Why is beer so important in German culture? Is it based on history or habit, climate or culinary preference, quality, or quantity — or all the above? In this article, we will discuss everything you should need to know about German beer: the history, the types, brewing processes, ingredients, nutrition, flavors, culinary matches and recommended brands!
The Germans did not invent beer. Some 13,000 years ago in the Middle East, people learned that roasted grain soaked in water made a delicious, nourishing, slightly alcoholic drink that eventually became a staple drink in almost all cultures around the world. The remnants of an ancient brewery were recently found by archeologists near Haifa, Israel.
Beer production in German monasteries dates back to around the year 1000 AD. These beer-producing monasteries were predominantly located in Southern Germany, and some still exist and operate today, such as Kloster Andechs, St. Gallen Weijenstephan, and Weltenburg. Centuries ago, drinking beer was safer than drinking the water, and beer was regarded as safe, nutritious and caloric, even appropriate for small children. Beer became increasingly popular in Germany, especially after the enactment of the Beer Purity Law.
The German Beer Purity Law
Promulgated by the heads of the Bavarian estates under Bavarian Duke Wilhelm IV, the Beer Purity Law of 1516 mandated that all beer in Bavaria must be made only from barley, hops, and clean water. Up until that time, brewers around the world used a variety of different grains as the base for malt, including barley, rye, spelt, emmer wheat, semolina wheat, and even rice or maize. But the Bavarians found that when barley malt is mixed with a special type of Bavarian hops, found primarily in the region of Hallertau, north of Munich, an especially high quality of beer resulted. It was this combination that was considered when the Beer Purity Law was enacted, eventually being adopted throughout Germany and is still in effect today!
Some three hundred years later, German and French scientists discovered the role that airborne fungi, or yeast, played in the fermentation process. Two separate strains of yeast were isolated and commercially produced for the beer brewing trade, each affecting the flavor of the beer. One yeast floats to the top at the end of the fermentation process (top-fermenting yeast) and the other sinks to the bottom (bottom-fermenting yeast).
There was a beer “revolution” in the 19th century in German-speaking countries that ushered in the creation of Pilsner, Bock and Export beers. German brewers emigrated and created beer empires in the Unites States, China, Japan, Mexico, and Africa. Through the 1980s, Germany had by far the greatest number of breweries in the world.
Starting in the 1990s, however, beer consumption in Germany started a slow but steady decline. There was a great deal of consolidation and historic breweries merged with others. New young players emerged, and today, even though total consumption is down a bit, the German love affair with beer continues.
Beer has been a global product since the beginning of the agricultural revolution, but Germany has set global standards for distinct types of beers. Although most are still made with only three ingredients — barley malt, hops and water (with the addition of brewers yeast beginning in the 19th century) — they differ greatly in flavor, aroma, body, and froth.
Varieties of German Beer
There are said to be over 7,000 varieties of beer in Germany brewed in 1,300 breweries. Over 20% of these are found in the southern region of Bavaria, whose capital, Munich, is home to the world-famous Oktoberfest beer festival. Throughout Germany, beer is consumed at various times of day, generally with meals or alongside popular bar snacks like the salted pretzel.
Below is an overview of German beer styles and varieties:
Helles or Dunkles Lager
Originating in Munich or Dortmund and usually consumed in steins or large glasses, lager is considered a working-class type of beer served in beer halls or intimate pubs. This bottom-fermented beer has more pronounced malt notes, comes in light or dark color depending on the degree to which the malt was roasted, is less bitter, and about 4.5% alcohol. Among the well-known brands are Löwenbräu, Hofbräu, and Dortmunder Aktienbrau (DAB).
Fresh pilsner from the tap takes about “sieben minuten,” or seven minutes to pour into the pilsner glass due to the high pressure and carbonation. Considered an upscale, classy beer, Pilsner is a relatively latecomer to the beer scene, created around 1842 by German brew master Josef Groll in the town of Pilsen, Bohemia, now in the Czech Republic. A bottom-fermented beer, Pilsner has about 4.0 – 5.2% alcohol, is light colored, and has a distinctly bitter, ‘hoppy’ note and aroma. Leading brands include Krombacher, Warsteiner, Bitburger and Radeberger.
Export lager is a bottom-fermented beer like Helles, but was originally made in the mid-19th century to ship overseas. It has a wort content of 12 – 14%, meaning stronger malt flavors, and a bit higher alcohol content of over 5%. Well-known brands include Dortmund and Munich Export beers, but none has achieved more global recognition than Beck’s Beer from Bremen, founded in 1876.
Weißbier (Wheat Beer): Kristall, Hefe and Dark
Primarily served in Southern Germany and in warm weather, this top-fermented beer has a 5-5.8% alcohol content, a refreshing, zesty flavor, and is served in tall slender glasses. The name stems from the fact that the malt is part barley and part wheat. Only an experienced Weißbier drinker or bartender can easily pour a bottle of the suds into a glass due to the high carbonation. Weißbier comes in Kristall (clear color, filtered), Hefe (cloudy, yellow color, some wheat and yeast residues), and Dunkel (roasted dark malt). Recommended beers from the Munich area are Schneider Weisse or Augustiner Weisse as favorite brands.
Kölsch and Altbier
These two very distinct beers stem from two cities on the Rhine river — Kölsch from Köln/Cologne and Altbier from Düsseldorf. These beers are top-fermented, with a balanced flavor, 4.8% alcohol and a really smooth finish. Served in cylindrical, narrow glasses, Kölsch and Alt are typically downed and replenished in minutes. Kölsch is made from light malt and Altbier is made from darker roasted malt and is therefore a bit more bitter. Both beers were awarded the coveted EU status of “Protected Designation of Origin”(PDO), so no brewery in the European Union can produce Kölsch or Altbier outside the Cologne or Düsseldorf regions. Famous brands include Früh Kölsch and Diebels Alt.
For the past nearly seven thousand years, beer was a dark colored beverage. It has been less than 200 years since brewers began using lightly malted barley to create lighter colored beers like Helles, Kölsch or Pilsner. Primarily consumed in Thuringia and Saxony, Schwarzbier is like Germany´s Guinness. It is bottom-fermented, full-bodied, a bit sweet and malty, with about 11% wort and 4.8% alcohol content. Köstritzer Schwarzbier is a famous brand.
Starkbier or Bockbier
Another Southern German favorite, this full-bodied beer is traditionally brewed in March for consumption during Lent, with a minimum of 16% wort and about 7%+ alcohol content. The color ranges from golden to very dark. If you happen to be in Munich at the beginning of March, try to make the opening of the Salvator-Anstich, the keg opening at the Nockherberg Starkbier Festival). There you can sample Starkbier with up to 17% alcohol content.
The Berliner Weisse is a refreshing, fruity, wheat beer originating about 300 years ago in Germany’s capital city. It became very popular in the summer beer gardens of 19th century Berlin. Unlike Munich wheat beer, Berliner Weisse has about 7% wort and only 2.4% alcohol content and is fermented with a mix of brewer’s yeast and lactic acid bacteria. The result is a beer that has a lightly tart, crisp flavor and is sweetened with raspberry (red) or woodruff (green) extract. It should be served in a wide-bodied glass on a hot summer day.
Märzen or Oktoberfestbier
This bottom-fermented beer is similar to Helles, but with a minimum of 13% wort and 4.8 – 5.6% alcohol content. It was traditionally brewed in March, since, prior to the mid-19th century, breweries were required to shut down for the summer. It is also a favorite at the Munich Oktoberfest. With soft malty notes, Märzen is pleasant to drink, and is typically consumed in steins in beer halls.
Gose is a specialty wheat beer originating in the city of Goslar near the Harz Mountains. Like Berliner Weisse, this top-fermented beer is fermented with yeast and lactic acid bacteria giving it a lightly sour note. Surprisingly, salt and coriander are added during the brewing process to give it it’s unique flavor. Gose became very popular as a cloudy Weißbier in Leipzig, Halle and Dessau during the 19th century. Today, Gose is a rare specialty brew primarily served in Leipzig and Goslar.
These are unfiltered, non-pasteurized specialty beers that are served across Germany under several names including Kellerbier, Zwickelbier, Zoigl, or Kräusebier. These beers have a golden-brown, cloudy color due to the unfiltered yeast and malt particles. The taste of these beers is surprisingly light and refreshing. Full of vitamins and minerals, the bottom-fermented naturtrübe beers are considered more nutritious than filtered lagers. The wort content is between 11-14% and alcohol content between 4.5 – 5.5%. Originally from the Northern Bavarian regions of Franconia and Palatine, these beers today are available throughout Germany.
Rauchbier (Smoked Beer)
If you can smoke meats to make them more flavorful, why not beers as well? That’s exactly what the brewers in Bamberg in Northern Bavaria did when they decided to infuse beechwood smoke during the malting of barley. Rauchbier is a bottom fermented, amber to dark colored beer with a wort and alcohol content similar to Schwarzbier or light Bockbier.
Radler or Alsterwasser
This is not a separate beer category, but simply Lager beer mixed with lemonade. Known as Radler below the Danube and Alsterwasser north of the Danube, this refreshing mix contains less alcohol than Helles, is less bitter and is enjoyed at many pubs and beer gardens especially in Munich, Cologne and Hamburg.
Alcohol-free beer is no longer the drink of choice only for designated drivers! One of the fastest growing beer choices and with fewer calories than soft drinks or even apple juice, this beer can be as much a part of a healthy diet as any reduced calorie drink. Special brewing techniques limit the alcohol by either preventing its creation during fermentation or removing it after fermentation. The wort content is between 7-12% and the maximum allowed alcohol content about 0.5%. Most breweries now offer their own non-alcoholic beer.
Malzbier, or Malztrunk as it called today became very popular during the 1960s. It was frequently given to children as Kinderbier at parties while the grown-ups enjoyed the alcoholic version. Malzbier is brewed like regular beer, but with fewer hops, added brewing sugar and caramelized beet sugar extract. The best known brands are Vita Malz and Kara Malz. Today, many athletes and fitness fans add Malzbier to their diet, because it contains lots of fast burning glucose, minerals and protein.
History of German Wine
A Brief history
German winemaking dates back to 100 B.C. when ancient Romans, who conquered the region, began producing wines on Germanic soil. It was the Romans who cultivated the grapes there, recognizing the potential of sites like the Piesporter Goldtröpfchen (little droplets of gold). The largest wine press ever found north of the Alps was discovered at the base of Piesport and dates to 400 A.D.
During the Middle Ages, monks continued the tradition of wine making and cultivated the vineyards that are still used to this day. Historical wine properties like the Cistercian Monastery Kloster Eberbach in the Rheingau have a history dating back to about 1200 AD. In fact, back in the day, Germany and France were considered the two greatest wine producing countries in the world. German wines were sold at exceedingly high prices at auctions for their “noble sweet” wines (edelsüß), right alongside the classics wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy. These wines were treasured and collected by nobility, hence the derivation of the classification “noble sweet.”
Queen Victoria visited the Rheingau or “Rhine District” in 1845 and discovered her love for German Riesling. She coined the term “Hock”, which originally referred to Riesling from the Rhine community of Hochheim. Hoch is still used in the U.K. today to describe German Riesling.
So why did German wines lose their global reputation for quality? The most common theory is based on the export of large quantities of sweet, blended wines in the 1960s and 70s, among them the infamous Liebfraumilch and Blue Nun. Most Germans have never heard of these brands and have continued to produce and consume high quality wines. Over decades, sweet, non-descript wines became synonymous with German wines internationally. Today, an increasing number of high-quality German wines are now flowing across the Atlantic in an attempt to recapturing the reputation they once had internationally.
Dry, or “trocken” wines today make up nearly 70% of Germany’s production. The Germans also produce high quality sparkling wines, or “Sekt”, and Germans have become the world’s largest consumers of sparkling wine per capita. Anywhere in Germany it is customary to have a glass of Sekt any day of the week and for any occasion.
Most importantly, the Germans are in love with the great Pinot varietals of the world. It is a little known fact, but Germany is the world’s 3rd largest producer of Pinot Noir and over the last 40 years has adapted the same high quality production methods that are also found in Burgundy. Today, German Pinot Noirs are being recognized for their exceptional quality but at a much more affordable price than their French counterparts.
Terroir and Wine Production
Residing about as far north as grapes can be cultivated (49-51˚ N), Germany provides the ideal landscape for producing finicky but prized noble grape varietals, such as Riesling and Pinot Noir. There is no other country in the world where you can spend $20-30 on a bottle that can easily be aged for 20+ years.
Germany has one of the longest ripening windows for grapes in the world, which allows nature to impart a perfect sugar and acid ratio, providing for optimum balance and harmony, along with age worthiness. German Riesling grapes contain especially high levels of natural acidity and sugar, which act as a natural preservative and allow the wines to age gracefully.
Because of the harsher climate, Germany’s vineyards are usually found on slopes facing southward to assure the longest exposure to the sun. They are also often found in river valleys, such as the Rhine and Mosel, because of the water’s ability to moderate night temperatures and reflect the warmth of the sun.
The 1971 Classification and the Pradikatswein System (Kabinett, Spatlase, Auslase, etc.)
The Rationale Behind the 1971 Classification
A unique characteristic of German wines was the use of a hierarchy measuring quality based on the grape’s natural sugar level at harvest, also known as Oechsle in Germany or Brix in the U.S. This is entirely different from the sugar level of the finished wine, known as Residual Sugar or RS, the sugar left over after fermentation.
The sugar level in the grape at harvest is a determining factor for alcohol level or sweetness of the wine. During fermentation, sugar converts into alcohol and the winemaker can choose to make a drier, higher alcohol wine or a sweeter, lower alcohol wine from the same grape varietal. To make a sweeter wine, fermentation is stopped sooner, thereby leaving more residual sugar behind.
German wine labels usually indicate if a wine’s style is dry or semi-dry. The other way to know is to look at the alcohol level on a bottle of wine. If it’s around 7-9% alcohol it will be fairly sweet or “Süss”, in the 9-11% range, semi-dry or “Halbtrocken”, or if it’s above 12% you are typically in the dry range, or “Trocken”. Basically, more alcohol equals less residual sugar.
The Categories of the 1971 Classification
The traditional 1971 classification is broken down into two major quality categories: “Qualitätswein” and “Prädikatswein”.
Qualitätswein must come from one of Germany’s thirteen official growing regions (Anbaugebiete). The grapes are usually not at a very high level of ripeness and chaptalization is allowed, which means sugar may be added to the unfermented grapes to increase the final alcohol level (but not necessarily to increase sweetness). This is a very common quality level and represents what is typically purchased at a local grocery store and drank in most households.
Translated as “quality wine with distinction,” Prädikatswein denotes time of harvest as the most important differentiator between the various quality levels. Prädikatswein must be approved by German wine authorities and does not allow any additives or chaptalization. The scale for Prädikatswein is based on six ascending degrees of ripeness or sugar level of the grapes at harvest: Kabinett, then Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerenauslese and Eiswein (the latter 3-4 are considered dessert wines).
Contrary to common belief, ripeness does not define the quality of the wine or the sweetness of the wine. It merely describes when the wine was picked during the harvest cycle. The six classifications within the Prädikatswein category all denote at which time the grapes were harvested and are as follows:
Kabinett wines are picked during the normal harvest time and are usually light to medium bodied, well-balanced in acidity and dry to semi-dry in style, although sweet Kabinetts are made as well. Originally, the term Kabinett was derived from the Cabinet, a side room, built in the cellar of the Eberbach monastery in 1245, in which the best wines were stored.
Literally translated as “late harvest,” Spätlese is picked about two weeks later. The grapes are now fully ripened and have a greater body, longer finish and more intensity of fruit than their younger siblings, the Kabinetts. Spätlese can be dry, semi-dry or sweet in style and maintains an amazing balance of sweetness and acidity.
Translated as “select harvest,” Auslese is made from very ripe grapes, which come from individually selected bunches that are harvested by hand. Auslese is typically done in a sweet style and marks the beginning of the dessert wine category, although some Auslese still pairs very well with rich dishes such as foie gras and spicy foods.
Translated as “berry select harvest,” Beerenauslese (BA) is rare and expensive, because individual grapes are selected and harvested by hand. Similar to Sauternes, BAs have typically been exposed to botrytis cinerea (noble rot) but tend to be lower in alcohol with greater acidity. BAs are exceptional, highly sought after dessert wines, whose great aging potential and richness of honey, caramel and tropical fruits make them sought after collector wines.
Translated as “dried berry select harvest,” Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA) is the richest of the German dessert wines. Because the grapes contain little water so late in the year, it can take a single individual an entire day to pick enough grapes to make one bottle. As a result, they are very expensive. They are the King of German dessert wines!
Translated as “Ice Wine,” a traditional ice wine only happens in rare years when the first frost, usually in December, will freeze the small portion of grapes that the vintner has left on the vine. Ice wine grapes have the minimum sugar level of a Beerenauslese, but must be unaffected by botrytis. Ice wine is always a gamble for vintners, because they have to decide to leave grapes on the vine long after the regular harvest is finished.
Other countries produce Ice Wine, but often by freezing the grapes in a commercial facility. For the German purist, this is heresy. The German Eiswein sits alongside the Trockenbeerenauslese as the Königin (Queen) of the German dessert wines and a good ice wine can age for up to 100 years.
History of the VDP Classification
Beginning with the 2012 harvest, the VDP, organization of Germany’s highest quality wine estates, made significant changes to the way they classified the quality of their wines. The VDP producers strove to separate themselves from the confusing 1971 German wine law in the hopes of reintroducing consumers to the best specific sites for growing wines within each growing region.
The 1971 wine law codified quality based on the ripeness of the grapes at the time of harvest, which does not consider the location of the vineyard, what most growers around the world care about. The quality producers sought to return to the idea of classifying the quality of wines based upon the quality and reputation of site-specific dry wines.
The Categories of the 2012 VDP Classification
The differences in terminology and style between regions led to great confusion among consumers and sometimes the growers themselves. This is what ultimately led the VDP to come up with a new, single system of classifying the regions, villages, and single vineyards that could be used across all the 13 major regions. The VDP created 4 different quality categories that are loosely modeled after how the famed Burgundy region of France is organized:
Gutswein (Regional wine)
• e.g. – Rheingau
• Burgundy equivalent: Wine from anywhere in Burgundy
• e.g. – Bourgogne AOP
Gutswein must be grown in a single major region of Germany. The grapes can come from vineyards located anywhere within the region on the label (eg: Mosel, Rheingau, Pfalz, etc.). The wines can be made from any grape variety as long as it comprises at least 85% of the grapes used for the bottling.
Ortswein (Village wine)
• e.g. – Hattenheim (within the Rheingau)
• Burgundy equivalent: Wine from a specific village in Burgundy
• e.g. – Vosne Romanée AOP
Ortswein must be grown in the vineyards within the delineated borders of a specifically named village (known as Gemeinde) within a major growing region. The wines can be made from any grape variety as long as it comprises at least 85% of the grapes used for the bottling.
Erste Lage (First or Premier Growth wines
• e.g. – Schützenhaus vineyard (located in the village of Hattenheim, Rheingau)
• Burgundy equivalent: Wine from a highly regarded specific vineyard site within a village.
• e.g. – Vosne Romanée AOP – Le Suchots Premier Cru
Erste Lage wines come from specific vineyard sites within the named villages. These vineyards have long reputations for producing exciting wines of high quality above normal sites. They may have longer exposure to the sun, more desirable soils types, be better drained, or many other factors that allow them to produce wines of greater complexity, and higher demand than the average vineyard in the region.
Grosse Lage (Great or Grand Growth wines)
• e.g. – Wisselbrunnen (located in the village of Hattenheim, Rheingau)
• Burgundy equivalent: Wine from the highest quality regarded sites.
• e.g. – La Tâche Grand Cru AOP (located in the village of Vosne Romanée)
Grosse Lage wines come from specific vineyard sites within the named villages. These vineyards have long historical reputations, often going back centuries, for producing the highest quality wines that the regions have to offer. They are on the best sites with the longest sun exposure and the most desirable soils types, are the best drained, and many other factors that allow them to produce wines of greatest complexity, weight, and renown than any other vineyards in the region.
The VDP now uses the old Prädikat system only on labels for sweet wines, which can still carry the designation of Kabinett, Spätlese and so on. VDP classified wines may include a Prädikat, if they reach the required sugar level (Oechsle) at harvest for each Prädikat. The wines may also be labeled as Trocken or Halbtrocken, if there is less than 9 grams per liter (g/l) or 18 g/l in the wine, respectively.
German Grape Varietals
When most people think of German wine, they think about Riesling. Riesling is thought to have come from the Rhine region of Germany, although its exact origins are somewhat murky. The grape is first mentioned in merchant documents from the 1400s and was widely planted in the late Middle Ages. Riesling is a noble grape varietal that is ideally suited to the cooler conditions and long growing windows in Germany. It ripens late and will develop high levels of both acidity and sugar in the grape, when grown in a cooler climate. When grown in hotter wine growing regions, Riesling tends to ripen too quickly and will lack in acidity. This can result in wines that taste flabby or syrupy. German Rieslings are exposed to generally ideal growing conditions for the grape and the natural sweetness of the grape is balanced beautifully by its acidity. While most Riesling that has been exported over the years to the United States has been sweet, the vast majority of what is bottled today in Germany is dry Riesling.
Another noteworthy German varietal, Spätburgunder, the German word for Pinot Noir, has drawn increasing attention in recent years. It is for good reason, since the Germans have one of the best microclimates for this finicky grape and also are the world’s 3rd largest producer of Pinot Noir. Little of its potential is known outside Germany, but over the last three decades, Germany has become a new frontier for this most noble grape varietal.
Today, the quality of German Pinot Noir has increased significantly, allowing some German Pinot Noirs to compete with top Pinots from around the world. Many German Pinots are aged for some time in traditional barrique barrels (small French oak barrels) and have a velvety, silky smooth texture. In comparison to Pinots from other regions, German Pinot Noirs are true bargains.
Pinot Gris & Pinot Blanc
Two other very popular and classic grape varietals grown in Germany are Grauburgunder (Gray Burgundy or Pinot Gris) and Weissburgunder (white Burgundy or Pinot Blanc). The latter should not be confused with White Burgundy from Burgundy in France, which is made from Chardonnay.
These grapes produce fragrant and bright whites that pair wonderfully with food. They are most commonly grown in the Baden, Pfalz and Rheinhessen wine growing regions. German Grauburgunder generally displays aromas of almond, pear, pineapple and citrus. Weissburgunder tends to show more delicate floral and apple notes.
Due to the German sounding name, Gewürztraminer is generally thought of as a grape varietal commonly planted in Germany. However, it is rather the opposite. Worldwide plantings of Gewürztraminer are rather small to begin with due to the low yields that the grape produces. The largest global producer of Gewürztraminer is France – almost all is from the Alsace region, which borders Germany’s Pfalz region. In Germany, it is the Pfalz with the most plantings of Gewürztraminer.
Like Riesling, Gewürztraminer is a grape varietal that it is very adaptable and can be made in a range of styles from dry to noble sweet dessert wines. It is a very aromatic grape, with a signature floral, fruit and spice nose. In Germany, many winemakers reserve Gewürztraminer for noble sweet dessert wines, because of the low yields the grape produces. However, dry and semi-dry styles can also be found.