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German Beer

Beer or Bier, by any other name, would it taste the same? This page tries to explain a little about the mystique of beer in Germany. You can learn about the beer types and see a discussion about top and bottom fermentation. Additionally, we have included a discussion about the German beer law called "Reinheitsgebot" and some of the issues surrounding the trend to consolidate the brewing industry.

No discussion of Germany would be complete without touching on the one drink for which this country is famous. OK, sure Germany produces wine too but its beer is more respected, at least by Americans. You can read a lot about their wine on the German Wine page.

Beer consumption per capita has dropped slightly in recent years. This is perhaps a function of more disposable income in the working class ranks and they are buying wine instead of beer. Or, it could be that the 3 million or so immigrants who have come to live there are not buying the local brews like the natives.

But nothing has dampened the country’s thirst. Germans consume almost 224 pints of beer per man woman and child. When you take into consideration that babies drink milk and the very old drink the German equivalent to Geritol. That leaves the German Beer drinker (by my estimate, 60% of the population) to drink over 30 gallons of beer a year. Men probably drink twice as much as women but in general, they seem to be up to the task. We try to help where we can – it’s the least we can do as guests in Germany. The quality of the beer is great. This is less due to the laws governing the production of beer in Germany, Reinheitsgebot, as the pride and skill of the German brewmasters. Germany is second to the Czech Republic in beer consumption per capita. Also, half of the beer consumption in Germany is Pils style beer, see below. This paraphrased data is as of 2014 per April, 2016 of

The taste of the different beers varies widely and no German of drinking age is without his or her preferences. Most can write dissertations comparing and contrasting the different regional offerings. Wherever you are, try the local brew. Try the two most common styles; Pils and export. Then try wheat beer, Weizenbier, made with wheat instead of barley malt. Learn the difference between hell, and alt.

There are many others types including smoked beer, geräuchertes, and a sweet beer, Berliner Weisse. There is also Bock and many more. In all there are 30 different types of beer to choose from. Watch out though, in Germany, the beer can be slightly more alcoholic than in the USA. German beers vary between 3.5% and 6% while most American beers top out at 4%.

Perhaps you would like refreshment without the headache? Try an Alster (or is it Alsterwasser?). These are beers mixed 50/50 with lemonade or 7-up. You could order a Diesel too. If you do so in a restaurant, you'll get 50% beer and 50% coke. If you do so in a gas station, ... well, it just will not taste the same, you know.

Since 1999, German beer production is down almost 6%. German consumption of German beer is down over 8% and the Per capita is down over 9%. But German consumption of beer from other countries is up over 2%. And, their exports of German beer are up almost 45%. The brewing companies are now only 1,274 down from about 19,000 in the late 19th Century. The total production was 106.19 hl or 2.8 million US gallons. (Source: Deutscher Brauer-Bund; Stand: 28.07.2005). Sadly these statistics are from 2004. I have asked three times for updates but I am ignored. Ahh, the tyranny of language differences.

By the way, the statistics were provided by Holsten-Brauerei AG, and are for 1999. Perhaps consumption is up this year even more. Their website is -- what else? Don’t leave Germany without sampling the wine either.

Types of German Beer: This is not an exhaustive list because there are currently (2010) more than 30 different types of beer in Germany. So I want to focus on the few larger, better-known types. They are Pils, Weizenbier, Altbier, Kölsch, Schwarzbier, Märzen, and Berliner Weisse. Additionally, I will discuss another concept sometimes referred to as beer cocktails.

Pils: Härke Pils. It is made in Peine Permission and photo from Leif in SeattleThis is my personal favorite, or was until I stopped with alcohol in 2013. I know some of the beer aficionados who read this page will say, "But you have not tried ale or smoked beer." I have tried probably 20 of the 30 or so types of beer. Before I gave up alcohol altogether, I kept coming back to simple Pils style as my preference. The photograph on the right is by a reader in Seattle and is Härke Pils. It is made in Peine. That reader tells me that this is one of pis five favorite German beers. Germans drink twice as much Pils beer as all other types of beer combined.

The name "Pils" has a little history. It is a derivation of the name of a city in the Czech Republic, Plze. When that country was called Bohemia, the city was called Pilsen. All beer of any type from that city is called "Pilsner." The shortened term Pils has been in use so long that my brother-in-law was surprised to learn it came from Pilsen. Pils beers account for two-thirds of all beer consumed in Germany. All Pils beers are bottom fermented beers. More on top and bottom fermentation later.

The story goes that the good citizens of Pilsen (Pilzn or Plzeň - you choose) wanted a better beer after the beer they brewed in 1838 had to be poured onto the street because it had become undrinkable. That beer was a top fermented ale type of beer that did not age well. So to get a better beer, they hired Josef Groll, a famous Bavarian brewmaster from Vilshofen on the Danube in Bavaria to move to Pilsen and improve their beer. He did. By combining the lightly roasted malt that Pilsen citizens had perfected with the local hops and local soft water, he used bottom fermenting yeast from Bavaria to make a better beer. Using the bottom fermenting yeast the beer would store longer in the cool caves in the vicinity. While nearly all the beer produced in Europe at that time were ale style beers that used top fermentation. Josef already knew a lot about lagering (storing) beer. Bavarians had been brewing lager ales for decades. The beer Josef made came to be called Pilsner Urquell and has since become world famous. What does the word Urquell mean? In German, a spring where water bubbles up from the ground is a "Quell." And something that is very old is prefixed with an "Ur." The two terms smashed together make Urquell; a very old spring. Get it? Germans do that kind of word smashing a lot.

Our favorite form of energyJosef Groll released the first batch of Pilsner Urquell on a holiday called Martinstag in 1842. The citizens loved the taste. They sold their excess to surrounding communities and the business prospered. Soon, other breweries were copying the brewing method and producing their own Pils style beers. The practice spread and many of the beers, even the nasty ones in America like Miller Lite and Bud Lite, are of the pils type (bottom fermented lagers).

Pils is marked by a foamy head, a clear yellow color, and a slight taste of hops. It is normally served at about 8ºC or 46ºF, which is a little cooler than cellar temperature.Schloss Brau St. Annen Rhoeder Some purists say that it takes 7 minutes to pour a good Pils beer, but the Germany Beer Institute debates that and says that if poured in 3 minutes, it maintains its freshness, carbonations and will not lose any taste for 10 to 15 minutes. Drink fast brothers and sisters. The beer industry and your local pub depend on you.

Where are the best Pils style beers produced? I think the answer is in the northern German city of Jever. But that is just me. In northern Germany, where the small town of Jever is located, the locals preferred a hoppier, or bitterer, beer and many northern German Pils beers are much hoppier than Bavarian style Pils. Some in my extended family think the best beer is produced in Bavaria where they have little if any herby taste.

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Weizenbier: Weizenbier or wheat beer in English came originally from Bavaria. Like Pils style beers, that type of beer is produced all over the world today. One popular producer in Germany is Schöffenhoffer who bottles the beer in Frankfurt am Main.

Weizenbiere are slightly cloudy and yellow in color. Made from wheat instead of barley malt, they have a distinctive effervescent taste admired by many beer drinkers. When poured correctly, they produce a large foamy head. They are typically served cooler than Pils style beers so think 6 or 7ºC which translates to 43ºF or 44ºF.

Altbier: Alt beers are similar to ales, so they are bottom fermented. As the name implies, they are the old type of beer. This is my second favorite type and they resemble the ales from the micro-breweries in America. Amber in color and clear in appearance, they should be served warmer than the other beers. They can be severed at room temperature but they are better served at cellar temperature or about 13ºC and 55ºF.

Kölsch: Kölsch came originally from Köln or Cologne in English. This is a clear yellow beer in appearance but with more hop flavor. In truth, I have yet to experience this beer so I am at a loss as to what to say about it. Maybe one of you readers can help me.

Schwarzbier: This is a dark beer and there is a variety of tastes. Schwarz means black. It is not bitter and can be on the sweet side. It is the perfect accompaniment for red meat and especially game meat. But then I have had a wonderful experience with Schwarzbier and a bratwurst.

Märzen: The name comes from the month of March. In March, brew masters make stronger (higher alcohol content) beers so they will store longer. This is a winter beer from Bavaria, but it can be served through September. Märzen has a clear light amber appearance that develops a good foamy head. It tastes more of barley malt than of hops. Drink it as cold as Pils, about 8ºC or 46ºF.

Berliner Weisse: Obviously an invention of the folk in Berlin. It is a light beer, which means lower in alcohol, primarily because of the added syrup. Classically, the syrup added is either green (wintergreen) or red (raspberry). When you order it, you should specify the color or the flavor; Waldmeister = wintergreen or woodruff, and Hinbeer = raspberry. This beer is sweet, colorful and fun. It is refreshing on a hot day. Without the syrup, Berliner Weisse is sour or acidic. That taste comes from the distinctive yeast used in the brewing and the wheat used. The type of glass used to serve beers is important; in the case of Berliner Weisse, the glass is a short, stubby stemmed glass about the size of a small cereal bowl. You will see people drinking this beer not only in Berlin but also in sidewalk cafes all over Germany.

Beer Cocktails: This is not a type of beer; a beer cocktail is a drink based upon beer. In some ways Berliner Weiβe is in this group but the mixture is closer to an 80/20 mix of beer and syrup. A beer cocktail is a 50/50 mixture of beer with juice, water, soft drink, or syrup.

Since beer cocktails are made at the bar when you order it, the 50//50 mixture can become 25/75 or the other way around. Mixing these drinks as they are ordered reduces necessary to stock different drinks. You could say it is sort of a "Just in Time" approach to the drink inventory problem. Beer cocktails go by several different names. A Radler is a mixture of lemonade or 7-Up type of soda drink with beer. (A cyclist is sometimes called a Radler in German.) The same drink in northern Germany is referred to as an Alster or an Alsterwasser. A Diesel which is a mix of cola and beer. A variation of the British Shandy is orange pop and beer. In stores, these beer cocktails are sold side by side on the shelves, apart from the real beers even though they are made in the same breweries. The grouping also includes energy drinks that may not have any alcohol but loaded with caffeine and other chemicals that cause a buzz.

Many breweries have entered this market as a sideline and sales are skyrocketing. Perhaps this is a move toward a soberer and healther Germany. In my humble opinion, such drinks are sacrilegious to the beer culture. Although, on a hot day, they are refreshing and I will admit to partaking in the heresy once in a while.

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Other Types: The above list could be extended to include other frequently found types such as Export, Hell, Bock, Diet, and Malz. Additionally, there are a wide variety of seasonal beers, of which Märzen is one. One does not know where to stop but I stopped here.

Two Fermentation Styles: The two fermentation styles are top and bottom. Why is this important to the topic of German beer? A good question. In 2010, we toured the Hütt Brauerei, a brewery near Kassel, Germany. I asked the tour guide if a particular beer was a top fermented style or a bottom fermented style. He had been well trained in this company's beer styles and brewing methods. He could quote temperatures and durations of each step in the process. However, he did not know top from bottom fermentation and he had never heard of the question before. So, one can conclude that to this German person, the question of fermentation style is not important at all, only the taste is important. When you think about it, he is probably right.

Nevertheless, I think it is important. The style of fermentation speaks to the taste, the length of time a beer can be stored or Largered, and perhaps to the alcohol content as well. Sure, it is a bit technical but to some, it is interesting too.

Both top and bottom fermenting yeasts are fully suspended in the wort (wort is an English word and is similar to "must" in wine making; it is the liquid blend of ingredients and water that yeast will eventually turn into beer - mostly, with a little waste). Yeasts are tiny biomasses that make their short livelihood busily converting sugars into alcohol. And at the end of their process, they both settle to the bottom of the fermenter (fermenting tank). However, the foam created by dead yeast and carbon dioxide floats to the top in the top-fermenting type and appears as if it is doing its work from the top. Science has proven that appearances are frequently deceiving.

The two different yeasts are most active at different temperatures and typically impact the storability of the beer differently.

While most ales are top fermented, it is not true of all ales. Some beers are hybrids that use a yeast (or a blend of yeasts) that acts like both varieties. Also, nearly all lagers including Pils style lagers are bottom fermented but again, not 100%. The secret of what yeast does what is why brew masters spend years learning their trade and why the best of the lot are highly paid.

In the old days, the yeast a brewer used occurred naturally, floating in the air or one of the micro-organisms on the grains or fruit used. Today there are several types of special brewer's yeast. As mentioned under the Pils heading, a bottom fermenting yeast only came into wide use in the 19th Century.

The Reinheitsgebot today: The Reinheitsbebot was first established on April 23, 1516; just over 500 years ago. The word itself means "Purity Law." Ron Pattinson's dissertation on the subject of Reinheitsgebot can be found at is interesting. His discussion on German beer can be found at and he is liberally paraphrased in my discussion on Reinheitsgebot and industry issues below. Ron's website is one of the most in-depth sources for European beer information I have found.

The Reinheitsgebot is the law governing beer making in Germany. It is not in force elsewhere in Europe, only Germany but some in Germany have proposed it be an EU standard. There is much resistance to that change. At least until the Reinheitsbegot is brought up to today's standards of beer making. In fact, there is resistance today to even changing the law although it has been slightly altered since 1516. The resistance comes not from logic but from the concept of "brand." Many German beer makers want to preserve the brand even at the expense of reality. The law is seldom strictly enforced and at times, mostly during wars, was not even enforced at all. Germans, in general, are very proud of their Reinheitsgebot. or purity law.  However,  there are so many exceptions allowed that the end result isn't pure nor consistent. One example is the manufacture and use of hops extract instead of real hops. You can find an English translation of the law on Ron's website referenced above.

The law originally only applied to the state of Bavaria (which at the time included a large chunk of present-day Austria). Around 1900, when the unified country of Germany was new, the large and more populace state of Bavaria was instrumental in getting a version of the law enacted for all of Germany. Why? Because the Bavarian breweries were facing tough competition from breweries in northern Germany that did not have to toe the line like the breweries in Bavaria. It was thought that the new law leveled the playing field in the same way that anti-trust laws did in America.

This new level playing field was also a hindrance to creativity and meeting local market demand. Brewers who previously had produced widely accepted beers were forced to drop all those products that did not meet the riged requirement of the law. Except in the eastern provinces of Germany like Berlin and Brandenburg. In those areas, brewmasters happily continued making the beer their customers wanted because the Reinheitsgebot was only enforced where there was no war happening. So, from 1900 to 1914 (WW I) they were under the law but it was not enforced again until 1930. Along came WWII, and from 1938 to 1949 or so, they were again free to make popular beers. See Berliner Weisse, above.

There was a great deal of publicity, or if you prefer propaganda about how wonderful the law was and why you should buy only beer made under compliance with the law. This propaganda was largely promulgated by those who complied with the law or mostly Bavarian brewers.

Other famous beer producing countries with excellent reputations for their beers do not even try to comply with Rheinheitsgebot. I refer to countries like the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Belgium, and England. Not to say that wonderful beers cannot come from almost any country in the world; they do. I am just saying that those four countries have reputations to be envied. Note, the United States is not among that list, but some of the American micro-breweries do produce great beer. (I would say "craft beer" here but that term is currently the subject of debate. Can a large brewery organization like AB InBev make a craft beer? Many say that is a terminological impossibility. I agree.)

For the best history of Pilsner beer, I can find, see the article by Peter A. Ensminger in the Brewing Techniques Magazine entitled The History and Methods of Brewing Pilsner Urquell.

One last note from yours truly. As I correct this page in 2016 because of a comment from a Seattle reader, I am drinking an "Alkoholfrei Bier" from Einbecher, a brewery on the Leine River in Germany. I decided to give up drinking alcohol in 2013 because I wanted to have a longer life and have enough liver left to bicycle the Radwege (cycle paths) in Germany when I am 85 years old, 17 years from now. I still love beer, I just don't drink the kind that has much alcohol anymore. So, here's to your health; zum Wohl! or Prost! as they say in Germany.

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