German Beer Guide

Germany is a country with a large number of brewers and a big taste for beer. It has a stereotypical image of a land with large steins of frothy headed beer being drunk by people in lederhosen that you won't find outside of tourist attractions, but a very conservative attitude to brewing still rules. This is principally due to the German beer purity law known as the Reinheitsgebot. This was introduced in 1516 and stipulated that beer may only have three ingredients - water, barley and hops. At the time people were unaware that yeast was also required to make beer so technically no beers can abide by the letter of the Reinheitsgebot.

The purity law was effectively overturned in 1998 following an EU ruling and a new German beer law was passed 1993 that allowed the use of cane sugar amongst other things. However many brewers still proudly claim that their beers meet the ancient law, even if they only meet it in a looser sense due to the addition of yeast and in some cases wheat as well. The main legacy of the purity law is that there are not as wider range of German beers as there otherwise would have been. When Germany and Bavaria were unified in 1871 the purity law was adopted for the new Germany which lead to the demise of many regional specialities such as spiced beers and cherry beers. This meant the pilsners gradually dominated whilst experiments with fruit, spices and other ingredients were left to the Belgians.

The vast majority of German beers are lagers with Pilsners being the most popular style accounting for the vast majority of beer sales. Pilsners were originally brewed in Bohemia using German brewing techniques. Their popularity meant that the Germans soon started producing their own versions. A good pilsner, such as Warsteiner Premium Verum, should have a crisp feel and a restrained but well expressed hop flavour. The German versions are generally thought to be more bitter than the Czech counterparts. The paler Helles and Dortmunder beers will be maltier and usually having very subtle flavours. These beers are the Munich and Dortmund takes on the golden pilsner lager style. In all three styles there are too many beers that are just plain bland and aren't really any better than efforts by multinational brewers.

There are also a range of dark lagers. Dunkels are dark lagers with two main German variants, the Munich style which is sweeter and maltier and the Franconian style which is drier and hoppier. There are also stronger amber lagers known as Bocks. Often the two styles blur into each other. This is the case with Kloster Andechs Doppelbock Dunkel, a fine fully flavoured strong dark lager. Some stronger lagers called Eisbocks are made by freeze distillation whereby the weaker parts of the mix freeze and can be removed, thereby concentrating the strength of the beer - the Kulmbacher Eisbock uses this technique to achieve it's 9.2% abv strength. Another common dark lager in Germany is the Schwarzbier which has a roasted flavour that has elements of a stout to it. Bitburger Köstritzer Schwarzbier is a popular example of this type of beer.

Germany hosts the biggest beer festival in the world with the Oktoberfest that takes place in Munich over a three week period that ends in early part of October (confusingly meaning the Oktoberfest begins in September). The festival first occured in 1810 and has run in most years since then. The event attracts around 6 million people who drink beer in large festival hall tents that seat thousands of people each. The beer is usually served in litre sized steins. Whilst the event attracts a lot of people, the range of beers is fairly small in comparison with each hall focusing on selling a single breweries beer and there being about 14 halls in total. Whilst the atomsphere is meant to be quite something, you will find a wider selection of beers in any self respecting Belgian bar any day of the week and at most British beer festivals.

The traditional beer of the Oktoberfest is the Märzen. Märzens came about due to a Bavarian brewing reguation that only allowed brewing to occur between the end of September and April in order to reduce the risks of fires caused by brewing during the warm summer months. This meant beer had to be stored in caves to last through the summer. To make the beer last longer it was brewed stronger and with a higher level of hops. The last of the beer was served at the Oktoberfest. These days most Märzens are found in either Germany or Austria though some other countries have played with the style as well. The term is often used loosely to refer to amber lagers, some of which are predominantly malty.

Whilst the purity law limits what ingredients to put in their beer it stills leaves scope for what they can do with them. One way of mixing things up is to smoke the malted barley. This produces a smoky flavour beer called a Rauchbier. This now a speciality of the Bamberg region although historically smoked beers were more common as the malted barley was often dried over a fire rather than using a kiln or oven, leading to the malt picking up smoke from the fire. The most famous smoked beer is the Schlenkerla Aecht Rauchbier (original smokebeer), a dark ruby coloured lager with a slight sweetness in amongst the smoke. The brewery owns a historic tavern in the centre of Bamberg that dates to the 15th century and where the bier is tapped directly from a wooden barrel. They also do a smoked wheat beer.

The Germans do brew ales as well as lagers, but these are predominently regional specialities. In Cologne you will probably get looked at a strange way if you order anything that isn't Kölsch a pale, lightly flavoured ale with a vague waft of hops about it. You may not even realise you are drinking it though you may well enjoy it despite it's anonimity. The bars have waiters called Kobes who circulate round the bars with trays stacked with small glasses of the house Kölsch and when you want another one they will give you a new glass and put a tick on your beer mat to keep track of how many you've had. If you want to try a range of different Kölsch you'll need to wander from bar to bar. Down the road in Düsseldorf you will find Altbiers which are an amber rival to Kölsch, though whilst Kölsch must legally be produced in Cologne, the name Altbier (old style beer) has no protected regional status. Altbiers generally have more of the fruity characteristics of an ale whilst retaining a lagerish edge.

The Weihenstephan Brewery makes a strong claim to being the oldest brewery in the world. The Weihenstephan benedictine abbey dates back to 725 and a brewery was licensed in 1040. The monastery was closed by Napoleon in 1803 but the brewery lives on, now run by the state. It makes a number of lagers but is best known for it's Weißbier (wheat beer). The German wheat beers don't have any of messing aroma with spices or fruit that typifies Belgian wheat beers such as Hoegaarden. Instead they have clean tastes that better showcase the flavour of the wheat. Most German wheat beers are served unfiltered and known as Hefeweizen whilst the blander filtered beers are known as Kristalweizen. Dunkelweizen are made with roasted, dark malts though they do not have the bitter or burnt edge that a porter would have. The Weihenstephan beers are now pastuerised when leaving the brewery meaning that although the unfiltered beers still have yeast in them they do not ferment in the bottle. This decision was made to make the beers more stable when being shipped abroad but many feels neuters them slightly as well.

Weihenstephan's main competition in the wheat beer market is from Erdinger who do a very solid set of light, dark and filtered variants. Their showpiece is the strong dark Pikantus beer that tips the scales at a little over 7% abv. At the other end of the spectrum they do a surprisingly pleasant alcohol free beer too that comes in a blue label. Another German wheat beer worth seeking out is the one made by Lowenbrau which has an incredibly beautiful aroma to it, bombarding you with banana, cirtus and cloves in ways that make you think that the purity law must have been abandoned completely for this beer. The taste can't quite live up to the hype of the aroma but it's still a great beer.

Five German Beers To Try -

1. Hovels Original Bitterbier: A hoppy, top fermented beer from Northern Rhineland. Amber coloured, hoppy and citrus smelling, strongly malty with some caramel and bready undertones and dark raisiny fruits. Semi-dry, bitter finish.

2. Schenkerla Aecht Rauchbier: Dark ruby coloured, almost black, beer with a smoky, burnt malty taste that is balanced by a slight caramel sweetness. Goes very well with smoked or spiced sausage. Initially similar to a porter, further tasting shows it to be distinctly different with a good depth of flavour and no coffee edge.

3. Lowenbrau LowenWeiss: Unfiltered golden coloured top fermented wheat beer with a big white head. A marvelous aroma of banana and citrus mixed in with cloves and spices greets you as you raise the beer to your lips. The taste steadily builds to a bready taste with orange and bananas on top and a light gassiness. A four star beer with a five star aroma.

4. Kulmbacher Eisbock: Stunning strong tasting dark beer (9.2%) which is freeze concentrated to increase it's strength. It has a strong figgy, fruity, caramel taste with a lingering malty alcoholic after taste. Akin to a strong Belgian brune such as Maredsous, the alcoholic edge verges on the overpowering but it doesn't quite become too much.

5. Diebels Altbier: Copper coloured German ale with a bready yeasty smell. Starts out with a taste like and English Christmas ale with strong malt and plum fruity tastes. Further tasting allows the gentle carbonation to provide a building sourness with a hint of tea in the dry aftertaste. Would be improved if were smoother to allow the malt and fruity flavours to shine through but would make a good session beer.