The Beginner's Guide to German Beers

Think of Oktoberfest, and the chances are that two things immediately come to mind: beer and sausages. 

But if you’re not convinced by how serious the Germans take their beers, this might just tip you over. The Germans established the Reinheitsgebot, a Beer Purity Law, in the 16th century to regulate the ingredients and standards in German-made beers, and it's still being upheld today. 

The marvelous thing, however,  is that despite the stringent beer-making regulations, the Germans have managed to create a dizzying number of beer styles, from the crisp, spicy pale ales to the malty, toasty dark lagers. 

The list below is by no means exhaustive, but will hopefully shed some light on what to expect when you order a stein at the next Oktoberfest. 

https://robert-parker-content-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/media/image/2018/09/24/4ba18a628cdd4c3f8c5ba673d5d15b5c_german_beer_guide_cheers_INLINE.jpg

Berliner Weisse/Gose
How It Tastes: Tart, spicy and visibly cloudy. The Berliner weisse is a regional variation on the white beer from Northern Germany whose conception dates as fas as the 16th century. The tartness of the Berliner weisse comes from its fermentation process with lactic acid, the same acid that gives yogurt and sour cream its lip-pursing tang. 

The gose too shares the same tartness of the Berliner weisse but doesn’t taste quite as sharp thanks to two other ingredients: salt and coriander. The result is a rounder, more balanced flavor. 

ABV: 2.5 to 4%

https://robert-parker-content-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/media/image/2018/09/24/67ede36e5dc945f5be096f8e68a386b6_german_beer_guide_pilsner_INLINE.jpg
The lager is the predominant choice among America's largest brewing companies.

Pilsner/Helles
How It Tastes: Refreshing, dry and light. The pilsner is cut by just enough sweetness from the malt to make it one of the most popular German styles of beer. It should, however, not be confused with the golden Czech pilsner, which has a spicier taste and more bite. But even sweeter than the pils is helles, a traditional German pale lager. It tastes exactly how the German word 'hell' can be translated into English as: bright, light and pale. 

ABV: 4.4 to 5.2%

https://robert-parker-content-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/media/image/2018/09/24/85a15e25ebe94de589e347c44d6d1e60_german_beer_guide_biergarten_INLINE.jpg

Altbier/Kölsch
How It Tastes: Different—they’re often grouped together for their similar fermentation processes, which is having their yeasts fermented at a cooler temperature that’s usually reserved for lagers, but the two beers yield drastically different flavors. 

Hailing from Düsseldorf, the altbier comes in a rich, nutty, almost bready malt character alongside a spicy, floral bitterness. Colonge’s kölsch, on the other hand, comes across more delicate and mildly fruity. While one isn’t better than the other, it’s good to note that your beer preferences, like football teams, can divide people at a biergarten. 

ABV: 4.4 to 5.2%

https://robert-parker-content-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/media/image/2018/09/24/212a2c1d91f847feb6cf11abf0ac0146_german_beer_guide_oktoberfest_INLINE.jpg
Typical fare at Oktoberfest includes a stein of Märzen, pretzels, pork knuckles and sausages.

Oktoberfest/Märzen
How It Tastes: Oktoberfest and Märzen are one in the same. Their names are often used interchangeably but they refer to the same style of beer with caramel, toasty notes and an easy bitterness. 

Märzen is named so for the simple reason of being traditionally brewed in early spring (March). The Bavarian beer then grew synonymous with Oktoberfest for its steadfast appearance at the festival since the 18th century. 

ABV: 4.8 to 6.3%

https://robert-parker-content-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/media/image/2018/09/24/329e162ad0d247b99300444f9301ac5b_german_beer_guide_maibock_INLINE.jpg

Maibock/Traditional Bock
How It Tastes: Toasty, bready and slightly sweet. Bock is essentially a class of beers that can range from pale gold (maibock) to warm, dark brown (doppelbock and eisbock, more on those below). Traditional bock sits squarely in the middle—with colors ranging from amber to brown. Maibocks are a seasonal beer (Mai is May in German) and are significantly lighter in color. 

ABV: 6 to 7%

https://robert-parker-content-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/media/image/2018/09/24/740c4116787e4404b07ffd04506773a2_german_beer_guide_doppelbock_INLINE.jpg

Doppelbock/ Eisbock
How It Tastes: Rich, deep flavors reminiscent of caramelized sugar. Even darker variants can contain notes of chocolate too. Doppelbocks are generally stronger and more malty than the traditional and maibocks and rumor has it that the color of the bock can tell tales about the potency of the beer; the darker it is, the more alcohol content it contains. But don't count on it. Most of the commercial examples of the doppelbocks we see today are darker in color but they can technically be pretty pale too so don't judge your lagers by its shade. 

An eisbock is essentially a stronger, richer, more flavorful doppelbock. And when we say strong, we mean it. Eisbocks are doppelbocks with approximately 10% of their water content removed; a doppelbock concentrate if you will. 

ABV: 9 to 14% 

Want to learn more about wine? Follow Robert Parker Wine Advocate on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.


More articles from this author