Beer 501: German beers

Jan 28 2011 Published by under Beer, Life

If you have been to Germany and drunk the beer commonly served in bars, or have partaken of the German brews generally served at Oktoberfests you may have come to the conclusion that Germans can only brew pisswasser. Not so! The most common beers in Germany are pilsners. These are light on flavor. They are brewed specifically to be downed in great quantity. A litre at your morning break, a litre at lunch, a litre at afternoon break, a litre after work, a litre with dinner and then several more after... The goal here is quantity over quality. What many may realize is that all beer-loving countries tend to have something similar - mass produced beers designed specifically to be drunk in quantity. Budweiser calls it's beer "The Great American Lager." The "Great" is clearly indefensible, but it is a lager - a pale lager, or German-style pilsner to be precise. Pisswasser. Pisswasser brewed with rice in it. But I digress...

And continue to digress for a moment. As I noted above, all beer-chugging nations have their mass-produced pisswasser. Germany has its pilsners (or pils), Australia is the land o'lagers (but not necessarily pilsners), England has ales, the US pilsners and other lagers, and so on. Quantity over quality. Mostly, but not necessarily all, forgettable stuff. Bottom line: don't judge a country's beer quality by it's mass-produced dross.

Back to Germany. If all you have sampled from this country are its pilsners then you have missed out. There are bocks (strong lagers), doppelbocks (double bocks), wheat beers (but not necessarily the yeasty Belgian kind), dunkels (amber to dark ales) and even rauchbier. Below I will briefly discuss some of my favorites and others I have sampled.

The goal when brewing any dunkel (or amber ales in general) is to aim for a balance of the malt, hops and yeast flavors. That might sound like all amber ales will be pretty much alike, but that's not the case. Even within the restriction of balance there's a lot of variation available to the brewer. A good amber ale is a refreshing beer with a noticeable, but not strong, hops flavor. A good German one is Ayinger Altbairisch Dunkel.

It would be a mistake to lump these in with the common mass-produced lagers. These have higher alcohol (7-12%) and are much maltier. I'm a big fan of hoppy beers, but really enjoy a good doppelbock on occasion. Originally brewed by monks to consume during their fasts,* doppelbocks have a malty, slightly sweet, almost toasty flavor. The names of these often end with "-ator" (pronounced "ah-tor" - channel your inner-Arnold Schwarzenegger when ordering one). My personal favorite is the Ayinger Celebrator. Good toasty flavor. The Spaten Optimator is another good choice.

Wheat beers:
As is obvious from the name, wheat is used in the brew. Many of you have likely tried the yeasty Belgian wheat beers. These tend to be a little sweet with a citrus undertone. German wheat beers are not necessarily the same. Belgian brewers like to highlight the yeast, Germans more the grains and hops. I'm not a huge fan of wheat beers in general, but do like Erdinger Pikantus - a dark wheat beer. Yes, a dark wheat beer. This has a good toasty flavor.

Rauchbier means smoke beer. Before brewing any beer the malted barley is dried in a kiln. Over the centuries brewers have experimented with different levels of drying from just barely dry up to roasted malts (more about those next week). The brewers at the Brewery Tavern Schlenkerla in Bamberg tried something different - smoked malt. Yes, smoked like you would smoke meat. And that's what this interesting brew, Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier, tastes like. It has a very strong smoked flavor. In fact that's all you taste with the first sip. And the second. By the third you begin to notice the malt a little, and perhaps the hops on the fourth sip. To be honest, I didn't get past the fourth sip. It's like drinking this. Not pisswasser to be sure, but not drinkable either. Might make a good marinade though.

That's it for today. Your assignment for this week is to go taste a non-pilsner German beer and report back in the comments.

Next week: Stouts. More than just Guinness.

* I always imagine two monks solemnly approaching each other in the darkened cloisters.
"Brother," the first nods at the other.
"Brother," he replies.
"The Lent fast approaches."
Brief pause.
"YYYYEEEESSSSSSS!!!!!!" they yell together while high-fiving and belly-bumping.
Then off they go in their solemn way.

19 responses so far

  • Best time of year is Oktoberfest...

  • Matthew says:

    My understanding was that the only traditional German ales are the wheat beers. The rest (including dunkels) are lagers.

    I do like a good German beer (and I also prefer the darker stuff).

    • odyssey says:

      Actually all beers can ultimately be put into just two classes: ales and lagers. It's to do with the yeast used and fermentation temperature. Dunkel is an ale under that kind of definition.

      So what German beer do you like?

      • Matthew says:

        I'm a big fan of the Augustiner Maximator (a doppelbock), though I also enjoy Berliner Weissbier sometimes.

        After doing a bit of googling, I found that there are plenty of non-wheat German ales (Koelsch for example), so I should've done my research before posting. However, based on Wikipedia's article on Dunkel (I know Wikipedia isn't 100% reliable, but it matches what I've seen elsewhere), it seems that most beers by that name are lagers (this doesn't include Dunkelweizen, which is a wheat beer).

        • Odyssey says:

          I'm going by what I was once told by a cicerone I know. Could be he was wrong.

          • chall says:

            It's about the yeast. If it is "on top" (then you drain from the bottom) or if it falls down and is so called "bottom fermented". And then there are some yeasts are happier on a stick - more surface area... and you put some bark in there for example (they do that brewing some lagers for example).

  • Namnezia says:

    I tried to have a rauchbier once. Yuck! It really reminded me of drinking soy sauce.

  • Bashir says:

    I have a vague memory of once having a Triplebock once upon a time.

    Are German beers very different from Belgian beers? I've had a lot of those.

    • Odyssey says:

      I find most German beers to differ substantially from Belgian beers. The Belgians typically tend to go for more yeast flavor, but as DR points out, there is a tremendous amount of diversity among the Belgian brews.

  • DR says:

    @Bashir: There are both triple and quadruple bocks as well, yes (mostly in the US though). German beers have some similarities to some Belgian beers, but Belgian beers are MUCH more diverse.

    The German hefeweizen beers are OK. The dunkels are better, but still lacking in the hops department. Pils are largely crap, though the Germans drink that a lot (they tend to have bad taste in beer). Kölsch is also popular where I live (near Cologne) and it's equally crappy. They actually serve it in thin tall glasses that are meant to be drunk before the beer gets even remotely warm.

    The Germans can get somewhat creative with beers though. The Radlers can be quite refreshing on a warm summer day.

    The doppelbocks are definitely the way to go. I happen to be drinking a Paulaner Salvator at the moment, in fact.

  • chall says:

    Nice post!! I love German beer 🙂

  • Dr. O says:

    I'm quite the fan of Belgian wheat beers, but Hubby loves hoppier IPAs. We'll have to give one of the German wheat beers a shot this weekend - try out a little beer compromise.

  • Steve says:

    Rauchbier - I fell in love with this kind of beer in Nuremberg - I was amazed at how different it was from all other beers.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Belgian whites, yay!

    German Hefewimmins, Booo!

  • JollyRoger says:

    Well I'm fond of both Dunkels and Doppelbocks. I have tasted very few true German beer but I do like HB Dunkel very much....draught only of course!! Montieth's in New Zealand make a very fine Doppelbock they call Winter beer. It's helps that I love amber and dark lagers and ales...:-)

    Now as this is a science based site I thought it worth mentioning genetics......

    Odyssey and I seem to have very similar tastes in beer and wine.......genetics??

  • mouthfulofpancake says:

    Genetics? What happened with me? The alcohol genes must have gradually diminished as the siblings mulitplied. I have the wine gene obviously but as for little bro........ The same goes with the coffee gene.
    And to be really really technical, Arni was born in Austria......

  • eTourist says:

    I tried a Weihenstephaner Hefeweisser. It said it was imported from Germany, but it doesn't seem to fit into any of your categories. Anyway, it tasted like apple. Not unpleasant, just apple.

  • SBO says:

    Personally, I like Paulaner natural wheat because bubbles like cream, soft fragrant, like eating with light meals, most top.