Legend has it that beer was popular in ancient Egypt. The Babylonian Code of Hammurabi mentions beer in 1754 B.C. and lays down explicit rules regarding brewing and serving of the beverage. The Mesopotamians even knew a God of beer, featuring holy prayers that doubled as recipe. Nothing of that matters. There was no real beer before the introduction of the Reinheitsgebot – the German Beer Purity Law – in 1516. That’s when beer became beer. That’s when the best beer on the planet was born. To this day no other beer can compare to proper German Flüssigbrot (“liquid bread”).
The best beer of all is brewed in Cologne. You haven’t had beer until you enjoyed a “Kölsch” in a 0.2l small glass called a “Bierflöte” (a beer flute). It has been established by the most knowledgeable people that this is the best way to keep beer fresh; in Cologne pubs you will get a new glass as soon as you empty the former one, no questions asked, and if you try to order a glass of water, you might be served a piece of soap with it. Clearly you would not ask for water if you can have Kölsch.
If the start of this article seems ever so slightly biased, please be aware: Germans take their beer seriously. Writing this, I notice how often I use that term in any one of these blog posts. It still isn’t wrong. The matter of doing things properly is important in my birth country, and beer is an essential. So much, that a Bavarian prime minister once stated that driving a car after two Maß (two litres) of beer on the famous Oktoberfest is not a problem. Public Service Announcement: It is. The alcohol limit for driving in Germany is 0.3 per mill. It’s reached after a maximum of two flutes of Kölsch. Even one Bavarian Maß is by far too much.
Oktoberfest, despite its reputation of a huge beer festival, might not be the best place to enjoy the art of German brewing anyway. Too much is being consumed too fast, and the huge glasses guarantee that the beer gets stale. Nothing is worse than stale beer, which is why Germans serve it with a huge crown of foam on top of the glass and frown upon the way it is pulled in British pubs.
Pride and prejudice: The Reinheitsgebot
The purity law of 1516 ruled that any beer sold in Germany can only be produced using water, barley and hops, nothing else. Later yeast, still unknown in the 16th century, was added as an ingredient.
The purity law came under fire in 1987 when the European Court of Justice found that it was protectionist and the German market had to open for international beers with different ingredients. German beer producers lobbied to keep the Reinheitsgebot for national brewery products nevertheless, making it a measurement for quality. The rules were slightly softened after the German reunification to allow East German breweries to sell beer that didn’t exactly follow the rules.
One big exception always applied: The “Kinderbier”: Sweet, dark malt beer with very low alcohol content that is well-loved all over Germany.
While this drink is known as “Dunkelbier” (dark beer) in Northern Germany, the same term refers to extra strong beer with up to 16 % of alcohol in Austria. A misunderstanding that led to my first alcohol intoxication at the tender age of 6 on a holiday trip to the South. Given the strong, rich taste of strong dark beer, I am surprised I accepted the drink as a small kid. Apparently I got very jolly until my parents tasted the content of my glass and confiscated it right away.
Not every German dark beer is sweet, though. Schwarzbier (black beer) is famous for its mild, sometimes smoky taste and often brewed in small private ventures. If you ever make it to Erfurt in East Germany, try the “Waldhaus” restaurant and their self-made Schwarzbier. You might never forget it.
Bockbier and its stronger brother Doppelbock are also dark – and last not least the famous Altbier, as it is brewed in the city of Düsseldorf. Düsseldorf and Cologne are stuck in a perpetual war regarding class, refinement and taste, meaning you should never try to order Kölsch in Düsseldorf or Altbier in Cologne. Imagine the rivalry between Liverpool and Manchester, but supercharged.
Besides dark and pale beers (the best known among these is “Pilsner”, which originates in Pilsen in the Czech republic but was invented by a Bavarian brewer) the greatest favourite of German beer drinkers is Wheat beer. Strong, rich and very filling it is able to replace a full meal, especially if you follow modern trends and mix it with Banana juice. Opinions are split about this, though. I personally fancy a “Bananenweizen”, but it really leaves you bloated and might be considered blasphemy.
A local wheat beer that you should try if you are ever in Berlin is “Berliner Weiße”. Cloudy and sour it doesn’t taste all that great, which is the reason why it’s usually mixed with either raspberry or woodruff sirup, in bowl-shaped glasses. Not to everyone’s liking, it is surely an experience.
The Reinheitsgebot, while being the source of much pride, is also a source of prejudice. There’s a lot of wonderful beer outside the narrow framework of “purity”, among it interesting products like the Chinese brand Tsingtao that has actual German roots. Qingdao, hometown of the company, used to be a German colony. Immigrants founded the local brewery that still follows the original recipe but adds rice (as cliché as that might sound).
Who is who
Bamberg, a Franconian city in the South of German, is the home of a curious specialty: The village Aufseß in Bamberg features four breweries, while only having 1,352 citizens. Not far from there the Benedictine abbey Weihenstephan claims to be the oldest existing brewery, established in 725. Of course, with the Reinheitsgebot not coming into force before the 16th century, quality of early Weihenstephan products must have been far inferior compared to today.
For decades the bestselling beer brand in Germany was Krombacher (indeed located in the town of Krombach), but was replaced in 2004 by Oettinger Pils, a brand that does not advertise, only trades directly with customers without intermediaries and uses a high-tech automated process for their production. The secret of success are huge supermarkets, for example Aldi, and an extremely low price.
Oettinger enjoys a horrible reputation, often referred to as “Schädelbräu” (headache brew). It might be worth trying once, but if you are in Germany, consider visiting a nice “Kneipe” (pub) or a Biergarten and enjoy your drink fresh “vom Fass” (from a cask).
And to be honest: Don’t listen too much to the experts obsessed with dogmatic rules of what is and isn’t “real beer”. Just enjoy.
And don’t forget: Kölsch. That’s the best.