Tastings School - Germany - I'll have a bitter, bitte

Tastings School

From basics to more advanced topics, the Beer School has all the info to expand your knowledge and enjoyment of your beers, ales and lagers.


Germany - I'll have a bitter, bitte

Alright , so it might not be a German beer but we just love puns. Sally Toms gets to grips with some of the true beer styles of Germany

It is widely agreed that there are certain things the Germans can do very well: cars, for example; household appliances; being efficient; and most definitely beer.

Sweeping cultural statements aside, the Germans are certainly proud of their beer. They would like to tell you this is down to the Reinheitsgebot, a Bavarian beer law dating from 1516. Literally translated as ‘purity requirement’, it stated that German beer should only be made from barley, hops and water and formed the basis of legislation that spread slowly throughout Germany.

Written at the time when beers were spontaneously fermented, you will notice a missing ingredient. Yeast wouldn’t appear in the Reinheitsgebot until after Louis Pasteur started messing around with micro-organisms in the 19th century.

In 1993 it was replaced by a more up to date beer law, which allows some ingredients such as wheat malt and cane sugar, but no longer allows unmalted barley. There are also different rules for bottom and top fermented beers, and one or two exemptions. It’s all a bit complicated.

Anyway, it is a useful marketing tool and has resulted in the belief that German beers are of a very high quality, and that German beer drinkers are protected by its strict control.

However, there are those who complain (brewers mainly) that it can be quite restricting in terms of innovation. For example, there are more than 1,300 breweries in Germany, more than in any other country, yet relatively few beer styles. Many traditional styles, such as spiced beers from northern Germany and fruit beers, were made extinct when the Reinheitsgebot was brought in.

But despite this, some excellent German beer styles have survived, and with them some excellent beers.

Here we have outlined a few of them:

Originally, German wheat beers were forbidden by the Reinheitsgebot.

Happily things have moved on, but brewers still don’t tend to add coriander or spices to their wheat beers (as the Belgians do).

Today, wheat beers in Germany are made with around 50 per cent wheat and are extremely refreshing.

Berliner Weisse
A classic top-fermenting wheat beer commonly found in Berlin.

Napoleon’s troops famously referred to it as the Champagne of the North when they discovered it during the Napoleonic wars.

Berliner Weisse is around 3% ABV and is intensely flavoured for such a low-alcohol. Lactic fermentation achieves the same sour and acidic notes found in lambic or gueuze.

It spends anything from a couple of months to five years maturing in cellars where it gains its flowery delicate fruit complexity.

It is one of the most unusual beer styles in Germany, not because of the beer itself, but because of the culture that surrounds it. Order a Berliner Weisse in a Berlin pub and you will be asked “rot oder grün?” (red or green?) since it is always served with a dash of either raspberry syrup or essence of woodruff. The addition is made in the pubs and bars as the Reinheitsgebot prevents any tradition of adding fruit during the brewing process.

Puritans can ask for a Berliner Weisse ‘ohne schuss’ (without shot).

You’ll get a very funny look from the staff, but it’s worth trying.

In Berlin, the shot is considered absolutely necessary to balance the acidity of the beer. It is served in an oversized champagne saucer and drunk through a straw.

Because of it’s regionality, this beer is difficult to find outside of Berlin. You can buy bottled, pre-mixed versions made with artificial sweeteners, but these of course are not as good.

Berliner Kindl Weisse (2.5%) is the biggest producer of the style, and is bottled ‘ohne shuss’ so you can add your own syrup if you like.

Drunk on its own, it has a sour and complex flavour. Typically, there are very little hops in the mix, instead you can taste yeast, apples and something like white wine. There is the lambic-like tartness throughout, but it is softened by underlying honeyed tones.

A distinctive, citric-tasting wheat beer originating from the beautiful town of Goslar in lower Saxony, though it achieved its popularity in the nearby town of Leipzig.

It is a top fermented wheat beer, sometimes containing oats and lightly spiced with salt and coriander, which gives it a distinctive acidic, Belgian wheat beer taste. When the Reinheitsgebot was brought in Gose disappeared into oblivion, but is currently enjoying something of a revival thanks to an exemption in the law.

Gose is traditionally matured in flasks with a narrow neck so that the yeasty head creates a natural bung to foster carbonation.

It is most popular plain, but like Berliner Weisse can also be offered with a raspberry or woodruff shot. In this way, it’s treated as a summer drink and known as ‘Sonnenschirm’ drinks (sunshade). The addition of a cherry liqueur turns it into a winter warmer.

Gose is not exported and very difficult to find outside of the region. To try it, your best bet is to go to Leipzig.

One of the best options is the Gosenschenke Ohne Bedenken taproom and beergarden.

A style of wheat beer typically made in South Germany. It can be clouded or clear, light or dark. Hefeweizen is an old Bavarian style of wheat beer, and arguably the most popular type in this part of Germany.

Hefeweizen means literally ‘yeast wheat’ and its beers are usually sweet and fruity, with a typically clovey, medicinal flavour.

Schneider Weisse (5.4%) is a classic example of the type. Darker than most wheat beers, it has a restrained fruitiness that develops into the characteristic spice.

Paulaner Hefe-Weizen (5.5%) is another good example. It has the traditional clovey aroma, with sweeter notes of fruit and vanilla, and a balancing maltiness over the top.

Kristallweizen is a filtered version of the same type. While filtering does remove some of the complexity, they make great thirstquenchers and are sometimes served with a slice of lemon.

Weihenstephaner Kristall Weissbier (5.4%) is a deliciously creamy, refreshing example.

Weihenstephaner also claims to be the oldest brewery in the world, so there you go.

The term ale is not used in Germany, but if it was, you might find these in the category:

One of the most common types of beer in Germany is altbier. Literally translated as ‘old beer’ as it refers to the pre-lager brewing method of using warm top fermenting yeast and darker malts. Alts traditionally brewed in Düsseldorf and copper in colour, rather like a British bitter, with an alcoholic strength of around 4.8% ABV. They are traditionally served in a short cylindrical glass called a Becher.

Diebels Alt (4.8%) is a one of the biggest selling examples of the style. The brewery was bought by InBev in 2003 which, luckily for us, means it’s available in quite a few markets worldwide.

BoltenUr-Alt (4.7%) is another classic Alt, this time from Korschen-brioch, west of Düsseldorf. It has complex malt and fruit flavours with the bitter finish typically associated with Altbiers.

Ur-Alt means “original old” and is the unfiltered version of the brewery’s standard Alt, and slightly better, we think. It is also bottle conditioned, something Germans aren’t famous for doing.

There is a bitter rivalry between Düsseldorf Alt and the Kölsch beer of nearby Cologne.

Like Alt, Kölsch is a warm fermenting beer which is given a period of lagering, it is also about 4.8%, but that is where the similarity ends.

Kölsch is much paler and generally fruitier and sweeter. And unlike poor Alt, Kölsch has an Appellation Controlée, so that only beers brewed in and around Köln can bear the name.

It even has its own drinking culture and dedicated team of bar staff called Köbes. You take a seat in a pub and wait for the blue-shirted Köbe to offer you a Kölsch. They will make a mark on your beer mat for each beer you receive and total it up when you want to pay.

The beer is served in a simple, tall, straight, cylindrical glass called a Kölsch-Stange.

PJ Früh on a street called Am Hof is one of the best taverns to sample Kölschbier, where its own version, Früh Kölsch, (4.8%) is served. It has a faint strawberry fruitiness, creamy malt and balancing hop bitterness.

Küppers Kölsch, (4.8%) is another good example, and one of the few Kölsch beers to be found in export markets. It is perhaps not as complex as other beers, but just as refreshing.

Okay, so strictly speaking a Czech style, but it is also one of the most popular styles of lager beers in Germany.

The Germans tend to use the word pils on their labels to differentiate themselves from Czech pilsners. They are very light golden in colour, and well-hopped with the accompanying distinctive bitterness. As with most lagers, these are best served cold.

Warsteiner Premium Verum, from Warstein in North Rhine-Westphalia is a popular one, and justly so; it’s a highly drinkable pils, not too bitter, not too bland. Verum is exported to more than 60 countries worldwide, so chances are high of getting hold of a bottle.

Dunkel simply means ‘dark’ in German. But in fact, until the invention of pilsner in the middle of the 19th century, all beers were dark. These days the lighter styles are more popular in Germany but most Bavarian breweries have a dunkel beer.

It can be a confusing term for a beer style, since it is sometimes a style in itself, sometimes a further sub-category of other beer styles. Generally, dunkels are either wheat beers or lagers, so we’ve lumped it in with lagers for now.

There are several popular types of dunkel lager including Franconian Dunkels, a very heavily hopped, bitter dark beer that also has dark malt flavours, and Schwarzbier a very dark, opaque beer with slightly burnt flavours reminiscent of a stout.

A favourite dunkel (though admittedy a wheat beer) is Maisel’s Weisse Dunkel (5.4%) a very smooth wheat beer with has a hint of coffee and cherry. Of the lager variety Steiner Ur-Dunkel (4.9%) has a traditional character, with light malt flavours, nuts and fruit developing.

A heavy and full bodied strong lager, usually weighing in at more than 6.4%. It tends to have less hop-bitterness and more sweetness than a pils.

Maibock is traditionally drunk to mark the beginning of summer, and as you’d expect of a summer drink, is a little paler and less heavy than traditional bocks. Doppelbocks (double bocks) are stronger and even more flavoursome, whereas Eisbock is made by freezing the beer and removing the ice crystals, making it even stronger.

You can also get Weizenbocks (wheat bocks) of which Schnieder Aventus (6.1%) is a classic example with notes of chocolate, fruit and spices.

A dark brown lager brewed in Munich for the Oktoberfest. It is a full-bodied beer, with a subtle hop bitterness and a slightly sweet flavour. It is always filtered and has an ABV of around 5%.

The paler version is called Helles, and is the Bavarian answer to pils, only less hoppy. Fresh tasting and golden with a malty softness, it’s the most popular beer style in Munich. A pale, malty every-day lager, the most popular brand abroad would be Lowenbrau.

At Oktoberfest in Munich, a strong version of Helles known as Wiesenbier (‘meadow beer’) is often served.

Spezial is a style that has been in slow decline in Germany during the last 30 years. It slots in between Helles and Bock in terms of flavour characteristics and strength. A pale, full-bodied and bittersweet lager, gently hopped. It has an ABV of around 5.6%.


Marzen, or ‘March beer’, is so called because it is brewed in March with enough alcoholic strength to preserve it through the summer months to end of the brewing season. Marzens vary greatly in colour, but all should have sweet maltiness dominating over a clean, hop bitterness.

Though it has its origins in Austria, it is offered as a traditional speciality at Oktoberfest.

Though none of the breweries outside Munich are allowed to exhibit at the festival, many make it anyway. Ayinger Oktoberfest-Märzen is one such beer. At 5.8% it has fresh hop and malt aromas, nutty flavours and a firm body.

One of the lesser known, but most distinctive styles of beer. Malts dried over fires of local beechwood are used in the production of this dark, bottom-fermented speciality. The smoking imparts a strong, unmistakable taste, which can be a bit of a shock to the senses at first, but goes great with smoked meats. Produced at around 5 % ABV and in Marzen and Bock versions.

The heartland of Rauchbier has to be the region of Franconia, especially Bamberg, famous for its great many small breweries.

Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier, 4.8% is a fine example, and its home – the Schlenkerla tavern in Bamberg – is one of the finest places to try one, tapped directly from the barrel by the 6th generation in a family of brewers.

Oktoberfest, Munich 22 September – 7 October, 2007 The largest beer festival in the world, more than 6 million litres of beer from Germany and around the world are served every year.