The German Story

The German Story main

History, Heritage, Culture

Regional Specialities
Beer is an essential element of German culture and is intrinsic to the national identity, however this is not to say that there is a beer ‘monoculture’ within the country. The country itself was only unified in 1871, turning 26 separate state kingdoms into a single nation. Each of these separate states had their own takes on beer culture, many of which survive to this day. Bavaria were so proud of their brewing standards as a state, that they demanded that national acceptance of the Reinheitsgebot (Beer Purity Laws) be a mandatory condition of unification. Even today each region is fiercely proud of their regional style, despite the differences between them sometimes being tiny.

The annual Oktoberfest in Munich is the world’s most famous beer festival, with almost six million people passing through it each year. However, there are a number of smaller scale similar festivals away from the tourist crowd, such as Erdinger’s Herbstfest. With beer consumed by the litre Maß, and everybody decked out in their finest Tracht (traditional dress, Lederhosen/Dirndl) the festival experience is an essential snapshot of German beer culture.

The Späti is the cornerstone of any city neighbourhood (known under different names in other cities) open all night with a selection of life’s essentials, but most importantly selling beer around the clock. Essentially glorified cornershops, some of these stock a beer range that would put most UK bottle shops to shame. Beer is such an essential part of the daily routine that it is perfectly normal to pick up a beer at a Späti or Station Kiosk to have on your way home.

Returnable Bottles and Recycling
Not unique to German beer, but impressive in its scale in the country, and a scheme that we should be envious of. The German government introduced the Pfand deposit system on drinks packaging. Most supermarkets have ‘reverse vending machines’ set up to allow customers to return bottles in exchange for credit. There is also a culture of leaving bottles in front of bins to allow the homeless or poor to pick them up and collect the deposit on them. Now 97% of single use bottles, and an impressive 99% of drinks cans are recycled in Germany.

Bier Halle Food
When faced with an evening of drinking beer by the litre it’d be smart to start on a full belly. German Bier Halle food is notoriously weighty and rich, perfect for soaking up an abundance of fine beer. At the annual Oktoberfest almost half a million roast chickens are served, alongside Schweinshaxe (pork knuckle), masses of Kartoffelsalat (potato salad), sauerkraut, and sticky Knodel (potato dumplings).

Football and Beer
Unlike the UK, it is legal in Germany to serve beer for fans to drink within sight of the pitch at a football stadium. Even more essential to the football and beer partnership, the beer in their stadia is very fairly priced, averaging at around €8 per litre in the top division of the Bundesliga. Naturally, being in Germany, most of the beer available is high quality lager, with our own favourite Berliner Pilsner being poured at FC Union Berlin.

Reinheitsgebot - German Beer Purity Law

Arguably the most famous of 16th century Bavaria’s laws, the Reinheitsgebot was passed by Duke Wilhelm VI on the 23rd of April 1516. This act strictly limited beer ingredients in Bavaria to water, barley, and hops. At the time yeast was still a relatively unknown entity and was thus not stated in the law. Primarily this act was issued to ensure the security of the region’s food resources. By prohibiting the use of wheat in brewing, the price of the grain and thus bread became more stable, and it also freed up much more of the resource for the use of bakers.

The Reinheitsgebot has been present throughout much of Germany’s fractious political and administrative history. After the unification of Germany in 1871 the ingredient stipulations were not enshrined into law, in order to allow tax to be collected on ingredients being used by brewers outside of Bavaria. The issue was so significant in Bavarian politics that in the formation of the new Weimar Republic after the First World War Bavaria would only agree to join the republic on the condition that their beer purity law was written into the nation’s laws. However, the new 1919 law was not as straightforward as the original Bavarian decree, and effectively split into two laws, maintaining the strict stance for any bottom fermented lager beers, and allowing a little more freedom for top fermenting ales. Due to the age and permanence of the Reinheitsgebot, and the incredible quality of German lagers, popular culture assumes that all German beer has to conform to it, but the truth is there are a number of German beer styles that don’t play by the Reinheitsgebot rules.

A key thing to consider is that although the Reinheitsgebot is in effect a ‘beer purity law’, it offers absolutely no guarantee of quality. Many industrially brewed macro lagers are fully Reinheitsgebot compliant, but are widely accepted as poor quality beers, likewise many low end craft producers release undrinkable beers made with nothing other than barley malt, water, hops, and yeast.

The Reinheitsgebot has played an enormous role in protecting the tradition of making exceptional Bavarian style lager, a gift that cannot be overlooked. But it is amazing to consider exactly where German beer could be without its influence over the past 500 years. Could we have seen the outbreak of an oaty Neo-Bavarian murky IPA in the early 1700s? Imagine the rise of a burgeoning ‘pastry stout’ scene emerging from the unbelievable desserts of the Black Forest.

Unique Styles

Helles Lager
Arguably the style most symbolic of the German attention to detail and quest for perfection in brewing. A shining example of a Reinheitsgebot compliant beer, a Munich Helles will contain nothing other than crystal clear Munich water, first-class lager malt, herbaceous earthy German hops, and bottom fermenting lager yeast. With this style there is no room for shortcuts, time is a key ingredient in helles lager, and it cannot be replaced. After fermentation, lagers are stored at very low temperatures (known as lagering, from the German word ‘lagern’ - to store) for a number of weeks. This process allows the yeast to metabolise any nasty off flavours, and drop out of the beer, leaving bright beer free from butterscotch/diacetyl aromas. Although a simple style in terms of ingredients, brewing an excellent helles lager is an extremely challenging feat.

This smokey specialty of the Franconia region in central Germany is an extremely rewarding, but acquired taste that gives a true sense of malt terroir. Historically, the breweries in the region would have produced their own malted barley, taking it from raw grain all the way through to the end product. These breweries would have used direct fired kilns to dry the barley after malting. Using this rudimentary early technology meant that as well as the heat accessing the drying grains, the smoke was also able to pass through and be absorbed by the wet grains, giving them a smokey flavour in the process. As technology progressed, some of the Franconian brewers stuck with their techniques, enjoying the unique flavour that the nearby abundant beech wood used to fuel the kilns imparted. Rauchbier is a ruby red bottom-fermenting beer, often described as tasting like liquid bacon.

The immediately refreshing cloudy classic, wheat beer, filled with flavours and aromas of bananas and clove. Due to the Reinheitsgebot the commercial brewing of wheat beer was only allowed by being granted a licence by the Duke of Bavaria. As such, Hofbräu, being founded and owned by the state of Bavaria were the only brewer allowed to brew this style. Wheat beer enjoyed immense popularity until the 19th century when developments in refrigeration lead to a boom in the brewing of high quality German lager. Eventually Hofbräu latched on to this trend, and in 1872 Georg Schneider was the first lay person given permission to produce Weiss bier, with the state no longer concerned with maintaining their exclusivity.

Berliner Weisse
It’s not only Belgium that can lay a claim to incredible sour beer, at one point this style was so revered that it was referred to as the Champagne of the North by Napoleon’s troops, but towards the end of the 20th century it almost disappeared with only two breweries left producing it. Berliner Weisse was originally a lightly tart, low ABV wheat beer, that underwent a secondary fermentation by Lactobacillus to give it that characteristic zing. Some brewers will actually pitch yoghurt directly into the wort, to use the Lactobacillus culture that soured the yoghurt to sour the end beer. Traditionally Berliner Weisse is drunk with the addition of flavoured syrups, generally raspberry, woodruff, or just plain sugar, to balance the flavour. More recently, Berliner Weisse has been revived by brewers all across the world who have generally ramped up the puckering sourness, and used it as a blank page to experiment with all manner of wacky flavour additions and dry hoppings.

Relatively similar to Berliner Weisse, gose is a tart wheat beer, but differs wildly from the Berliner Weisse format with the addition of salt and coriander seeds. A regional specialty of Leipzig, the first recorded mention of gose dates back to 1332, but in the mid 20th century commercial production of gose stopped altogether with only a few tiny producers (effectively brewpubs) persisting. Similar to Berliner Weisse, the style has been rediscovered recently and taken in entirely new directions.

A relative of the lager family of beers, but quite unlike what you’d expect from a German lager. A fairly archaic mash schedule involving the drawing off and caramelisation of portions of the wort contribute to a wonderfully bready flavour and deep nut brown colour. Doppelbock has a similar origin story to Belgian dubbel, being produced in German monasteries for nourishment of monks.

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