale then cold stored (‘lagered’). It’s one of the few beers with a Protected Geographical Indication, and is light and full of character. Altbiers from Düsseldorf are darker – the German beer most like a UK ale – but much crisper and cleaner.
Stood overlooking the Alps or after a long day skiing, it’s the sumptuous Weissbier – a wheat beer – in that tall curvy glass that you’ll reach for. ‘Weiss’ means white, and these beers are usually hazy. Hefeweizen in particular has a yeasty taste (‘hefe’ means yeast) imparting a spicy clove aroma and, often, a suggestion of bananas.
Brewing a light beer took time and skill, from the maltser who ‘toasts’ the cereal kernels to the brewer. First came the Dunkel, a dark lager, high in malt characteristics with very little hint of hops. It’s a popular style over the winter months and perfect for swilling down your classic Munich beer hall food, schweinshaxe – a roasted ham hock.
The origins of Bock beer are quite uncharted. Back in medieval days German monasteries would brew a strong beer for sustenance during their Lenten fasts. Some believe it is more of a pagan or old world influence that the beer was only to be brewed during the sign of the Capricorn goat, hence the goat being associated with Bock beers. Basically, this beer was a symbol of better times to come and moving away from winter.
As for the beer itself in modern day, it is a bottom fermenting lager that generally takes extra months of lagering (cold storage) to smooth out such a strong brew. Bock beer in general is stronger than your typical lager, more of a robust malt character with a dark amber to brown hue. Hop bitterness can be assertive enough to balance though must not get in the way of the malt flavour, most are only lightly hopped.
The ‘black lager’ is, for this beer enthusiast at least, one of the great beer styles. It can be as black as Guinness, but with an incredible lightness of touch, effervescence and as crisp as a pale lager. Buy one for a lager drinking friend and you’ll have them on it all night. Delicious.
Munich Helles Lager
When the golden and clean lagers of Plzen (Bohemia) became all the rage in the mid-1800's, München brewers feared that Germans would start drinking the Czech beer vs. their own. Munich Helles Lager was their answer to meet the demand. A bit more malty, they often share the same spicy hop characters of Czech Pils, but are a bit more subdued and in balance with malts. "Helles" is German for "bright."