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🍺 Click here to learn about German beer styles, brewing, traditions, and more! 🍺
🍺 Click here to learn about German beer styles, brewing, traditions, and more! 🍺

The Ultimate Guide to German Beer: Styles, Brewing, Traditions & More

Beer is a massively complicated subject yet is often presented as being amazingly simple compared to wine. The irony is that wine will always only contain one main ingredient (grapes) yet beer always contains at least four (water, yeast, malt and hops) and often many, many more. This leads to a complexity that has created hundreds of beer styles; whereas wine only has four (red, white, sparkling and rosé) so the opposite is true - wine is simple and beer is complicated.

However, fortunately, we’re here to give everyone a masterclass in beer with a strong nod to German beer. With our ‘German Beer 101’, you’ll learn all the basics to ensure you’ll feel confident in your knowledge.

What is beer?

Beer can be defined by the process of brewing. This involves putting ingredients into a big vessel and adding hot water. Things like grain and wheat have sugars within them and the hot water (at around 65°C) softens their shells to allow the sugars to enter the water. This is called ‘Mashing In’.

The result is a big pot of porridge-looking stuff which is the ‘Mash’. After an hour-ish, the hot, sweet water is drained from the tank and put into a ‘Boiling Kettle’. Hot water is then added to get all the remaining sugars out. This process is called ‘Lautering’.

The liquid that’s now in the Boiling Kettle is called ‘wort’ and tastes sweet due to the extracted sugars. It’ll also have flavour/aroma from the grains, and anything else added to the mix.

The sweet wort in the Kettle will then have hops added and the heat turned up so it boils for a while. The hop oils will be extracted from the hop cones (or pellets) and add bitter flavours to the wort. Depending on what the brewer wants from the hops, they will be added either early or later to the boil - with earlier leading to bitter flavours in the taste of the beer and later adding to the hop aroma in the final product.

The hot wort will then be ‘crash cooled’ and sent to fermentation tanks where yeast is added. The yeast feast on the sugars and convert them into alcohol and carbon dioxide. This can take anything from a few days to a few weeks to complete, depending on the type of yeast used and the style of beer being produced. This process is called ‘fermentation’.

Once the yeast has done its job, it will either float to the top or sink to the bottom of the fermentation tanks. This depends on whether the brewer is using an ‘ale’ or ‘lager’ yeast. Ale = top, lager = bottom.

The brewer knows when the beer has finished fermenting by the amount of CO2 being created by the yeast. There will be a huge amount of CO2 at the beginning (as the yeast are voraciously eating the sugars) and this will steadily reduce as the sugar levels reduce.

Once the fermentation has been completed, the beer (note: not wort anymore) is moved into a ‘Bright Tank’ and the beer is filtered to remove any unwanted sediment and yeast from the fermentation process.

The beer is then stored at a very low temperature (0 to 4°C) to allow any remaining sediment to fall to the bottom of the tank, and to allow the beer to ‘condition’.

Once the brewer believes it’s ready, the beer in the Bright Tank will be used to fill bottles, cans or kegs.

To increase the stability of the beer, some breweries will pasteurise the beer by gently heating it before packaging, and others might additionally filter it to remove any cloudiness. Interestingly, one of the most traditional ways to do this is to use ‘isinglass’ which is made from a kind of gelatine obtained from fish. For some people, this means these beers are not suitable for vegetarians/vegans. However, this is somewhat contentious as none of the isinglass remains in the product, it’s purely used as a filter, but fish were used in the process of producing the beer.

German Beer Styles & Regions

Germans are very territorial about the beers they drink. It’s a big country and you’re unlikely to find German beers outside of the region that produces them (note: Rothaus beer is a rare exception being available throughout Germany).

Here are some notes to help navigate where specific German beer styles come from.

Helles originates from both Munich and Dortmund and is unusual for being ‘bottom fermented’, meaning it uses an ale yeast rather than a lager version. This gives a bit more body to the beer and is one of the most popular German styles across the world.

Dusseldorf is home to the Alt style of lagers and, like Kolsch, is PDO-protected (Protected Designation of Origin) and can’t be produced and called an Alt beer outside of the region.

Bock biers hail from the Southern areas of Germany and are defined by the stronger ABV (7%+) and a darker colour. Traditionally brewed around March, they coincide with the Lent religious holiday season.

Schwarzbier is a very dark-coloured beer which predates the use of lighter roasted malts that create the lighter-coloured beers brewed in the last 200-ish years. It originates from Thuringia and Saxony.

Märzen is similar to Helles but traditionally brewed in March due to German breweries being forced to close over the Summer period. It’s also very popular as a style for Oktoberfest in Munich to be served in 2L jugs in beer halls. Find out more about Rothaus Märzen here.

Kellerbier is a Franconian beer and the literal translation is ‘cellar beer’. It’s slightly cloudy due to it being unfiltered, therefore holding more of the yeast in suspension. It is generally enjoyed from earthenware jugs (as opposed to glass) and is a staple of German beer gardens during the Summer period. Find out more about Rothaus Kellerbier here.

A variant of this style is Zwickelbier which isn’t aged as long, is less hoppy and originally referred to beer taken from a Kellerbier barrel by a brewer via a special device called a Zwickelhahn.

Rauchbier (smoked beer) is brewed in Bamburg, which is infamous for producing this style. The malts used in the brewing process are smoked and retain amazingly powerful flavours that rival the Scottish Whisky Laphroig for peaty, aniseed notes.

Kolsch is a protected style that can only be made in Cologne. Since 1997, only breweries within 50km of the city that brew to the Kolsch Konvention are allowed to call their beers by this name. It uses top-fermenting ale yeast. A quirky fact from the region: Kolsch is served in special 200ml straight glasses, and it’s standard practice to have your glass refilled by the bar staff once empty. Ticks will be drawn on your beermat to show how many pours you’ve had and, when you’re finished, you put the beermat on top of your glass and you receive the bill for your beers.

Hefeweizen comes from Bavaria (and has the literal translation of ‘yeast wheat’) which is also interchangeable with its twin Weisbier (white beer). This style is known for being low in hop character, higher in carbonation and full of unique flavours including banana and vanilla that come from the brewing process. Find out more about Rothaus Hefeweizen here.

Berliner Weiss comes, unsurprisingly, from Berlin. It’s a regional variation of Hefeweizen / Weisbier and generally has a slightly sour taste to differentiate it. This is because the beer is brewed with yeasts that create lactic acid as part of the brewing process and add a fresh flavour to the beer. It is common to add flavoured syrups or mix with more standard German lagers to balance the sourness.

Gose originates from the town of Goslar in Germany but is often associated with Leipzig as it was very popular there. It’s brewed with salt and sour yeast strains to give a tart but refreshing character. Once popular, it fell out of fashion in the mid-20th Century and is now only produced by a handful of breweries in the Leipzig region.

The ubiquitous Pilsner / Pils style was created in Pilsen, Bohemia (which is in the Czech Republic) so isn’t a native German beer style. However, it’s hugely popular and is widely brewed across Germany.

German Beer Glassware

The UK has the ‘nonic’ pint glass which must be served with 568ml of beer. Curved, with the top half bigger than the bottom, it’s a design classic. Along with the dimpled mug that perfectly accommodates the biggest and smallest of hands around its circumference. Both are perfect for bitters, porters and stouts but far from ideal for lagers. Why? Well, there’s a science around glassware and how it’s appropriate for the beer being served. Some may scoff and say it’s nonsense but try drinking champagne from anything other than a fluted glass. It’s just not as enjoyable.

A Pilsner / Pils glass is straight and tall with the rim gently wider than the bottom. The longer shape shows the colour of the beer clearly and maintains a protective foamy layer, forcing the aromatics towards the nose of the drinker. It also allows the bubbles to be seen clearly. Given its height, a heavy base is normal but it should still feel elegant in the hand.

Weizen / Hefeweizen glasses are tall with a notable reduction in width at the waist of the glass followed by a bulb-like shape at the top of the glass. This curvature traps the foamy head and the narrower bottom contains any sediment that might remain.

The Stange glass is specific to Cologne and holds 185ml of beer. This is to encourage drinkers to enjoy the beer quickly, maintaining a cold brew at all times. It’s perfect for Alt and Kolsch beers with low carbonation. The beer is poured quickly into the (almost) straight glass with an overflowing head of beer which keeps the carbonation nice and low. Weights and measures laws in the UK would make pouring this beer legally very tricky as the liquid in the glass has to be either 1/3, 2/3 or a pint in volume and foam doesn’t count. This is to ensure everyone legally gets the beer they ordered but it’s always fun to see British tourists get a foamy beer in mainland Europe and feel (wrongly) cheated.

The Tankard is a German staple and comes in a variety of shapes and sizes. The defining character is the inclusion of a handle to hold it which is due to the weight of the vessel when filled with beer. Ceramic, pewter, glass and wood are the most commonly used materials and the size of the Tankard can generally hold at least 500ml of beer (but can be smaller/larger). Today, many in the UK tend to call the one-litre vessel a ‘stein’ but the correct term is Maßkrug (Mass Krug) which, in Germany, legally holds one litre of beer.

The Tankard can also feature a flip-lid which protects the beer from flies, foreign spittle and anything else that might decide to enter the tankard and interfere with the beer.

Keep an eye on this page for updates as we add more ‘lessons’ to our ‘German Beer 101’.

Let us know if there are any aspects of German beer which you would like us to add to this guide.