Beer is undoubtedly one of the first things that springs to mind when you think of German cuisine. Rich, stout and dark, light, blonde and refreshing or crisp and sharp - the Germans are known for their wide variety of beer, kept in check by the Deutsches Reinheitsgebot (German Beer Purity Law).
Unsurprisingly, Germans come in third place worldwide when it comes to beer consumption, drinking a staggering 106 litres per capita each year - a clear indication of its cultural significance. From the infamous beer purity law and Germany's favourite types of beer, to some iconic brewers and the craft brewing phenomena sweeping through cities across Germany, here you can read up on everything you need to know about German beer.
Beer in German culture
Although the Germans did not invent beer, the country holds the alcoholic beverage in very high esteem, as made evident by the German Beer Purity Law. With more than 1.300 breweries producing over 5.500 different types of beer, it should come as no surprise that the glowing nectar is the country's national drink and consuming it is a vital part of the culture.
The Germans take their beer very seriously and even have a special word for it, Bierernst, which means deadly serious and literally translates as "beer serious."
Over the years, Oktoberfest has become the leading international symbol of German beer culture. Raising the profile of some of the most iconic breweries from Munich each autumn, Oktoberfest may attract people from all over the world, but it is still so much more than a tourist attraction.
Traditional costumes, such as the Dirndl and Lederhosen, are commonly associated with the drinking of beer in tents, as are the famous Alpine landscapes of Theresienwiese. Beyond Oktoberfest, other cities host hundreds of their own beer festivals and events throughout the year as well.
History of beer in Germany
Beer is one of the oldest drinks known to humankind and dates back some 12.000 years to Mesopotamia. This slightly alcoholic, fermented 'liquid bread' - as it was referred to at the time - became a staple drink in nearly all cultures across the globe. In Germany, records indicate that monasteries have been producing beer for public consumption since the end of the year 1000 AD.
The majority of the beer-producing monasteries were in the south of Germany, and some of them are still around to this day! Weihenstephan, located to the north of Munich and founded in 1040, is the oldest brewery still in operation in the world, for example.
As it was safer for the public to drink beer than water back in the day, due to diseases, the production process and calorific density, it was common to give it to small children as well. With time, beer became increasingly popular in Germany, especially after the introduction of the Beer Purity Law in the 16th century.
German Beer Purity Law (Deutsches Reinheitsgebot)
Brewers around the world use a diverse range of starchy grain as a base for malt to make beer, such as barley, emmer wheat, rye spelt or even maize. However, almost all German brewers make their beer using just four ingredients, as laid out in the Deutsches Reinheitsgebot (the German Beer Purity Law).
More than 500 years old, the Beer Purity Law was brought into effect in 1516 in Bavaria, under the rule of Duke Wilhelm IV. At the time, the law mandated that all beer brewed in Bavaria could only be made from malt, hops and clean water - no additives allowed.
Later on, in the 19th century, German and French scientists discovered the important role yeast plays in the fermentation process, and yeast was added to the list of permitted ingredients. The Beer Purity Law was gradually adopted throughout the country and has remained the main law governing beer brewing since 1906. Not only does the law preserve the traditional craft technique, but it is also regarded as the world's oldest food law still in effect.
How the Germans drink beer
Germans are widely known for their more relaxed attitudes towards drinking beer, where the legal drinking age for "soft" alcoholic beverages, like beer and wine, is 16.
Drinking beer in public is not only legal in many parts of the country, like Berlin, but also very common. The Feierabendbier (end of work beer) remains a key part of the working culture in Germany as well, so don't be surprised to see people on their commute home with a bottle or a can of beer in their hand. In the summertime, it is even more common for Germans to enjoy a few beers outside - at parks, or even sitting on the kerbside!
There are a few traditions surrounding beer drinking in Germany as well. Toasting before you take the first sip of a new glass of beer, especially when you are with friends or family, is very common. But be sure to make clear eye contact with each person when your glasses touch, as to the superstitious it is seen as bad luck if you don't.
Popular types of German beer
Germans have been brewing beer for more than a thousand years, so it's no big secret that Germany is a Bierland ("beer country"). Each region in Germany has its own particular type of beer and beer brands, which vary according to local ingredients and brewing traditions. This is why beer in Germany can differ so widely in taste, body and density from one region to the next.
With so many different types of German beers out there, it is important to know your Bock from your Kölsch. To help you understand the different types of German beer varieties, familiarise yourself with this list of some of the most popular types of beer in Germany.
If you go to the beer section at any supermarket and grab one of the first beers you see, chances are very high that you’d end up with a Pilsner, or a variation of one. Light in both taste and colour, this pale lager actually originated from what is now the Pilsner Urquell brewery in the Czech Republic.
All malt Pilsners come in two styles: the Czech (also known as Bohemian) and the German. Most Pilsners are somewhere between 4,5 percent and 5 percent alcohol by volume (ABV) and tend to have a bitter, snappy finish of spicy, floral hops. The German-style Pilsner tends to be more bitter in taste, lighter in body and colour, and drier, but both are easy to drink and refreshing.
Helles is an early German version of the Pilsner. Originating in Munich, this light lager is less hoppy than its Czech sibling, with a sweeter and fresher taste. Famous spin-offs of Pilsners and Helles include Miller, Bud and Pabst Blue Ribbon.
Traditional Bock, Maibock
If you get a beer with a goat somewhere on the label, then it's most likely a Bock. Varying in colour, Bock beers are usually stronger than Pilsner, coming in somewhere between 6,3 and 7,5 percent ABV, and typically have a sweet, bready-yeasty taste. This is due to the Munich malt used in the brewing process.
Bock beers stem from the town of Einbeck, which gave them their goaty name. It's a play on words: if you say "Einbeck" out loud, it sounds similar to "Ein Bock", the German word for billy goat.
Maibocks are a seasonal variation, found in spring, and tend to be lighter in colour and hoppier in taste, with a floral bitterness. Traditional Bock beers are usually amber to brown in colour, stronger in flavour and have a deeper taste.
Doppelbock and Eisbock
Stronger and maltier Bock beers, which tend to be darker in colour, are known as Doppelbocks. First brewed by the monks at the Paulaner brewery in Munich, this beer is quite rich in taste, with a caramel, sugary flavour. Very deep Doppelbocks can also have notes of chocolate or fruit as well, perfect for sipping on after a long day.
If you are in the mood for something a bit stronger, then try an Eisbock. These beers are Doppelbocks which had a part of their water content removed during brewing via freezing, to create a boozier, stronger, concentrated beer. Usually, between 9 and 14 percent ABV, Eisbocks tend to have an intense fruity flavour.
Oktoberfest / Märzen, Dunkel
Oktoberfest and Märzen are two names used to describe one type of lager beer, while Dunkel (dark) lager is their darker and stronger sibling. In the 16th century, Bavarian lawmakers banned the brewing of beer during spring and summer to protect its quality, as wild yeast and bacteria thrive in the warmer months and could ruin the beer. As the beers made in the winter and early spring were fermented and kept in cool cellars and caves, they would go on to become what is known as today as Dunkel.
Märzen beer gets its name from the brewing that took place in the month running up to summer, although this lager and the Vienna lager that we know today were not developed until the mid 19th century, following the discovery of lager yeast. Both Märzen and Oktoberfest lagers have become a huge focal point at Oktoberfest, with many of Munich's breweries, such as Löwenbrau, Hofbrähaus, Augustiner, Paulaner, Hacker-Pschorr, Franziskaner and Spaten, producing and exporting huge amounts each year.
All of these lagers are malty in taste and tend to have a clean, neutral bready, nutty flavour. Märzen (March) and Oktoberfest beers are amber-brown in colour, although the former can sometimes be a bit lighter in colour. Dunkels, as the name would suggest, tend to be quite dark.
Schwarzbier is the darkest of all German beers, a shade darker than Dunkel and Doppelbock - which makes sense as its name translates to "black beer". Despite its deep appearance, this beer is light in body and drier than Dunkel in comparison. Usually 5 percent ABV, Schwarzbier has a lightly bready malt flavour, with a hop and roasty bitterness at the end.
Hefeweizen, Dunkelweizen and Weizenbock
Germany is famous for its wheat ales (Weizen). Hefeweizen (literally, yeast wheat) is the most common type and is usually served in tall, narrow glasses that resemble flower vases. Cloudy in appearance due to the unique top-fermenting yeast used to brew it, this ale is typically stout in taste, with intense clove-like aromas.
Darker types of this beer are Dunkelweizen (dark wheat), and stronger versions are called Weizenbock (imagine a wheat ale brewed to the power of a bock beer). Dunkelweizens usually have a caramel, dark fruit flavour, which some compare to banana bread, while Weizenbocks tend to taste like Hefeweizens and Dunkelweizens mixed together with extra power - even more intense in flavour and body.
A distinctive tasting and looking beer, Rauchbier features a unique smokey flavour that is made with malted barley that has been dried over an open flame. Stemming from Bamberg, this niche brewing technique gives the beer base a deep, rich and smokey flavour that goes well with meat.
In Germany, there are two different styles of Altbier, which is made following the old method of brewing. The Altbier style found in this region surrounding Düsseldorf tends to be hoppier in flavour. The Northern German Altbier, more commonly found elsewhere, is brewed with ale yeast and fermented with base malt. Easy to drink, both types of this light ale come in between 4,5 percent and 5,2 percent ABV.
Many consider Kölsch to be something of a beer hybrid, as it is an ale, brewed with top-fermenting yeast, that is then stored in a cool cellar for a month or two afterwards. Stemming from Cologne, this crisp and delicate ale is known for its spicy, herbal hops and mellow malt flavour. Easy to drink with nearly anything, its yellow colour and flavour profile stem from its unique fermentation process.
Berliner Weisse, Gose
Berliner Weisse and Gose are two beer types which have recently become popular in the craft beer world. Berliner Weisse is a sour, almost tart, fruity wheat beer, which gets its flavour profile through fermentation with lactobacillus bacteria that produce lactic acid. A summertime beer, Berliner Weisse became a massive hit in beer gardens in the 19th century.
Gose is also made tangy with the same bacteria, but it contains a few other unusual ingredients - namely coriander and salt. The result is a cloudy, sour and spicy beer that is very refreshing in the summer. Both have a somewhat lower alcohol content, ranging between 2,2 and 2,4 percent ABV.
Iconic German beer breweries and brands
Germany's history is steeped in beer brewing and drinking. One of the country's most celebrated beverages, nowadays German beer is drunk and enjoyed all around the globe.
There are more than 5.500 different German beer brands, which each produce a dozen or more different beer varieties. Many of them have been brewing beer for decades, but what are some of the most well-known, traditional breweries? Here we share some of the most iconic breweries and brands in Germany.
The oldest still-operating brewery in the world, this Bavarian brand first began when monks started brewing beer in the Benedictine Weihenstephan Abbey in 1040. Best known for producing Hefeweizen, a Bavarian-style wheat beer, Weihenstephan makes several different types of beer and has expanded its empire across the globe.
One of the world’s biggest Weissbier (wheat beer) breweries, Erdinger is also the 10th best-selling beer brand in Germany, based on output. Founded in 1886 by Johann Kienle, Erdinger currently produces ten different beer variations, although its Weissbier and Kristallweizen are the most famous.
Spaten-Franziskaner-Bräu is a brewery in Munich which produces beer under the Spaten and Franziskaner brands. With roots stemming back to 1397, this brewery is one of six Munich-based breweries that produce beer for Oktoberfest beer each year. Its Oktoberfest beer is made during March and stored before being served at the festival in autumn each year.
One of the few breweries left that still produces Rauchbier, Aecht Schlenkerla has roots going back to 1405. Its most iconic beer, the Aecht Schlenkerla, has a distinctive smoky aroma, reminiscent of beef jerky and is tapped directly from the wooden barrel at its own tavern.
A major player within the German beer scene, listed as the 6th best-selling beer brand in Germany, the Paulaner brewery was first founded by the Minim friars of the Neudeck ob der Au cloister in 1634. Named after the founder of the friar order, Paulaner is one of the six breweries that produces beer for Oktoberfest. Next to its special Oktoberfest beer, Paulaner is known for brewing a great Doppelbock.
Best known for its wheat beer, this Bavarian brewery was founded by Georg I. Schneider in 1872. Over the years the brewery has produced several different wheat beer specialities, but one of the most unique beers offered by this brand is actually an Eisbock. The Schneider Aventius has a somewhat heavy and malty body, with nutty and caramel flavours and a hint of plum.
The oldest independent brewery in Munich, Augustiner-Bräu was founded in 1328. One of the last breweries in Munich that is not owned by a major, international beer conglomerate, Ausgustiner was originally established inside an Augustinian monastery. It’s most popular beer is the Augustiner Helles, which can be found at nearly all supermarkets and late-night stores in Munich. Augustiner is one of the six companies that makes beer for the annual Oktoberfest, although it is the only one to exclusively pour from their wooden barrels.
A more niche brewery, Gaffel is famous for producing Kölsch, a refreshing beer that is only made in and around the city of Cologne. Less bitter than a Pilsner, Kölsch are slightly hoppy and only ever served in a 200ml glass.
Radeberger Group is the biggest brewery group in Germany. Accounting for roughly 15 percent of German beer production, this group produces 13 million hectolitres each year for its many subsidiaries which include the brands Freiberger, Berliner Kindl and Stuttgarter Hofbräu. With headquarters in Frankfurt, the Rasdeberger produces beer in 16 different locations across Germany.