How & Why to Taste German Beer Like a Sommelier
Looking to deepen your appreciation of German beer? Sandip ‘Sandy’ Patidar, Founder & MD of Germandrinks.co.uk, provides a beginner’s guide to tasting German beer like a professional sommelier, all from the comfort of your own home…
What is a beer sommelier?
Professional beer sommeliers provide similar services to traditional wine sommeliers, yet specialise in the brewing industry. They’re experts in world beer history, styles, ingredients, brewing processes, glassware, draught and bottling systems, bar service and - most importantly - beer tasting.
Many professional beer sommeliers are certified by the BJCP (Beer Judge Certification Program) – a worldwide organisation with over 7500 beer judges among their ranks. That’s a lot of expert beer fans!
As Oliver Wesseloh (World Champion Beer Sommelier and Rothaus tasting notes contributor) said about one of his first jobs in the brewing industry-
“You would sit down with the brew masters in the evening and try all their beers. You can really actually inspire people, you can make people happy with beer. It’s not just about getting shitfaced.”
Oliver was right, however, you don’t have to become a professional beer sommelier to hone your German beer-tasting skills. You can start right now!
Why taste German beer like a sommelier?
Brewmasters, like the ones Oliver mentioned, go to great lengths to make you (and your taste buds) happy. In Germany, they combine generations of knowledge and expertise with locally-sourced ingredients to create – and consistently produce - beers worthy of their heritage.
With several German beer styles to choose from (many, like Pilsner, Hefeweizen and Kellerbier first created centuries ago), simply comparing their defining features can be fascinating. Do you find some styles quick and easy to drink (or ‘endlessly quaffable’, as I like to put it), and others richer experiences to savour?
Irrespective of style, comparing beers becomes ever more rewarding as you explore how locally-sourced water, barley (or wheat) malt and hops - along with the brew masters’ chosen historic and/or modern brewing techniques - capture the essence of the region and brewery within the flavours and aromas of the beer.
Which regional variations do you gravitate towards the most? Bavaria or Baden-Württemberg, for example, it’s all about your taste and there’s no right or wrong answer.
(P.S. Baden-Württemberg is the right answer!).
How to taste German beer like a sommelier
First, choose a Beer. You could choose one that’s new to you (so you’re experiencing its characteristics for the first time) or an old favourite (if you’re keen to better understand why you appreciate it).
1. How to prepare German beer
Chill the beer to the right temperature to enable the best presentation of its flavours and aromas.
If you’ve selected a darker German beer, such as Oechsner Black Lager (Schwarzbier), aim for a little warmer at 50–55°F (10–13°C).
2. How to pour German beer
Select the right style of glass and pour with the right technique. Presenting the beers’ colouration, foam, flavours and aromas in the best ways, is key.
2a. How to select the right glass
For German Pilsner, Märzen or Kellerbier, a Rothaus 1 pint or ½ pint tankard, with its slim stem and traditional handle, works well. The clear glass showcases the beer’s colouration and effervescence, and using the handle helps to keep it at its optimal temperature.
For Hefeweizen (wheat beer), a Rothaus 1 pint or ½ pint Weiss glass, with its vase-shaped stem and ‘bulb’ is the best (and only!) choice. The contours of the glass best capture the light for viewing the rich orange colouration, whilst the wider ‘bulb’ section at the top ably controls the foam.
Weighty and beautifully made, Rothaus’ traditional tankards and Weiss glasses perfectly deliver the complex flavours and aromas of their respective styles of German beer. (And they’re both available with our cases of 33cl and 50cl bottles.)
2b. How to use the right pouring technique (or, how to avoid ‘froth overload’)
Carefully pour effervescent beers (like Pilsner and Märzen) into a glass at a 45° angle - with the bottle lip just above, or touching, the glass’s rim. This technique ensures the foamy head isn’t too large for the glass.
Less effervescent than Pilsner and Märzen, Hefeweizen is still very foamy - especially when poured into an un-tilted glass. Remember to tilt a Weiss glass to 45° too.
Control the foam for more beer in the glass (and less left in the bottle!) and you’ll present your German drinks perfectly for tasting.
If your chosen German beer is less effervescent (like Oechsner Black Lager (Schwarzbier) or Rothaus Kellerbier), create a nice head of foam by pouring it straight into the middle of the glass with little to no tilting - just briskly rotating if required.
3. How to discern German beer aromas
If you’ve ever experienced the feeling of being ‘taken back’ to a time or place through stumbling upon an aroma, you’ll understand how, for example, the complex aromas of Rothaus Pils can transport you to Germany’s Black Forest. (Close your eyes and you’ll swear you’re breathing the crisp mountain air!)
Gently swirl the beer inside the glass, then lift it to your nose. Take a short breath, turn away from the glass and breathe out (just in case the alcohol aroma overwhelms the others at first), then turn back to the glass and take a longer, deeper breath. Slowly and gently assess-
- What aromas do you notice first?
- What aromas do you notice second or in the background?
- How would you describe the overall aroma coming through?
For example, do you agree with the Rothaus Pils tasting notes that-
‘The nose registers a fresh Alpine meadow. Very fresh, invigorating aroma. Quite subtle in the background: gentle notes of grains and yeast.’?
-or do you discern stronger, gentler or even different aromas?
4. How to recognise German beer colouration
Fun fact: all beers are red. Well, shades of red.
As I understand it (as a non-botanist) beer is brewed with starches derived from grain, and grain takes its colour from plant melanin (a rusty-red pigment which builds up in the seed envelopes of the grain).
The selected light or dark malts used in each recipe (and the ratios in which they’re used - even in tiny amounts) result in the particular golden, reddish, dark brown or even black colouration of the beer.
A clear or hazy appearance largely depends on the style and brewing process; along with the different types of grains, hops, boil time, mash pH levels and yeast strains.
So, colouration and opacity are fairly accurate ‘at a glance’ indicators of a beer’s style, ingredients and taste (more on how colouration loosely reflects taste below), but not its ABV. It’s a myth that lighter beers have lower ABVs and darker beers have higher ABVs (but that’s another story).
Hold your glass up to a good light source (the more natural the light, the better) and tilt it forwards slightly.
- What shade of red is it?
- How clear or hazy does it appear?
The amount of foam head also plays a part in assessing colouration (probably due to how the light passes through it). Compare each beer this way and, the more you practice and take notes, the more colouration will factor into your German beer appreciation skills.
5. How to taste German beer
Now, it’s time to taste the beer!
Take a sip. Just enough to gently flow around your tongue and the bitter, sour, sweet and salty areas of your taste buds. Then, keeping your mouth closed, swallow and breathe out through your nose.
- What flavours do you recognise first?
- What flavours come through next?
- What flavours come through in the aftertaste?
Take another sip and assess the body of the beer. How does it compare to beers of a similar style?
Now enjoy your German beer at your own pace and let all the characteristics above flow across your senses. With every sip and fresh pint, you’ll find even more flavours and aromas coming through. Music to your taste buds!
(How does colouration reflect a beer’s taste? Darker beers tend to feature chocolate and coffee notes, copper-coloured beers tend to feature biscuit and bread notes and lighter-coloured beers tend to feature honey and grain notes. There are no rules, however, and these are only generally-accepted starting points.)
Professional beer sommeliers make comprehensive notes, rank the beer alongside its contemporaries, or within the parameters of a particular competition, and form their judgement.
You can enjoy how your German beer appreciation skills are evolving - and how this helps you to decide upon your (new) favourites. Your journey has just begun!
Professional or budding beer sommelier, Prost!