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German Beer – An American Perspective

Bier ist der Beweis, dass Gott uns liebt und will, dass wir glücklich sein.
Benjamin Franklin

Americans have got beer all wrong. It is as simple as that. Well, maybe not THAT simple, but close. If you prowl the high-end beer stores in America you will find a raft of micros and craft beers. Cranberry this and honey-lilac that, porters, and pale ales, and hoppy-see hoppy-do churched up fancy beers in neat dark brown bottles with cool art on the label or, gasp, in a 4 pack of cans.

They are all quality brews that are brewed by people who really know what they are doing and who really want to bring a good product to market. Why is it than, with all of this available in the United States that when you ask just about anyone in the world, with the notable exception of the Irish, where can I find the best beer they say, “Germany”?

The answer is simple, and perhaps appropriately, comes with a sports analogy. In general terms, who wins the Super Bowl? I am not talking about answers like, “the team that spent the most money and got the best players,” – that is garbage. The answer I am looking for is the simple one.  It’s the team that best executes the fundamentals. The same is true of brewing.

German BeerAmerican beer fans that travel to Oktoberfest in Munich are often shocked that they do not find piles upon piles of beer varieties. They find just a few beers, brewed very well, using recipes that are older than our nation by hundreds of years. They find beer or, more truly bier, brewed according to the Bavarian Purity Laws of 1516 or Reinheitsgebot in German. This law states that all beer brewed in the Holy Roman Empire (I will spare you the history lesson and just say that a map of the Holy Roman Empire looks a lot like a map of Germany) would consist of only the following ingredients: water, barley and hops. Nothing else. No chemical additives, no preservatives, no “flavor enhancers”, nothing but water, barley, and hops. It’s all about executing the fundamentals.

German BeerThere are four different types of beer that you will find in Germany; light, dark, wheat, and filtered. That’s it. These four types of beer come from two different places, either a brewery as we are used to in the States, or a monastery. Yes, a monastery. In truth, I prefer the beers from monasteries, or klosterbraus. I could try to tell you that they taste better or are more holy, but the truth is much simpler than that. I think beer brewed by monks is cool.

It is also important to note that all German beer is not created equal. Germany was not a country until 1870. As a result of this, each state in Germany has a much more deeply ingrained self-identity than we are used to. The closest American comparisons that I can come up with are the regional differences between Northeast, Southeast, Midwest, Southwest, and Northwest, but without the animosity. What this means in regards to beer is that Bavarian beer tastes different from beer made in Baden-Würtemburg, which in turn tastes different from beer from Hesse, and so on.

German BeerWhen most Americans think of German beer, they are thinking of Bavarian beer. Largely because Oktoberfest is the largest and most famous of the German fall festivals. Rest assured, however, that at about that same time of year, just about every German city, town, or village has their own fall festival. Very few non-Bavarian beers are imported to the US. Some of the Bavarian beers that may be known to Americans are Paulaner, Augustiner, Löwenbrau, and HofBrau. It is important to note that these breweries are now huge corporations that are, with the exception of Augustiner, no longer owned by Germans. Those corporations, again with the exception of Augustiner, do most of their brewing outside of Germany except for the very small portion that they must do in order to be invited to Oktoberfest; which is another reason that I prefer klosterbraus.

German BeerFirst, please bear in mind that I am neither a beer academic nor a brew master and neither a foodie nor a great connoisseur of food or beverage. I am, however, a guy that likes beer and had the distinct opportunity to live in Germany and drink many different offerings from many different breweries. Second, conversations about beer are much like conversations about blondes, brunettes, or red heads, Glock vs M1911A1, 9mm vs .45 ACP, or natural grass vs artificial turf. You can argue about it until you are blue in the face and it won’t change the other person’s tastes so, as with most things (except artificial turf) your mileage may vary.

German BeerWhat follows is a small sampling of what I found …

I quickly found that I didn’t care for the wheat beers that much. The taste was okay at best and I really didn’t like the yeast. The filtered wheat beers, called kristallweizen, are better but that still leaves the yeasty taste. There are some that aren’t as bad but I mostly stayed away from the wheat beers. Some people really get into the wheat beers. I knew dudes (and chicks) who wouldn’t drink anything else, often with a slice of orange or lemon. To each their own. I mean, the Germans mix beer and lemonade (radler) and beer and Coke (colaweizen). To me, beer shouldn’t need a fruit additive.

I also quickly found that, to me at least, beer is seasonal and there are few things more awesome on a cold, ugly, rainy or snowy winter day than a pint of dunkel; usually paired with some pot roast. Dunkel is dark beer and, much like the dark beers here in the States, it is heavier and maltier than the lighter beers. It isn’t Guinness heavy or Laughing Lab malty, but it has a very robust flavor to it nonetheless. The dunkels I had, and I did not have them all, compared very well with New Belgium Brewing’s 1554.

German BeerOf the two types of light beers that I had, and by light I mean color, I preferred helles over pilsner. Helles is what you get if you just ask for a beer. It is light yellow in color, has a smooth crisp taste, and is delicious. Pilsner is very similar but is a bit more hoppy. I found that I had to be in the right mood for a pils, a helles I could drink any time. They both pair well with both warm weather and with pork, the latter of which is important in Germany, where the diet is largely pork centric.

German BeerIt is important to note that not every brewery offers every type of beer. Shonbuch brewing, for example, does not make a helles, only a pilsner. Alpirsbacher, a klosterbrau in Alpirsbach, doesn’t make a helles either, but they do make a beer they call “export” which isn’t exported but which tastes a lot like a helles. The monks at the monasteries in Andechs, or Reutberg don’t make a pilsner either. In fact pilsner isn’t big in Bavaria at all. You can find it, but you have to look.

Beyond the different types of brews offered there is a definite beer culture in Germany and, one will often find, that a pint of beer is cheaper than a liter of water. Beer pervades almost everything and it is central in most celebrations of any kind. In the Bavarian town of Bernried am Starnberger See (Bernried on Lake Starnberger) a memorial day parade and church service segues into a brunch of bratwurst and beer. There are traditions that are as simple, straight forward, and classic as the toast Prost (toast, tip rim of glass towards drinking partner, tap the bottom of glass on table, then drink) and then there are drinking songs that make the Irish look like amateurs.

German BeerThe bottom line to all of this is this: the Germans do beer. They don’t do nickel-plated sissy beers. There are no reduced carb, watered down, beers that are, to quote Monty Python, “Like making love in a canoe”. Whatever your taste, you can find something that you like.


Written by

HP Lefler is a traveler, adventurer, writer, and teacher. A native of Minnesota, he grew up sailing and waterskiing and now splits his love between the sandy beaches and high mountains. He lives in Virginia.

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