Tastings School - Germany - Bier culture

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.

Categories

Germany - Bier culture

Andy Neil reveals all about the beer styles and culture of one of the world's greatest brewing nations.

To many, German beer = lager, and it’s as simple as that. Fizzy, clear, served cold and easy to drink. But lager is not the be-all and end-all of the German brewing industry, and the use of the word has become far too simplistic within the context of German beer.

There are quite a few German words which have been unwisely adapted by the English speaking world, and turned into something that the original word doesn’t really mean, and the word ‘lager’ is one of them. In fact, when we are talking about lager within the context of German beer then it simply means ‘cold maturing,’ and not whether a beer is a top or bottom fermented.

But first, a bit of background… HISTORY The oldest remains of a brewery in Germany is near the town of Kulmbach in Bavaria and dates from around 800BC. The Germanic tribes have been brewing beer ever since. Initially brewing was the woman’s responsibility, as they would combine beer ‘cooking’ with the baking of bread (they are from the same ingredients after all).

The oldest brewery remaining in Germay today (and the world for that matter) is Weihenstephan, which was founded in 1040, and is possibly even older than that.

It was most likely by accident that in the Middle Ages (or maybe before) the Bavarians discovered that if their beer was left in caves at just above freezing, then the yeast sank to the bottom of the barrels and continued to ferment very slowly. The original ‘Lagerbier’ was born. Some of the best examples of these caves or Felsenkellers can be found in Forchheim’s Kellerwald in Franconia.

THE REINHEITSGEBOT As with German culture and general way of life, there is a law to govern every aspect of life, and the Reinheitsgebot or ‘Purity Law’ is the very law that has applied to the brewing industry. Its importance for the German brewing industry cannot be overstated.

For those that are unfamiliar with this law, in 1516 in the Bavarian town of Ingolstadt it was decreed by the Dukes of Bavaria that beer could only be made using barley, hops and water. No wheat, no additives, no gruit (an old-fashioned herb mixture used for bittering and flavouring beer before hops), just those three ingredients. Note that yeast was not included as it is something that was (and obviously still is) added during the fermentation process, and was therefore not seen as an actual ingredient as it was not used during the ‘cooking’ process.

There started the oldest consumer protection law in the history of humankind. There were beer laws in Bavaria that pre-dated the Reinheitsgebot, but the Purity Law is the oldest that was written down.

Up until 1871, however, it was only Bavarian law and was only adopted by the north of Germany when the two countries joined together. It existed until 1989 when the monastic East German brewery of Neuzeller took the German government to court and won the right to brew beer that was not in accordance with this law. Since then, the German brewing industry ‘closed ranks’ and any beer which doesn’t have the Reinheitsgebot ‘stamp’ on it is generally frowned upon by the German public as being ‘impure’ and not fit to drink!

BEER STYLES In this country of 85 million people and 1300 breweries (of which around half are in Bavaria), there are in fact more than 20 different ‘styles’ of beer.

DAMPFBIER This top fermented amber coloured beer originates from the Bavarian Forest on the border with the Czech Republic. Its name comes from the colloquial Bavarian word ‘dampf’ for yeast and essentially describes the primary fermentation when the beer has a layer of yeast smothering it.

The most well known dampfbier is from the Zwiesel brewery in the Oberfpalz region of Bavaria.

Others include Maisel Dampfbier (Bayreuth) as well as Borbecher Dampfbier – a bottom fermented hell bier from the Rhineland.

ALTBIER Altbier or ‘old beer’ is another top fermented beer and originates in the Lower Rhine region around Düsseldorf. It is a dark coloured beer ranging from an amber colour to, in the case of Bolten Ur-Alt, very dark and almost black. It is generally accepted that the name refers to the fact that it was the ‘old’ style of beer before the new pilsner beers swept through Europe in the mid 1800s. Prior to then then altbier was simply called ‘bier’!

The historical centre of this beer style is the cultural city of Düsseldorf which boasts four excellent hausbrauerei, or house breweries, where beer is brewed on the premises with a pub attached.

These include Schumacher (the shoemaker), the oldest of the breweries dating from 1836; Füchschen (Little Fox); Schlüssel (Key); and Uerige (the Grouch).

Just 25km west of the city in the small village of Korschenbroich lies the oldest altbier brewery of them all. Bolten dates from 1266 and brews not only a delicious unfiltered altbier but also a range of other beers.

Other excellent altbiers include Gatzweiler, Schlösser, Frankenheim and Diebels.

KÖLSCH This is another top fermented, filtered beer from the Rhineland.

Kölsch is a paler coloured version of altbier and came about in the latter part of the 1800s when technology enabled barley to be kilned lighter in colour. Due to the Kölsch Convention, only beers brewed in Cologne can be called a Kölsch bier. Examples include Mühlen Kölsch, Gaffel and Früh.

WEIZEN Weizen (also commonly referred to as weissbier or white beer) is a top fermented wheat beer, unique in that it generally uses its own ‘weizen’ yeast strain. Always rest the bottle after pouring a weizen, the best bit is the yeast sediment in the bottom.

Weizen is generally thought of as a Bavarian beer, however the former East Germany also has a tradition of wheat beers. It is quite difficult to find all the different types of weizen, but the following are all brewed in Germany: Liecht weizen – leicht or ‘light’ is a lower alcohol version of a hefe weizen.

Krystal/kristal weizen – this is a filtered version of hefe weizen, it can be drunk with or without a lemon, choice is yours.

Hell weizen – a lighter coloured version of hefe weizen for those who don’t like their weizen so ‘thick’ as is the case with Maisel (Bayreuth) and Schneider. Not commonly available.

Hefe weizen – the most common weizen available. Literally meaning ‘yeast’ wheat beer, it is an unfiltered beer which goes through a secondary fermentation or conditioning in the bottle or barrel/keg.

Dunkel weizen – this is the darker version of hefe weizen.

Stark weizen – stark or ‘strong’ weizen is a higher alcohol version of dunkel weizen and is around 8% ABV.

Eisbock – eisbock, or ‘iced’ bock beer is the granddaddy of the weizen family and is around 12% ABV. Very similar to a strong dark Belgian Trappist beer.

Berliner weiss – ‘Berlin white’ comes, of course, from Berlin and is a lower alcohol version of krystal weizen. It is generally served in a bowl shaped glass with syrup added. It is a very sociable drink with sometimes three or four people sipping the beer through straws.

Gose – moving on is the weizen beer commonly associated with the former East German town of Leipzig. This has traditionally been fermented using wild yeast by spontaneous fermentation and is Germany’s answer to the more sourer Belgian wit beers. It is a very local beer and only really found in and around Leipzig.

ROGGENBIER This very uncommon beer is brewed using rye and is top fermented. It is commonly associated in the area around Regensburg, Bavaria.

PILSNER/PILS Pilsner is the bottom fermented beer which originated in 1842 in the Czech town of Pilsen in Bohemia and reshaped the history of beer. This golden coloured beer swept through Europe and the USA in the latter half of the 1800s and is the most widely consumed beer there is.

Pilsner beer is also associated with technology and the ‘taming’ of the bottom fermenting yeast strain, Carlsbergenis. Within Germany, pils is always denoted by the brewery in order to differentiate it from the original Pilsner Urquell, for example Bitburger Pils, Holsten Pils.

DIÄT PILS This is a beer designed for diabetics and has been fermented to such a degree that all the sugar within the beer has turned to alcohol and carbon dioxide, therefore leaving no sugar within the beer. Also a very good beer if you wish to lose weight as it obviously contains less carbohydrates.

HELL/HELLES LAGERBIER The term lagerbier is only really used in the Bavarian part of Germany. Hell means ‘light’ referring to the pale colour, and is the main beer consumed in Bavaria. Confusingly, the difference between a hell and a pilsner beer is undetectable.

ZWICKEL/KELLERBIER The name zwickel (pronounced zvikel) refers to the ‘testing tap’ used by the brewer as the beer is kegged/bottled. Zwickel or kellerbier (cellar beer) just applies to any unfiltered beer of any style. In the north of Germany an unfiltered beer is generally called naturtrub (cloudy).

As zwickel beer still contains yeast, larger breweries are concerned about the shelf life of any unfiltered beer and therefore don’t tend to produce unfiltered beer for general consumption. Unfortunately.

UNGESPUNDETES KELLERBIER This is another unfiltered zwickel or kellerbier generally only found in parts of Franconia in Bavaria. However instead of keeping the pressure at around 0.8 bars, the pressure is set to zero and hence called ‘ungespundetes’ (from German spundung) or literally ‘unbunged’.

The beer has less absorbed CO2 and is, in theory, less gassy (in Bamberg the locals just call it U-bier). So now you know.

ZOIGL This elusive beer is now only really found in the Oberpfälz Wald (Palatinate Forest) in Bavaria near the border with Czech Republic. It is essentially a keller or zwickel beer, but it uses a different yeast whereby primary fermentation is only around five days and lagering is only some three weeks at 7-8°C, a relatively high temperature.

It is called zoigl (Bavarian slang) from the German word zeichen meaning a signal or sign.

Historically, when the beer was ready to drink, the family or brewer would hang a sign (the brewer’s star) outside their house to signify their beer was ready. Nowadays there is a list on the internet showing when each Zoigl ‘house’ has its beer ready.

HELL BOCK There was a time when northern Germany exported its highest quality beer south to Bavaria, with the most famous of those breweries being from the town of Einbeck. It is believed the source of the name bock beer (meaning ‘to kick’ as in springbok) is a corruption of Einbeck.

Another theory is that as the beer is generally stronger in alcohol, it ‘kicks’ you after a few.

Incidentally, the label on Einbecker beers is a kicking goat.

MÄRZEN An amber coloured, bottom fermented beer which can also be filtered or unfiltered. The name literally means ‘March-it’ as this beer was historically brewed in March at the end of the brewing season. Before the days of refrigeration, brewing did not resume until St Michael’s Day on 29 September.

Good examples are Josef Schneider Märzen from the smallest brewery in the Altmühltal region in Essing in the Oberpfalz near Regensburg in Bavaria as well as Hacker- Pschorr Oktoberfest Märzen.

BRAUNBIER There was a time when all beers were ‘brownish’ and the 14th century monastic brewery of Klosterbräu in Bamberg has maintained this tradition of brewing a brown beer. It’s not a dunkel and it’s not a märzen, it’s somewhere in between.

DUNKEL/DUNKLES LAGERBIER Dunkel beer or ‘dark’ beer varies from being dryish in Franconia to sweeter in the more southern areas of Bavaria around Munich.

Good examples in Franconia are Hofmann Export (Hehenschwärz), Kathi-Bräu (Heckendorf) and Will (Schederndorf). All these beers are completely unfiltered and unpasteurised, and have a very short shelf life – so drink them quickly!

Examples from southern Bavaria include Ettaler Dunkel from the Benedictine monastery in Ettal in the Alps.

RAUCHBIER Rauchbier or ‘smoked beer’ applies to any beer which contains some smoked malt (barley or wheat) and up until the 1800s most beers would have been slightly smoky before modern kilning techniques came into being.

Examples of smoked beers are the famously smoky Schlenkerla from Bamberg, the milder Spezial smoked beers as well as the dunkel beer from Herr Scheubel in the beautiful village of Schlüsselfeld to the west of Bamberg. It is only slightly smoked and is so subtle you may not notice at first.

DUNKEL BOCK Dunkel bock is the darker version of the hell bock.

SCHWARZBIER Schwarzbier or ‘black beer’ is as dark as they get. A rich beer with a similar colour to stout, it is historically from the Thuringia region in the former Eastern Germany. Examples include Klosterbräu Schwärzla and the sweeter commercial Köstritzer Schwarzbier.

MISCELLANEOUS TYPES Export – the term export beer was traditionally used for any beer which was being exported, but is now a loosely used word for any beer.

Spezial – another unclearly defined style which seems to be used generally for a clear helles beer.

Steinbier – a very elusive beer style which one brewery has started up again. During the brewing process, a hot stein (stone/rock) is heated to around 1000°C and literally dumped into the wort, creating a beer which is pretty much caramelised.

Landbier – not really a beer style, just a name to denote land or ‘country’ beer. It can be top or bottom fermented, dark or light coloured.

Kirschbier – kirschbier or ‘cherry beer’ uses a cherry syrup during the brewing process. Neuzeller brewery in the former East Germany had problems with the German law and later with the German Association of Brewers who refused to recognise it as beer! Neuzeller ended up changing its labels....

Festbier – applies to any beer brewed for a festival and is generally 0.6-0.8% stronger in alcohol than the standard beer from the brewery.

Cannabisbier – this very bitter beer uses medicinally approved cannabis which is legally available in Germany.

It doesn’t seem so alien when you consider that cannabis is a member of the hop family.

Leicht – applies to any low alcohol beer. Generally only used in Bavaria.

Radler – radler or ‘cyclist’ is basically a 50/50 lemonade/beer shandy and is drunk by yes, you’ve guessed it, cyclists.

Alcoholfei – the concept of an alcohol-free beer may seem strange within the English speaking world, but Germany has some excellent alcoholfree beers. In the southern parts of Germany, beer is considered a food item and is consumed for its nutritional value at mealtimes. It is popular with athletes, drivers and other people who love beer but can’t drink alcohol, such as those with medical disorders or with particular religious beliefs. One of the best examples is Paulana Weizen.

GLASSES & MEASURES The stein is synonymous with beer in Germany, and is the very glass associated with Bavaria and that famous celebration Oktoberfest. But ‘stein’ is another German word that has been adapted by the English speaking world to mean a ‘very large glass with lots of beer in it and served by buxom wenches...’ But ask for a ‘stein’ when you’re in Germany and you will be given a rock and a look of incomprehension from the bar staff.

The word simply means ‘stone’, or ‘earthenware’ in the case of beer, but what we are really talking about is a krug, or in English, a jug. A glass jug is called a glass-krug, an earthenware jug is called a stein-krug and a one litre jug is called a mass-krug. So there we go.

A ‘stein’ as we call it is really a glasskrug, or in the case of the Oktoberfest then a mass-krug. So next time you’re in Munich then you can order a one litre glass of beer and not a large stone!

In general beer in the north of Germany is served in smaller glasses, typically 0.2 litres or 0.3l. Altbier in Düsseldorf is served in a ‘becher’ or small, stubby glass, whilst the Kölsch (Cologne) glass or ‘stange’ is thinner and taller, still however in 0.2l or 0.25l measures.

Down in Bavaria the standard measure of beer is the 0.5l glass, so Brits and Americans should feel pretty much at home as 0.5l roughly equates to a pint (Brits get more, Americans less!). It is only during festivals or in the beer gardens that beer is served in 1 litre krugs unless of course you are in one of the famous beer halls in Munich where you will probably get a 1 litre glass of beer whatever you ask for!