Yesterday, my dear, sweet, 95-year-old grandma asked me if the Germans still make the best beer in the world. That should give you a pretty good idea as to how hip German beer is at this point (hint: it's really, really, unhip). But the answer I gave her wasn't an easy one to land on. There is no doubt that the Germans do still make incredible beer. What it lacks in sexy youth, German beer certainly makes up in quality and tradition. The American beer drinking public sometimes forgets that.
Maybe it's that lager doesn't seem that exciting, maybe it stems from shocking run-ins with rauchbier, or maybe it's just all the umlauts. At any rate, something is scaring many folks away from zee German stuff. But there's a lot of pleasure to be found in German beer, and it's time y'all got comfortable with the beer styles you'll run into at the store. Here's our quick and handy guide.
Let's start with the lagers.
Walk into the beer section at your local supermarket, spin around a couple times and stick your hand out. You'll probably hit a pilsner or some variation on the ubiquitous style. The Buds, Pabsts and Millers of the world owe their inspiration to this pale lager style that originated at what is now the Czech Republic's Pilsner Urquell brewery. Proper all-malt pilsner comes in two variations: Czech (AKA Bohemian) and German. Both are pale yellow in color and finish with a bitter snap of spicy, floral hops. German-styled takes tend to be lighter in body, drier, and a touch more bitter than their Czech counterparts, but both should be easy to drink and refreshing.
Helles was born as an early German take on pilsner as well. Less hoppy than its Czech cousin, helles is a more malt-driven style that often leans toward the sweeter end of the spectrum.
Find a beer with a goat on the label and you've probably found yourself a bock. This is a class of beers that range in color from fairly light (maibock) to quite dark (doppelbock and eisbock, more on those later). Plain ol' traditional bock sits right in the middle—amber to brown in color, it's a strong, very malty lager that weighs in around 6 or 7% ABV. Expect a toasty, bready, slightly sweet flavor from the Munich and/or Vienna malt that make up the bulk of the grain in this beer.Maibocks are a springtime seasonal variation (Mai means May in German) that are a lighter in color and a bit hoppier with a floral bitterness on the finish.
So, why the goat? It's a little bit of wordplay—these beers originated in the town of Einbeck, Germany. That name Einbeck got telephone-lined around a bit and ended up sounding sorta like "ein Bock," which translates to "a billy goat."
Doppelbock and Eisbock
Stronger, even maltier bock beers are known as doppelbocks (which translates to "double bocks"). Born of a monastic tradition of brewing beers to sustain the monks during Lenten fasting, the style-defining example was first brewed by the monks at Munich's Paulaner brewery. Almost all commercial examples you'll encounter today are very dark in color, but doppelbocks can technically be fairly pale as well. Expect a very rich beer with a lot of caramelized (but not burnt!) sugar flavor. Darker examples can taste chocolatey and dark fruit-like as well. These tend to be rich, decadent sippers that are often named ending in "-ator" as a reference to Salvator, the original doppelbock brewed by Paulaner.
If you're looking for an even bigger bock, find yourself an eisbock. These are doppelbocks that have had a portion of their water content removed via freezing. If you drop the temperature of a beer to between the freezing points of water and alcohol, the water will freeze, leaving just a boozy, concentrated beer behind. Eisbock brewers will typically remove around 10% of the water content, leaving a massive, intense beer in the 9-14% ABV range. Expect flavor characteristics similar to those of doppelbock, but bigger. Boozy, fruity, and intense.
Oktoberfest/Märzen/Dunkel/Vienna Lager (okay, that one's from Austria)
Let's get a few terms clear first: Oktoberfest and Märzen are generally used interchangeably to describe one style. I'll just use Märzen from here on out. Vienna and dunkel lagers are beers that are fairly similar in character, though the history is a little different.
Way back in the 1500s, Bavarian lawmakers forbade the brewing of beer between April and September to ensure quality. In the warmer months, wild yeast and bacteria could thrive, leading to nasty, spoiled beer for the people. Without an understanding of modern fermentation science, the lawmakers were unknowingly establishing a long future for German lager. Fermented and stored in cool caves, the beers produced in the winter and early spring would eventually evolve into the modern dunkel ("dark") lager.
Märzen (meaning March) takes its name from the frantic brewing that occurred in the month leading up to the summertime ban, but it and Vienna lager didn't emerge in their modern forms until the mid-1800s, with the isolation of lager yeast. Two friends, Gabriel Sedlmayr from Munich and Anton Dreher from Vienna, released similar amber-colored lagers in their home towns and watched their respective Märzen and Vienna lagers rise to popularity. Sadly, Vienna lager has since fallen out of popularity, but the tradition lives on to some degree in Mexico (yep, really! Ever had a Negra Modelo?), where Austrian immigrants settled in the late 1800s.
All of these beers are malty lagers with an amber-brown color imparted by nutty, bready, toasty Munich and Vienna malts. Märzens are sometimes paler in color and dunkels are the darkest of the group, but that's the gist of it. None of these beers are hop driven in flavor and all should have a clean, neutral yeast flavor—they're really all about the malt.
Schwarzbier is a notch darker than dunkel and doppelbock—it's the darkest of all the German lagers. As it should be, too—the name translates to "black beer." Despite its ominous appearance, the schwarzbier is an easy drinker—it's only about 5% ABV and is lighter in body and drier than dunkel lager. Roasty bitterness is fairly restrained—don't expect this to taste like a stout. Instead, look for a lightly bready malt character backed up by a touch of roast and hop bitterness on the finish.
My love for rauchbier is no secret (especially when these beers are paired with food), but it's a style that is certainly not for everyone. The defining characteristic is that the beer is made with a large portion of malt that's been smoked over the flames of a beechwood-fueled fire. The result is a powerfully smoky, sometimes meaty-tasting beer that is usually based on a Märzen recipe. A specialty of the Franconian town of Bamberg, Germany, rauchbier is an unusually savory beer that you'll probably either love or hate.
Now, let's move onto the ales, shall we?
Wheat Ales: Hefeweizen/Dunkelweizen/Weizenbock
When it comes to ales, Germany is most famous for their wheat beers. Hefeweizen is the most common—poured into towering vase-like glasses, this cloudy southern German specialty is all about the yeast. Heck, it's right there in the name—hefeweizen translates to "yeast wheat" in German. The beer's cloudy appearance and powerful banana and clove-like aromatics are the direct result of an unusual yeast strain that is essential to producing this classic style. Darker variations are referred to as dunkelweizen ("dark wheat") and stronger versions are called weizenbock (as in, a wheat beer brewed to bock strength). Dunkelweizens take on a caramelly, dark-fruit like flavor that some liken to liquid banana bread, and weizenbocks are like hefeweizens and dunkelweizens on steroids—stronger and more flavorful in every way. All are delicious!
Altbier is an unusual specialty hailing from Düsseldorf. Its strangeness lies in the fact that it is fermented cooler than most ales with a yeast that operates best just above the temperatures that are usually reserved for lagers. This process allows rich, nutty, bready malt character to shine alongside a firm, spicy, floral hop bitterness. Most are around 5% ABV, but stronger variations exist and may be labeled as "sticke" or "doppelsticke" altbier.
Kölsch also has a strange fermentation process. Fermented a touch warmer than altbier (but still cooler than most other ales), the yeast produce a delicate, mildly fruity flavor profile. This pairs up with a relatively assertive hop profile from those spicy, herbal German hops and a more mellow pale malt presence. It's a nice, easy drinking beer with about 5% ABV. Kölsch is also unusual for the fact that the name is protected within the European Union so that only breweries within the city of Cologne can give their beer the respected Kölsch name.
Berliner Weisse and Gose
Berliner weisse and gose are the only German beer styles that are likely to be accused of being hip (Grandma surely hasn't heard of them). The craft beer world has thoroughly embraced sour beer in recent years and Germany's entrants are among the most popular amongst American craft brewers. Berliner weisse is a tart wheat beer that is soured through a fermentation with the bacteria Lactobacillus. This bacteria produces lactic acid—the same acid that gives yogurt and sour cream their signature tang.
Gose is also soured with the aid of Lactobacillus, but has a couple other ingredients that make it quite unusual: coriander and salt. The final product is cloudy, tart, and spicy and it's one of the most refreshing beers you can drink.
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