Think Germany and you think beer. It’s a country whose beer culture is so ingrained and recognised that Oktoberfest (16 September–3 October 2017) is celebrated around the world.
It’s the birthplace of lager, and one that is full of life and flavour (a far cry from the insipid mass-produced stuff). In fact, the word "lager" just means cold-stored, and is a method of making beer rather than a specific style.
Most German beers are also held to the Reinheitsgebot, the German Beer Purity Law, that originated in the sixteenth century. It specifies that only water, malt and hops could be used to make beers – they didn’t know that yeast made beer ferment in those days.
All this adds up to a huge range of beers, but navigating the menu in a crowded Munich beer hall, or even in the bottle shops and online retailers, can be bewildering. So to hunt out Germany’s essential brews, we've compiled this handy guide to the best German beers and their styles.
This is the beer that took over the world after German and Czech migrants introduced Pils lager to the USA, UK and dozens of other countries, despite it being one of the most difficult beers to make. Pilsen is now by far the most popular style in Germany, if not worldwide. At its best, it is light, crisp, clear with an earthy hint of the Saaz hops. Helles is a slightly maltier version.
Try: Weihenstephan Pils from the world’s oldest brewery. For a Munich Helles pick up Augustiner-Bräu Lagerbier-Hell.
This ‘March’ beer is a deliciously malty lager from Bavaria (and very similar to the Oktoberfest style). It's usually a couple of shades darker than a lager, with a rich caramel flavour, but has that same crisp finish. It’s becoming more popular among craft brewers, and rightly so – it’s eminently quaffable.
Try: The classic is Ayinger Märzen.
This beer made in Cologne (Köln) looks like a lager, but is fermented warm like English ale then cold stored ('lagered'). It’s one of the few beers with a Protected Geographical Indication, and is light and full of character. Altbiers from Düsseldorf are darker – the German beer most like a UK ale – but much crisper and cleaner.
Try: Früh Kölsch has been a classic since 1904. A great Altbier is Uerige Alt.
Stood overlooking the Alps or after a long day skiing, it’s the sumptuous Weissbier – a wheat beer – in that tall curvy glass that you’ll reach for. "Weiss" means white, and these beers are usually hazy. Hefeweizen in particular has a yeasty taste ("hefe" means yeast) imparting a spicy clove aroma and, often, a suggestion of bananas.
Try: Weihenstephaner Hefeweissbier.
As the clamour for sour beers continues in the craft beer world, it was only a matter of time before the once-obscure Berliner weisse returned. And be thankful it did. This summer beer is usually low in alcohol (2.5-4%), cheek-suckingly tart and sessionable (yes, it’s a beery word I’m afraid). Don’t miss the salty Gose either, a close cousin.
Try: Bayerischer Bahnhof make a great Gose and "Berliner Style Weisse".
Brewing a light beer took time and skill, from the maltser who ‘toasts’ the cereal kernels to the brewer. First came the Dunkel, a dark lager, high in malt characteristics with very little hint of hops. It’s a popular style over the winter months and perfect for swilling down your classic Munich beer hall food, schweinshaxe – a roasted ham hock.
Try: The Augustiner-Bräu Dunkel (preferably in a loud Munich beer hall).
The ‘black lager’ is, for this beer enthusiast at least, one of the great beer styles. It can be as black as Guinness, but with an incredible lightness of touch, effervescence and as crisp as a pale lager. Buy one for a lager drinking friend and you'll have them on it all night. Delicious.
Try: Köstritzer Schwarzbier. No need to look any further. Seek out now.
Steady with this one, the alcohol volume is often around 7%. It’s a sweet, malty, lagered beer that is popular in winter. A slightly lighter gold version is the Maibock, while the Dopplebock is even stronger and maltier; a sipping beer – but not as much as Eisbock that can turn to the alcohol volume up to 11%.
Try: The Paulaner Salvator Dopplebock is the original, first created in 1629.
Bacon! Want to drink bacon? Well you probably never really thought of it before, but this is as near as you’ll get. There are a couple of other breweries around the world that make a Rauchbier, but really the Aecht Schlenkerla Marzen is the original and the one to pick up. The intense smokiness comes from malt that has been smoked. A bit of a surprise this one, but stick it out – it’s surprisingly drinkable!
Try: Aecht Schlenkerla Marzen.
Daniel is the editor of the craft beer publication Original Gravity%.
Top image: © Frank Gaertner/Shutterstock