In Germany, beer is both a beverage and a food: they call it “liquid bread” or Flüssiges Brot. The beer that we today think of as “German” originated in Bavaria, where beer has been brewed since the Dark Ages, and even today more than 50% of German beer is produced in Bavaria. The average Bavarian consumes 150 litres of beer annually, and the local breweries produce over 20 million hectolitres of beer each year.
There is no better symbol of German beer culture than Oktoberfest, the world’s largest beer festival. While this festival is now celebrated around the world, the original and best Oktoberfest takes place annually over 16-18 days in Munich. Begun in 1810 to celebrate the wedding of crown prince Ludwig with princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen, 40,000 citizens celebrated with a fair, horse races, and, of course, beer. The tradition continues to this day, and in 2013, over the 16 days of Oktoberfest, more than 7.7 million litres of beer were consumed.
Types of German Beer
There are hundreds of types of German beer, along with seasional, craft, and speciality brews. Here are some of the most popular:
- Altbier. Alt is a top-fermented beer made from darker roasted malt, with flavor that is bitter and smooth. Altbier has a Protected Designation, and can only be brewed in the Dusseldorf region.
- Bockbier/Starkbier. This Bavarian beer is traditionally brewed in March for drinking during the Lent season. With colors ranging from golden to dark, this beer has 7% alcohol or more.
- Dunkles lager. This working-class beer comes from Munich, where it is consumed in steins. It’s a malty, less bitter, bottom-fermented beer with an average alcohol content of 4.5%.
- Export lager. Developed in the mid-20th century for the export market, this strong malted beer has a slightly higher alcohol content of more than 5%.
- Kölsch. Originating in Cologne, Kölsch is smooth and balanced. This top-fermented beer is made of light malt, has 4.8% alcohol, and is typically served in tall, narrow glasses. Kölsch is an EU protected designation, so only breweries in the Cologne region are allowed to produce this beer.
- Pilsner. Despite being named for the city of Plzen in Czechia, pilsner was created by a German brewmaster who lived in the city. Pilsner is a light, hoppy, bitter, bottom-fermented beer that averages 4.0 – 5.2% alcohol.
- Schwarzbier. This dark beer is brewed in Thuringia and Saxony, where it is served in chalice-shaped glasses. It’s a bottom-fermented, full-bodied beer with a sweet, malted flavor and 4.8% alcohol content.
- Weißbier/Wheat beer. A favorite in Munich, wheat beer is top-fermented with barley and, of course, wheat, and has 5 – 5.8% alcohol. It has a fresh flavor, and comes in a variety of colors depending on the degree of roasting and filtration. In Berlin, wheat beers are fresh, light, and fruity, with just 2.4% alcohol and often sweetened and colored with raspberry or woodruff extracts.
What Makes a Beer German?
German beer has been regulated for purity and authenticity since the Middle Ages, but beer traditions in Germany are even more ancient than that. The Bavarian Reinheitsgebot of 1516 prevented bread shortages by restricting beer to be made only of barley, hops, and water. Adoption of this Bavarian practice was made a condition of German unification in 1871, although Northern German brewers were taxed for the use of other ingredients, rather than prohibiting them.
The amazing continuity of the Reinheitsgebot and the resulting distinctive German beer traditions have had two enduring effects:
- Reputation for quality. The Reinheitsgebot ensured that German beers had a strong identity and reputation for quality. German consumers have a strong preference for Reinheitsgebot-labeled beers, and breweries around the world have adopted these practices and ingredients. From Scotland to Korea to Namibia to Wisconsin, breweries comply with ancient German traditions to brew and market their beers.
- Slowing of innovation. Almost from the Reinheitsgebot’s inception, exceptions were made to allow the limited use of other ingredients, and even today brewers can apply for exceptions to the rule. However, the strictness of the labeling practice has made German breweries slow to adopt beer trends and innovations that have originated elsewhere in the world. As Belgium was brewing lambics and Americans were exploring craft brewing, Germany was slow to respond to new techniques, ingredients, and market forces. It wasn’t until a 1993 expansion that German beers were allowed to include malted barley, hops extracts, and other malted grains. Germany remains slow to create gluten-free beers, experiment with new flavors or techniques, or respond to changing consumer demands.
The key to German beer is authenticity and tradition. Every type of beer has the perfect brewing method, the perfect glass, the perfect serving temperature, and a wealth of culture and knowledge behind how it’s made and how it is enjoyed. This specialized knowledge makes Germany a beer-lover’s paradise, because every few kilometers brings something new and special to enjoy.