Home to around a third of the world’s 15,000 different styles of beer, and with more than a thousand operational breweries, Germany is a true beer-drinking nation. In fact, beer is a key ingredient in all manner of historical festivals and celebrations, as well as daily life, and has been enshrined in German law since the 23rd April 1516, when Dukes Ludwig X and Wilhelm IV introduced the famous Reinheitsgebot, or German Beer Purity Law.
The basic ingredients can be traced back even earlier, to a time when brewers would use a half-baked loaf to start the culture for beer fermentation. This technique was perfected by Monks in the Middle Ages and was mentioned in the Grimm fairy-tale, Rumpelstiltskin. “Today I’ll bake, tomorrow I’ll brew. The next I’ll fetch the Queen’s new child”.
The Beer Purity Law laid out in no uncertain terms that beer was to be brewed from nothing more than water, hops, barley and alter (old) yeast. This 500-year-old legislation was created on the banks of the Danube, in Bavaria’s historic city of Ingolstadt. In fact, there is some evidence that the law was formed to prevent a price war between the bakers and the brewers of the day. Bread being a staple food of the time, limiting beer production to just one grain mitigated the risk of direct competition for resources. The Reinheitsgebot was so important to Bavaria that nationwide adoption of the law was one of the state’s conditions for unification with the rest of Germany in 1871. By 1906, it was national law and beer has been considered a protected “traditional food” ever since. Many of our modern beers originated in Germany. The word Lager actually hails from German - coming from the term Lagerbier, or “beer brewed for keeping”, made up of the words Lager, the German for storehouse, and Bier, the German for beer.
Ranked third in the world in terms of beer consumption per-capita (behind only the Czech Republic and Austria), Germany has a beer culture which differs from much of the world, in that the style of beer is almost more-important than the brewery itself. A German beer hall or bar will typically offer a few beers on tap, almost always produced by a single brewery. Pils, or Pilsener, dominates the market, with a share of roughly 60%. The popularity of the remaining styles tends to differ by region. For example, Cologne is well known for the hoppy Kölsch, whereas Bavarians favour styles such as Helles - a light beer with a smooth and less hoppy flavour.
The major beer styles can be broken down as follows:
Pils, Pilsener or Pilsner
Named for the city of Pilsen in the Czech Republic, Pils was first brewed in 1842. Pilsener Urquell - the world’s first blond lager beer, still produced there today - influenced lager around the world, and can rightfully be named as the basis for the vast majority of beer produced around the world. With an ABV ranging from around 4.5-5%, this immensely popular style has a light body and a dominant hoppy flavour.
A Bavarian staple, Helles, or light beer, is not really as light as the name suggests. In fact, it is the appearance that accounts for the name, as opposed to the strength. First brewed in 1894 by Munich’s Spaten brewery, with an ABV of between 4.5-6%, Helles is a full-bodied, slightly sweet beer, with a milder, less pronounced hoppy bitterness than Pilsener.
Dunkel, or Dunkles
Dunkel (dark) describes several styles of German lager, though typically is a rich, dark style made through a technique known as decoction mashing. This involves boiling a portion of the grains, then returning them to the mash. This raises the temperature during the brewing process. Styles vary from Munich’s malty, sweet variant, to a dry, hoppy style produced in Franconia. ABVs will usually range from between 4.5-6%.
Most likely originating in 16th century Bavaria, Märzen is brewed in March (thus the name, which stems from the German, März, meaning March) and is typically cellared over the Summer months. This style is essentially a maltier, fuller version of Helles. It is also the key ingredient in Munich’s famous Oktoberfest, where the city’s six major breweries produce their brews for more than six million visitors to the festival. It is slightly stronger than Helles, with an ABV of between 5.2-6%.
Kölsch, the German term for the residents and products of Köln (Cologne), is a term which was first officially used for beer in 1918. Originally brewed by the Sünner brewery, this very pale, light-bodied, top-fermented beer is made mainly from Pilsener malt. Warm-fermented, then stored at cold temperatures, this style or beer is linked with many northern European brews. Protected by the Kölsch Convention, it has an ABV of between 4.4-5.2%, and is typically very clear, although the rarer Weiß (White) style is an unfiltered variant with a cloudy appearance.
A strong variety of German lager, Bock is a dark, rich, lightly hopped ale with a malty flavour. It was first brewed in the 1300s in the town of Einbeck in Lower Saxony. The style was adopted by the brewers of Munich in the 17th century, and their Bavarian accents led to them mispronouncing the name of the town as “ein Bock”, which translates as “a billy goat”. The name Bock stuck, and is used to describe this rich, bittersweet variety, with an ABV of 6.5-7%. There are various sub styles of bock, including maibock, or heller bock (May Bock or Light Bock) - a paler and more hoppy style; Doppelbock (double bock) - stronger and very malty; and Eisbock (Ice bock) - a very strong style made by part-freezing the beer and removing the ice which forms.
Schwarzbier (black beer) is a very dark style of lager, with an almost-opaque appearance. Not dissimilar to stout, Schwarzbier is made from heavily roasted malt, which accounts for both the colour, and the chocolate-like, coffee-rich, malty flavour. Historically linked to the regions of Thuringia and Saxony and made through a process of bottom-fermentation, these roasty, rich brews have an ABV of 4.1-5%.
Weizen, Hefewezien, or Weißbier
Known as Weißbier (white beer) in Bavaria, and Weizen or Hefeweizen (wheat or yeast wheat) fairly universally, this filling style of beer is made by replacing a large proportion of the malted barley with malted wheat. According to the Reinheitsgebot, German wheat beer must be brewed through a process of top-fermentation. With a very mild hop flavour and traditionally from Bavaria, ABVs can range from 4.5% all the way up to 8% and more. Dunkel weizen (dark wheat beer) is a variety of wheat beer made with roasted malt, and offering up a richer, more roasted flavour.
Brewed only in the Lower Rhine and in Düsseldorf, Altbier (old beer) is a top-fermented lager beer which hails from Westphalia. A few breweries remain there to this day, and there are around ten breweries in the Düsseldorf region still producing Altbier. This bitter, hoppy style is notable for its warm copper hue, and a fruity, crisp flavour. Typically, Altbier will have ab ABV of between 5-6.5%