German beer doesn’t get the attention it deserves from today’s beer snob, who gravitates toward extreme flavors and marketing. You’re not going to find a German beer containing massive hops with Hindu deities on its label or a snowboarding reference in its name.
Good German beer (and there’s a lot of it—this is a country with 800 years of brewing history) is like a well-made Shaker chair: simple, traditional, and perfectly balanced, with clean, wholesome flavors. Many brewers still adhere to a now-repealed 16th-century law called the Reinheitsgebot, which forbids adding anything to beer besides the basic water, hops, and malt.
Germany ranking third in per capita beer consumption behind Czech Republic and Austria, as of 2018. (Americans rank 20th, behind Namibia, Panama, and Finland, among other countries.)Germans love to drink beer, with
And Germans love to drink outside, weather permitting, in beer gardens with communal picnic tables and simple menus of meats and cheeses. Because German beer is so crisp and well-balanced, it’s easy to drink a lot of it without feeling burnt out by any of the flavors. So if you want to be authentic, drink a lot of beer, drink outside if possible, and pair your beer with sausage, cured meats, hearty seeded bread, and cheese. To get the full experience, be sure you also drink it out of the right type of beer glass.
Related Reading: German Recipes for Oktoberfest & Beyond
Here’s our guide to the most common types of German beer, as well as some more obscure regional varieties, plus a little history. The words light and dark refer to color, not body—you’ll find many golden-colored German beers to be hearty, and some dark beers to be much less filling than you’d expect.
Pilsner, a.k.a. Pils
The vast majority of beer drunk in the world is pilsner. American macrobrews like Bud and Coors are bastardizations of this style, with little resemblance to the traditional German variety. Pils is a crisp, dry, refreshing lager beer. (Lager is the type of yeast used; it doesn’t produce many of the phenols and esters that ale yeasts do, making for a cleaner flavor.) It’s got a little herbal bitterness and a slight floral aroma from the hops, as well as pleasantly balanced malty cereal flavors.
Interesting Factoid: The Czechs invented this style in the 19th century. Germans saw that people went mad for it, so they copped it and called it pils instead of pilsner. German pils taste similar to Czech pilsners, though a little drier and hoppier.
Try: Spaten Pils, König Pilsener, Alpirsbacher Klosterbräu Pilsner
Konig Pilsner, $8.74+ on Drizly
Price & availability varies.
The name means “light one” in German, but don’t mistake that for “lite.” Full-bodied and full-flavored, this golden-colored lager tastes like earthy, lightly toasted grains, with less herbal hoppiness than a pils.
Interesting Factoid: According to beer writer Tomm Carroll from Celebrator Beer News, the style was invented in Munich in the late 1800s by the Spaten brewery to compete with pilsners. “They couldn’t get the clean, crisp hops to come out with their water,” says Carroll, so they made it maltier instead.
Weihenstephaner Original, $7.29+ on Saucey
Price & availability varies.
Hefeweizen a.k.a. Weissbier, Weisse, Weizen, etc.
German wheat beers are generally unfiltered, cloudy ales that are a far cry from most one-dimensional, crisp, easy-drinkin’ wheat beers made in the United States. Their lush smells and flavors can include banana, clove, grapefruit, and bread, and no, they’re not traditionally served with a slice of lemon. The flavors of a hefeweizen come only from the pure yeast, hops, and grains, not from any added spices in the manner of, say, a Belgian witbier. (Unless we’re talking about Gose—see “Regional Specialty Beers” below.)
Interesting Factoid: If offered the choice of a hefeweizen on tap or in a bottle, many beer-lovers will choose the latter. You get more aromas and flavors, because the yeast in the bottle has continued to ferment the beer after bottling. Plus you can swirl the tasty yeast sediment that settles to the bottom of the bottle, pour it into your glass, and drink it—a delicacy! Watch this video for tips on how to pour hefeweizen:
Ayinger Brau-Weisse, $7.29+ on Saucey
Price & availability varies.
The beer most commonly associated with and served at Oktoberfest, this copper-colored lager is medium-bodied and malty tasting, with a surprisingly clean, dry finish. “Never cloying or too sweet,” says Carroll.
Interesting Factoid: Its name means “March,” because before refrigeration, the beer was brewed in the winter up until March (it’s made with lager yeast, which needs cold temperatures to work), cellared or stored in cool caves through the hot months, then drunk in October.
Spaten Oktoberfest, price & availability varies from Drizly
The only thing guaranteed with dunkels is that they are darker and have a slightly higher alcohol content than a pils, helles, or märzen. Beyond that, the level of hop bitterness or malt graininess varies wildly. The word just means “dark” in German, and is not so much a specific style as a way of saying that the beer you’re about to order was made with darker-roasted malts.
Interesting Factoid: Although most dunkels are toastier-tasting amber to nut-brown versions of helles and pils, there is also dunkelweizen, or dark wheat beer. This style can be particularly rich-tasting, like a complex brown bread.
Hofbrau Dunkel, price & availability varies from Drizly
You may look at this beer, an ultradark lager whose name literally means “black beer,” and think you’re in for a thick, rich, porter-type experience. On the contrary: Although it does have notes of roasted coffee and chocolate, schwarzbier is dry, light-bodied, and relatively low in alcohol.
Interesting Factoid: Philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe sustained himself on black beer during a period of illness when he wasn’t able to eat anything else, says Tomm Carroll.
Try: Köstritzer Schwarzbier, Einbecker Schwarzbier
Kostritzer Schwarzbier Lager, price & availability varies from Saucey
Sort of like dunkel, the words bock and doppelbock are less defined styles than descriptors meaning that the beer’s alcohol content is strong or doubly strong, respectively. The name bock, says Carroll, is a derivation of the name of the northern city of Einbeck, where the beer originated. Helles, pils, and hefeweizen beers can all come in bock and doppelbock form, e.g., weizenbock. They’re typically amber-colored or darker, and contain Cognac-y flavors and deliver a big alcohol punch. Think of these as equivalent to the double and triple Belgian Trappist ales.
Interesting Factoid: Rusty Olson, bar manager of San Francisco German restaurant Suppenküche, says doppelbock was originally drunk by monks during the Lenten fast to provide more protein and calories. A fast way to a buzz, more like.
Try: Spaten Optimator (doppelbock), Schneider & Sohn Aventinus (weizenbock)
Spaten Optimator, price & availability varies from Drizly
Regional Specialty Beers
Versions of all of these types of beers can be found through specialty beer importers like Shelton Brothers, at well-stocked Whole Foods stores, or at specialty beer bars like Spuyten Duyvil in Brooklyn, New York.
With a name literally meaning “old beer,” this ale is from the northeastern region of Westphalia, where it has been brewed for hundreds of years. It tastes much hoppier than most German beers but not as hoppy as an IPA.
Try: Uerige Sticke Altbier
Sometimes referred to as “the champagne of the north,” this Berlin-made wheat beer is golden, effervescent, low in alcohol, and extremely sour, with funky yeasty notes. It’s often served with fruit syrup. U.S. craft brewer Dogfish Head made a great version called Festina Pêche.
Try: Weihenstephaner 1809
Dubbed “bacon in a glass,” this famous smoked style of dark lager beer is the specialty of the beautiful medieval town of Bamberg, in northern Bavaria. Read more about smoked beer.
Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier Weizen, price & availability varies from Drizly
An ultralight, summery ale-lager hybrid that, by law, can only be made in and around the city of Cologne. This style is becoming more trendy in the States: American breweries like Harpoon, Alaskan, and Goosetown brew it as a seasonal summer release.
Try: Reissdorf Kölsch
Reissdorf Kolsch, price & availability varies from Saucey
A specialty of the town of Leipzig, this is an unusual-for-Germany wheat beer, because it’s brewed with spices, in defiance of the Reinheitsgebot (it was an old style, so it was grandfathered in). It’s got coriander, salt (!), and tart barnyardy notes from Brettanomyces yeast.
Try: Leipziger Gose