Munich - In many places a beer is just a beer, and people expect little more than a pale coloured lager when ordering it.
In Germany, however, there are not just the different beer types, laws or glassware to consider, there's also a vast variety of rules, customs and whimsies on a provincial level, too.
So, inspired by the 500th anniversary of the Reinheitsgebot (Germany's famous beer purity law), it's time to brush up, memorise your cultural tip-offs and learn to distinguish your dunkel from your doppelbock with Insight Vacations quick guide to beer in Germany.
500 years backing it up
Firstly, drinking beer in Germany means you'll see the word “Reinheitsgebot” popping up a lot. This is the law that's ensured nothing but beer containing water, hops, malt and yeast has been consumed under the label for 500 years. The regulation started in Ingolstadt, in Bavaria, in Germany, in 1516.
The original law limited ingredients to just barley, hops and water. The exact role of yeast in alcoholic fermentation was not understood at the time and it was only later that brewers were able to add the micro-organism as a specific ingredient. The production of wheat beers remained limited in Bavaria for centuries but is now allowed. So the law now states that malted grains, hops, water and yeast may be used - but nothing else.
So if you're gluten intolerant or trying to follow the Banting diet - German beer is not for you.
Ein bier, bitte
If you're ordering “ein bier, bitte”, you'd better know where you are. Beer in Germany is hyper local, so the default beer is going to be dramatically different from city to city. This localisation also means that those searching for a good brew should remain aware of local sensibilities. Not only do some of the same beers have different names but also asking for a different destination's specialty will most often be met by a blank stare.
So, which glass is best?
It's also imperative to know your glassware. This is an art form in itself when you have Goblets, Pokals, Steins, Tankards, Weizens, Boots, Pilsners and Tumblers to fret over. It might seem a tad capricious when similar looking beers are poured into very different glasses, but there's usually some rhyme or reason behind the riddle. High carbonated, top-fermented Hefeweizen gets a half-litre glass that bulges at the top in order to keep good head retention and show off the beer's aromatic qualities, while Kölsch is traditionally served in narrow flutes that help hold in carbonation.
How about a nice sausage with that?
Food pairings are also important in Germany; they match beer and food here much like the rest of us do wine. In general, sweeter, toastier malt flavours match well with rich pork dishes. Pale Ale drinkers should try the “kielbasa”, a polish sausage often spiced with herbs from caraway seeds to marjoram and slathered in onions. Wheat beers, with their slightly sweet, fruitier flavours and traditional yeasts are tremendous with an eclectic assortment of sides, from seafood salads to banana pudding. Then there's Rauchbier which, given its smokiness, is unsurprisingly best paired with barbequed meats or smoked hams and cheeses.
Know your pilsener from your lager
Finally, you must learn the different types of beer in Germany. Here's a smattering of the major groups: Pilsner is pale yellow lager, with a spicy, floral finish. It was actually born in what is now the Czech Republic - Helles, its Germany relation, is a much less hoppy creature. If there's a goat on the label you've probably got a bottle of Bock in your hand. Toasty, bready and more than a little sweet, its traditionally served in the springtime.
Among the heavier, stronger beers are Doppelbock and Eisbock. You can usually determine these heavy-hitters by their names, which tend to end with the suffix “-ator”. Dunkel is a brown, malty, nutty lager that originates from Bavaria. Schwarzbier might look dark - its name translates to “black beer” - but its strength generally hovers at a rather tame five percent ABV. And lastly, Rauchbier is made with malt that's been smoked over the flames of a beechwood fire. Like coriander, people either love it or hate it. There is no middle ground.
Adapted from a press release for IOL
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