Do you know what the first goods carried on a German train were? Beer kegs, of course — on the inaugural voyage of the Bavarian Ludwig Railway on July 11, 1836. Historically and culturally speaking, Germany and beer simply belong together. Let’s take a closer look at why Germany is Bierland (beer country) and what the different types of German beer are.
The People’s Drink
For as long as cultures have been baking bread, they’ve been drinking beer. The Chinese were brewing it 10,000 years ago, and reports of pubs in Egypt date back to 3000 BCE. However, ancient Greeks preferred wine, as did Romans, who thought beer was for barbarians — including the early Germanic peoples. By the late middle ages, beer had become a popular staple in the German-speaking lands, nicknamed flüssiges Brot (liquid bread) by the monks who used it as sustenance during fasts.
What Is The Reinheitsgebot?
The phrase Deutsche Reinheitsgebot is proudly stamped on all types of German beer that are brewed according to the 1516 German Beer Purity Law. But what does that mean? Long ago, brewers snuck all sorts of ingredients into beer: Poisonous datura seeds and belladonna for their alleged aphrodisiac properties, or soot and pitch to enhance flavor.
Because this compromised quality, on April 23, 1516, Bavarian Duke Wilhelm IV and his brother Duke Ludwig X introduced an official decree called the Reinheitsgebot. The original version stated that beer could only be brewed from water, malt and hops. (Yeast wasn’t mentioned because its exact mode of action in the brewing process wasn’t yet known.) The Deutsche Reinheitsgebot is still in effect, making it the oldest valid food regulation law in the world.
So Many Biere!
Though the Reinheitsgebot restricts ingredients, there are still many differences between the different types of German beer. For one, not everything we recognize as beer is made exclusively from these ingredients; for another, even beers made exclusively from water, malt and hops have differences thanks to mixing ratios, roasts and yeast cultures.
Beers are first classified based on the original wort (meaning starter liquid) content. For example, a beer with 12% original wort contains 120 grams of extract in 1000 grams of liquid. Here’s the breakdown according to wort:
- Einfachbier (simple beer): 1.5% – 6.9%
- Schankbier (draft beer): 7% – 10.9%
- Vollbier (full beer): 11% – 15.9%
- Starkbier (strong beer): 16% and up
Another factor in beer variety is whether a beer is brewed with top-fermented or bottom-fermented yeast. Top-fermented yeast forms cell aggregates in which bubbles of gas accumulate, while bottom-fermented yeast sinks to the bottom of the vessel after fermentation.
A German Beer Primer
- A light, filtered, top-fermented Vollbier
- Traditionally consumed from a slim, cylindrical glass in .2-liter portions
- The three most popular Kölsch beers are Reissdorf, Gaffel and Früh
Back in the day, all bottom-fermented Vollbier varieties with an original wort content of 11–14% were called Lagerbier, and the name holds to this day in England. In Germany, however, the classification has changed over time:
- Lager is a bottom-fermented beer under 12% wort content
- Above 12%, the beer is called Export
- Both types come in light and dark varieties — the malt is responsible for the color
- Lager is often served in a tumbler, export in a glass mug with a handle
- Popular Lager brands include Augustiner and Löwenbräu
- Popular Exports include Dortmunder, Münchner and Wiener Brauarten
- Bockbiere, or bock beers, are both top- and bottom-fermented Starkbier varieties, as well as wheat beers whose original wort content is above 16% and with an alcohol content of at least 6.5%
- Bockbier literally means “goat beer”
- While its packaging often includes images of goats, it’s named after the Bavarian pronunciation of the town Einbeck
- The brand names of particularly strong double-bock beers end in the suffix –ator, in the style of the beer brewed by the monks of St. Francis of Paul around the time of the Thirty Years’ War
- You might not know that Malzbier, or “malt beer” (at least without added sugar) is actually beer: This top-fermented Vollbier has an average original wort content of 11.7%. But because the yeast is added at about 0° Celsius, the resulting alcohol content is very low
- Why is it called Malztrunk (malt beverage) and not Malzbier (malt beer)? This goes back to the Reinheitsgebot: In Germany, any beverage containing sugar (and these often do) can’t be called beer
- Popular brands include Vitamalz and Karamalz
Pilsner (or “Pils”)
- Pils is a bottom-fermented beer with a comparatively high hops content and maximum 12.5% original wort content
- It’s named after the Bohemian city of Pilsen, but Pilsner was invented by a German
- The name Pilsner actually used to be synonymous with “bad beer” — in 1838, 36 kegs of the stuff were dumped out in a public square in protest. To remedy this, an official city brewery was founded, headed by Bavarian master brewer Josef Groll
- Today, Pils is the most popular beer in Germany
- Beck’s, Bitburger, Flensburger, Jever, Krombacher, Radeberger, Warsteiner, Wernesgrüner and Pilsener Urquell are some of the most beloved brands
- Schwarzbier, or “black beer,” is a bottom-fermented Vollbier with an original wort content of at least 11%
- Its dark coloring comes from the use of special dark-roasted malt
- Schwarzbier is drunk from special cups called Schwarzbierpokale (black beer cups)
- A popular brand of Schwarzbier is Köstritzer
- Weizenbier, or “wheat beer,” is brewed with wheat or wheat malt. Because of this, wheat beers do not conform to the Reinheitsgebot
- Wheat beers are very popular in Bavaria, where they are top-fermented and contain an original wort content between 11% and 14%
- Bavarian Weizenbier is traditionally served in a specially shaped, slim glass
- A Berliner Weisse, on the other hand, is something different: It’s a top-fermented Schankbier (draft beer) made with a mixture of wheat and barley malt and brewed with lactic acid bacteria, which provides its signature sour taste
Popular German Beer Sayings
- Da ist Hopfen und Malz verloren (The hops and malt are lost here). This means something is a total loss. After all, if your hops and malt are ruined, there’s no hope for your beer.
- Das ist nicht mein Bier. If we don’t care about something, we literally say: “That’s not my beer.”
- Kein Bier vor Vier (“No beer before four” — meaning 4 p.m.). This is generally said ironically!
- Bier auf Wein, das lass sein / Wein auf Bier, das rat ich dir (Beer after wine, let that be / Wine after beer, this I advise). This German rhyming proverb provides some very important drinking advice.
- Heute back ich, morgen brau ich… (Today I’ll bake, tomorrow I’ll brew…). Most readers of the fairy tale “Rumpelstiltskin” remember how this charming saying ends (“…the next I’ll fetch the Queen’s new child”). While the kidnapping talk sometimes makes us forget the first line, it demonstrates an important historical relationship.