How to do it the 500 Year Old German Beer Way
Inspired by the 500 year old Reinheitsgebot, it’s time to brush up, memorize your cultural tip-offs and learn to distinguish your dunkel from your doppelbock with this quick guide to beer in Germany.
“In many places a beer is just a beer, and people expect little more than a pale coloured lager when ordering it. In Germany, however, things are different! Here, it is not just about the different beer types, laws or glassware to consider, there’s also a vast variety of rules, customs and whimsies on a provincial level!
It seems like every five minutes there’s another craft beer establishment opening in some trendy part of town. But will these new micro-brewed, hyper-chilled ales have the staying power to make it to the next century?
Well, you’ll just have to ask the Germans what it takes to create an industry which has spawned a festival that is world renowned and part of just about every serious travellers bucket list.
If the Oktoberfest is your thing then read on to learn more about the famous Reinheitsgebot, which has controlled the production of German beer for five centuries.
- Ein bier, bitte
- So, which glass is best?
- How about a nice sausage with that?
- Know your pilsener from your lager
- Wiesn then and now
- South West Germany takes their beer seriously
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Firstly, drinking beer in Germany means you’ll see the word “Reinheitsgebot” popping up a lot. This is the law that’s ensured nothing but beer containing water, hops, malt and yeast has been consumed under the label for 500 years. The regulation started in Ingolstadt, in Bavaria, in Germany, in 1516.
The original law limited ingredients to just barley, hops and water. The exact role of yeast in alcoholic fermentation was not understood at the time and it was only later that brewers were able to add the micro-organism as a specific ingredient. The production of wheat beers remained limited in Bavaria for centuries but is now allowed. So the law now states that malted grains, hops, water and yeast may be used – but nothing else.
So if you’re gluten intolerant or trying to follow the Banting diet – German beer is not for you!
Ein bier, bitte
If you’re ordering “ein bier, bitte”, you’d better know where you are. Beer in Germany is hyper local, so the default beer is going to be dramatically different from city to city. This localization also means that those searching for a good brew should remain aware of local sensibilities. Not only do some of the same beers have different names but also asking for a different destination’s specialty will most often be met by a blank stare.
So, which glass is best?
It’s also imperative to know your glassware. This is an art form in itself when you have Goblets, Pokals, Steins, Tankards, Weizens, Boots, Pilsners and Tumblers to fret over. It might seem a tad capricious when similar looking beers are poured into very different glasses, but there’s usually some rhyme or reason behind the riddle. High carbonated, top-fermented Hefeweizen gets a half-litre glass that bulges at the top in order to keep good head retention and show off the beer’s aromatic qualities, while Kölsch is traditionally served in narrow flutes that help hold in carbonation.
How about a nice sausage with that?
Food pairings are also important in Germany; they match beer and food here much like the rest of us do wine. In general, sweeter, toastier malt flavors match well with rich pork dishes. Pale Ale drinkers should try the “kielbasa”, a polish sausage often spiced with herbs from caraway seeds to marjoram and slathered in onions. Wheat beers, with their slightly sweet, fruitier flavors and traditional yeasts are tremendous with an eclectic assortment of sides, from seafood salads to banana pudding. Then there’s Rauchbier which, given its smokiness, is unsurprisingly best paired with barbequed meats or smoked hams and cheeses.
Know your pilsener from your lager
Finally, you must learn the different types of beer in Germany. Here’s a smattering of the major groups: Pilsner is pale yellow lager, with a spicy, floral finish. If there’s a goat on the label you’ve probably got a bottle of Bock in your hand. Toasty, bready and more than a little sweet, its traditionally served in the springtime.
Among the heavier, stronger beers are Doppelbock and Eisbock. You can usually determine these heavy-hitters by their names, which tend to end with the suffix “-ator”. Dunkel is a brown, malty, nutty lager that originates from Bavaria. Schwarzbier might look dark – its name translates to “black beer” – but its strength generally hovers at a rather tame 5% ABV. And lastly, Rauchbier is made with malt that’s been smoked over the flames of a beechwood fire. Like coriander, people either love it or hate it. There is no middle ground.
Wiesn then and now
The Oktoberfest (Wiesn) is still the major traditional Munich folk fair, where Munich hospitality reigns and Munich beer is consumed. Therefore, according to the fair’s operating regulations, “only Munich beers from the efficient and proven traditional Munich breweries (these are currently: Augustinerbrauerei, Hacker-Pschorrbrauerei, Löwenbräu, Paulanerbrauerei, Spatenbrauerei and Staatliches Hofbräuhaus that comply with the Münchner Reinheitsgebot (Munich Purity Law) of 1487 and the Deutsches Reinheitsgebot (German Purity Law) of 1906, may be served.”
For more than 180 years, the Oktoberfest has been hosted by the City of Munich and the development of the fair is controlled by the municipal authorities. Clemens Baumgärtner, Head of the Department of Labor and Economic Development, is responsible for organising and running the event. At his suggestion, all important decisions are made by the Economics Committee of Munich City Council. Over 1,000 applications Seite 3from ride and attraction operators and market traders are received and assessed each year. In the end, around 550 applicants are admitted.
Today, the Oktoberfest – a fair of the state capital Munich – is considered the largest folk festival in the world and enjoys an international reputation. What is special about the Wiesn is that it successfully manages the balancing act between a folk festival for Munich locals and a major international event and that it always remembers its roots but is open to new developments. In 2010, the world-famous folk fair was duly celebrated with the anniversary festival called “200 Years of Oktoberfest”: Nostalgic charm and a cosy atmosphere characterised the fairgrounds on the southern part of the Theresienwiese. Due to the event’s great success with the public, the Munich City Council had the “Oide Wiesn” designed as a permanent attraction in 2011, reminiscent of the Oktoberfests of yesteryear.
South West Germany takes their beer seriously
Known for its beautiful countryside, abundant sunshine, cities filled with luxury, 78 Michelin stars and even two wine regions! SouthWest Germany has yet another ace up its sleeve: liquid gold, or Bier. SouthWest Germany counts over 180 breweries that create approximately 1,500 uniquely diverse and delicious beers.
Travellers will not be able to resist a sip of SouthWest Germany’s beer. With numerous microbreweries and craft beer makers popping up all over the region, the beer just keeps getting better and better!
The Technomuseum in Mannheim (45 minutes from Stuttgart and Frankfurt) has an exhibition, “Beer – The Art of Brewing and 500 Years German Purity Law,” dedicated to beer production in all of its many facets. The museum explores the technical, cultural and social history of beer up to 4,000 years ago. In addition, it shows what used to be mixed into beer before Germany’s purity law (you almost don’t want to know). Afterwards guests can also lend a hand at experimental stations and take an active part in the fermentation process. Mannheim is a great place to start your SouthWest Germany Beer Tour.
Each region in Baden-Württemberg is immensely proud of its local breweries. Some breweries have been family owned for hundreds of years such as the Fürstenberg Brewery founded in 1238 while other families have recently bought back their breweries, such as the Dinklacker Family. When it started to look bleak for Mannheim’s Eichbaum Brewery, the largest brewery in the state, tech company SAP founder Dietmar Hopp invested the money to save it from going under. Overall the number of breweries has increased by two percent in SouthWest Germany.
With over 180 large, mid-sized and micro-breweries in the state, each brewery has found a way to make creative and unique beers. While the large breweries dedicate themselves to only one or two beer varieties, the smaller breweries, became more creative with their varieties. The mid-sized and micro-breweries in Baden-Württemberg make a broad range of beers, including: Export, Pilsner, Pale Ale, Porter, Wheat beer, Craft beer, Zwickel beer, Cellar beer, Bock beer, March beer, Organic pilsner, light beer and non-alcoholic varieties.
In the Black Forest Highlands, right next to Lake Schluchsee, is the Rothaus Baden State Brewery AG, which brews a cult classic known as the Rothaus Tannenzäpfle, or the pine cone beer, known for the pine cone shape of the bottle. Visitors hiking through the Black Forest Highlands can stop for a refreshing beer and brewery tour. At 1000 meters above sea level, it is the highest brewery in Germany. Another, Schnitzer in Offenburg, specializes in gluten-free beers. Hochdorfer Brewery from Nagold grows its own hops. A few years ago, the Härle Brewery in Württemberg’s Allgäu became the first brewery in Germany to successfully achieve climate-neutral production.
Many breweries are granting their visitors special, behind-the-scene looks at their expert brewing processes. In Tettnang they have “hands-on hops” experiences, and the town is world renowned for its hops crop. Here visitors can visit the Hops Museum or hike on the beautiful hops trail, where the crop grows up to seven meters high, and learn why Tettnang’s hops is so special. In Ehingen an der Donau there is a multimedia tour showing the many faces beer culture in the city. Ehingen is currently home to four breweries and beer culture is pivotal here, from beer-themed city tours to the popular beer hiking tail. The trail ends at the Bergbier Brewery, which has a lovely inn and beer cellar that is open to the public. At Ehingen Schwanen Brewery, a microbrewery in the city, there are beer-making seminars where participants create their own beer and receive it in the mail six weeks later.
Many of the breweries are hosting annual beer festivals, which offer invaluable insights into authentic village and pub culture. There are large and small beer festivals taking place in SouthWest Germany every year, the most famous is the Canstatter Volksfest in Stuttgart. The festival is the second largest beer festival in Germany after the Oktoberfest in Munich. Founded in 1818, it attracts around four million visitors each year. There are seven beer tents and two wine tents and the celebrations go on for 17 September days. Other incredible festivals are the Ulrichsfest in Ehingen, celebrating its 550th anniversary, the Historic Beer Festival in Zwiefalten, where the entire town takes part in the festivities, or the Fischer’s Brewery Festival in Mössingen a beer festival for Mother’s Day with flowers for all the female guests.
In the Ganter Brewery in Freiburg guests can walk in a fermentation tank with an impressive, video-based brewing simulation. Hirsch Brewery in Wurmlingen has its own adventure forest complete with climbing park and rustic lodge. Brewery World in Alpirsbach, with an incredible monastery, offers exciting tours of its museum and ceremonial cellar. At Kesselhaus Restaurant and Brewery visitors can find out everything about the world of beer with their “Mash, Brewers’ Grains, Zwickel Beer” Tour and taste five different beers under the guidance of a beer sommelier.
From Heidelberg’s craft beers to the beer gardens in Lake Constance, there are tours, tastings, festivals and brews to be had. Beer production is on the rise in SouthWest Germany and getting the full recognition it deserves as an ancient heritage and beloved beverage.