What You Should Know About German Beer
Crisp, fresh quaffs with funny names
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 Many brewers still adhere to a now-repealed 16th-century law called the Reinheitsgebot, which forbids adding anything to beer besides the basic water, hops, and malt.
Germans love to drink beer, ranking third in beer consumption behind the Czechs and the Irish. (Americans rank 13th.) And they 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.
Here’s CHOW’s 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
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.
Try: Spaten Premium Lager, Hacker-Pschorr Münchener Gold, Weihenstephaner Original, Augustiner-Bräu Edelstoff
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 on the next page.)
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.
Try: Paulaner Hefe-Weissbier Naturtrüb, Ayinger Bräu-Weisse, Hacker-Pschorr Hefe Weisse Naturtrüb. Sierra Nevada also makes a great, authentic-tasting unfiltered German wheat beer called Kellerweis.