The Drinking Culture in Germany and a Total Beer Guide
Last updated: 12 Jun 2020 / by Sam Williams
If you think of German culture, what is the first thing that springs to mind? For many people, it is Oktoberfest and the famous German love of beer.
This isn’t just a stereotype; Germans love their beer and it’s drunk at all times of the day around the country. If you pick the right kind of beer, it is even possible to enjoy one with a late breakfast without attracting any criticism!
With Germans knocking back an impressive 106 liters per person on average every year, beer is an integral part of German culture. Even if you don’t plan to drink 106 liters yourself, it’s useful to know a bit more about German beers if you’re planning to move there.
History of German Beer
Originally called “liquid bread” – presumably because of the yeast content – beer dates to ancient times. The first signs of it can be found in Mesopotamia 12,000 years ago, from where it spread worldwide and became a staple for nearly every culture.
Germany may not have invented beer, but their history with the amber liquid is no less impressive. German monks have been producing beer for the public since 1000 AD. Most of these beer-loving monasteries were in the south of Germany and some are still open today. The oldest of these is Weihenstephan, which dates to 1040.
Although it may sound crazy now, centuries ago it was common to give beer to small children. This is because it contained lots of calories and was safer than water. The Beer Purity Law (see below) in the 16th-century made beer an even preferable option.
Beer Purity Law
The Deutsches Reinheitsgebot, which translates as the German Beer Purity Law, came into effect in Bavaria in 1516. This law decreed that all Bavarian beer could only be made using clean water, hops and malt.
Later, scientists learnt more about yeast and how important it is for fermentation. Yeast was added to the list of ingredients, extending them to four.
The German Purity Law didn’t stay confined to Bavaria. Over the years, it crept throughout Germany until 1906 when it became the country’s primary law governing breweries. Today, the Beer Purity Law is the oldest food law still operating in the world.
This insistence on only using four ingredients is what sets German beer apart from many others. It preserves traditional craft beer-making techniques and provides a clean, pure taste. Beers from other countries use a range of starchy grains such as rye spelt, maize and barley but it’s not the case in Germany. The Purity Law prevents anything than four simple ingredients being used in any type of beer-making.
German Culture and Drinking Beer
British tourists have a reputation for drinking to excess, but this isn’t the case with Germans. Although drinking beer is an enormous part of their culture, and it’s enjoyed regularly, it would be rare to see Germans completely drunk.
Despite this self-moderation, Germans have a very relaxed attitude towards drinking beer. At 16 – you can drink beer before you can drive a car or vote in national elections! Only beer and wine benefit from this licensing age; it’s 18 years old for spirits and “harder” drinks.
Drinking beers casually in public is commonplace in Germany, particularly after work. You might see many people enjoying a Feierabendbier (end of work beer) on the train, sat on a bench or in the park.
Beer drinking is such a large part of German culture, it has its own word “Bierernst“. This translate yes as “serious beer” which highlights just how important beer is to Germans!
Oktoberfest is the most famous beer festival in the world and symbolizes Germany’s love of beer drinking. Although it has now an enormous tourist attraction, Oktoberfest is still an important celebration of German breweries.
If you’re planning on living in Germany, taking part in the drinking culture is almost essential. Even if you don’t drink beer yourself, attending Oktoberfest and beer bars will allow you to soak up German culture in its most authentic form.
However, don’t forget to take out protection before you enjoy a beer or three. In Germany, you are responsible to compensate others for any little mishap. It’s easy to accidentally bump into someone else in a bar, especially when the beer is flowing freely but private liability insurance will protect you.
Around 85% of Germans have private liability insurance. This is because an accident could result in you being slapped with an enormous bill for damages amounting to hundreds of thousands of euros. Don’t ruin your plans for life in Germany because of a simple bump or trip in a bar; take out insurance and enjoy your beer in peace!
When is a Beer Not a Beer?
In other countries around the world, people drink shandy for a low-alcohol drink – Germans drink radlers! To a newcomer, this can sound quite confusing as radler is also the word for cyclist…
This is no coincidence as it’s believed that radlers were originally created for cyclists. Other sources suggest that it was created when there wasn’t enough beer to go around. Either way, radlers are a delicious and refreshing drink that you’ll want to try.
The make-up of a radler is similar to shandy; half beer, half carbonated drink. However, a radler is far more fruity, and can be mixed with all sorts of different drinks, not just lemonade.
Some of the different types of radler you’ll find in Germany include:
- Dunkles – a radler made with dark beer
- Russe – a radler made using wheat beer
- Alsterwasser – a radler made with orangeade (in Munster this is known as Wurstwasser as the color of the drink looks like the liquid used to cook sausages!)
- Diesel – a radler made with cola
Quirky German Customs and Traditions About Drinking
As you have probably gathered by now, Germans enjoy drinking! They have some fun and unusual beliefs around drinking that it might be helpful for you to know:
- You must stare into the eyes of another person as you clink glasses. Failing to meet their gaze is an enormous German faux pas and will curse you to seven years of bad sex!
While clinking glasses and staring, making sure you do not cross arms. The exact consequences of this are not explicit, but it’s not good!
- Don’t consider drinking Weizenbier out of the bottle unless you want to attract criticism and shocked glances. There’s a good reason for this one – a wide-topped glass is essential to allow the yeast to spread.
Fancy a beer for breakfast? No problem. In Bavaria, it’s common to sup on hefeweizen, a special type of malted beer, mid-morning.
- Enjoy mulled wine with a twist – Die Feuerzangenbowle. Translating as “fire tongs punch” you’ll need a pair of tongs to be able to sup this drink. A sugarloaf is set alight above a bowl of mulled wine, with the caramelized remnants dripping down over the tongs. Once melted you drink the curiously delicious combination.
Types of German Beer
When you consider the Purity Law, it seems almost inconceivable that Germany would have many different types of beer. And yet, despite only using the same four ingredients, beer-makers create an incredibly diverse range of beers, each with their own distinct taste.
The brewing conditions and locally sourced ingredients can play a big role in the flavor of the beer. Not all beers are created equal – as this quick overview shows!
Pilsner is the type of beer that you’d grab from the supermarket without thinking. Available in many varieties, Pilsner tend to be pale with a light taste. The name comes from the original brewing location – Pilsner Urquell in the Czech Republic.
Malt Pilsners are available in either Bohemian (which comes from the Czech Republic) or German. Both types have a light and refreshing taste, although the German Pilsners are drier, slightly bitter, and have a lighter body. The slightly spicy flavor of floral hops is evident with every mouthful. Alcohol content is typically 4.5-5%.
Helles is one of the earlier German types of Pilsner and hail from Munich. The flavor is less hoppy and it’s much sweeter, giving it an appealing freshness. Pabst Blue Ribbon, Bud and Miller are all types of Pilsner spin-offs.
Traditional Bock Beer and Maibock
Bock is a traditional beer that varies in color and is usually stronger than Pilsner at between 6.3-7.5%. The flavor is distinctive, tasting vaguely of bread. This is due to the specific malt that’s used in the brewing.
You should be able to spot a bock beer instantly because there will probably be a goat somewhere on the label. This is because bock beer originally came from Einbock which is very close to the German phrase for billy goat “ein beck”.
Maibock is a type of bock beer that’s usually available in the spring. It tastes much closer to a Pilsner with a strong hoppy flavor, with the associated floral tones and bitterness. A full bock beer is darker in color, typically ranging from amber to caramel brown, with a full-bodied taste that’s deeper.
Doppelbock and Eisbock
Doppelbock beers are stronger and maltier than standard bock beers, with a much darker color. Monks in the Paulaner brewery in Munich first brewed this type of beer which is described as caramel-like and sugary. Notes of chocolate and fruit are present in the deepest doppelbocks, making them an ideal pick to relax with at the end of the day.
An Eisbock ups the stakes further as it’s a much stronger beer. The brewing process removes some of the water via freezing, which creates a more intense beer with a higher alcohol content. Expect the alcohol content to be between 9 and 14%.
Oktoberfest and Märzen are two alternative names for the same type of lager beer.
Dunkel is technically the same but fermented for longer to become much darker and stronger. In the 16th-century it was illegal to make beer during the spring or summer because the wild yeast was too strong and would ruin the taste. Any beers made during winter or the early spring were stored in dark, cool caves and cellars, producing the now-familiar dunkel.
Oktoberfest and Märzen taste clean and nutty with tones of bread, and a strong malty influence. They are popular at Oktoberfest and many of the big breweries such as Löwenbrau, Hacker–Pschorr, Hofbrähaus, Paulaner, Franziskaner, Augustiner and Spaten exporting large quantities every year.
Schwarzbier translates as “black beer”. It’s a fitting name as it’s the darkest of all the German beers, including doppelbock and dunkel.
The taste of schwarzbier is surprising as there are no overpowering, strong flavors as the color would suggest. Instead, it’s a light-bodied beer which is dry, featuring a malty taste with hops and a slight roasty bitterness. The alcohol content is moderate too, typically just 5%.
Hefeweizen, Weizenbock and Dunkelweizen
Weizen is the general name for Germany’s wheat beers, a popular regional specialty that’s all around the world.
Hefeweizen is the most common of these and is served in a narrow, tall glass with a flared top, similar to a vase. This wide top is necessary to let the unusual top-fermenting yeast spread out properly when poured. If your hefeweizen looks cloudy, don’t worry, there’s nothing wrong with it! The yeast gives it a unique foggy appearance. It gives off the aroma of cloves and tastes of stout.
Dunkelweizen is a dark wheat beer; Weizenbock is a stronger version of this. The name gives a clue to the strength – it’s similar to a regular bock but is a wheat ale instead. Fans of dunkelweizen say that it tastes similar to banana bread with a deep and caramel flavor. Weizenbock combine the best of hefeweizen and dunkelweizen, but to a more intense degree.
To make rauchbier, you need a very special technique that involves drying malted barley over open flames. This creates a memorable smokey taste that’s rich and has depth, the perfect companion to meat.
As the name suggests, Alter follows a more traditional method of brewing. There are two types of altbier available. The version from Düsseldorf is strong in hops while the altbier found elsewhere uses base malt and ale yeast.
Whichever type you pick, you’ll enjoy a light ale that slides down easily. Expect an alcoholic content of between 4.2% and 5.2%.
Kölsch is an unusual beer, combining the top-fermenting yeast of a hefeweizen with a couple of months in a dark, cool cellar. This creates an ale which is spicy and crisp, with a mellow malt taste and floral hops.
This special fermentation process is responsible for the delicate, multi-layered flavor and pleasant yellow color. Kölsch is a very forgiving type of beer which is ideal for any occasion.
Gose, Berliner Weisse
Gose and Berliner Weisse are two types of craft beer that have enjoyed more popularity in recent times.
Berliner Weisse is a fruity wheat beer that has a sour, tart taste which comes from the lactobacillus bacteria used in the fermentation. Typically enjoyed in the summertime, Berliner Weisse first became popular in the 19th century.
Gose uses the same bacteria to produce a tangy, appealing flavor that is accented further by the unusual inclusion of salt and coriander. The result is a spicy beer that is sour and cloudy, just like hefeweizen.
Both Gose and Berliner Weisse have a very low alcohol content, typically between 2.2 and 2.4%.
Iconic German Brands
As can be seen from the long list above, there are many different types of German beer. Germany’s expertise in producing these beers means that as well as being popular at home, there is an enormous demand for it worldwide.
There are approximately 5500 German beer manufacturers; each one produces about a dozen beers. With such an enormous industry, it’s impossible to list every brewery in Germany but here’s a run-through of the most iconic.
One of the very few breweries who still produce Rauchbier, Aecht Schlenkerla dates back to 1405. Its best-known beer is the Aecht Schlenkerla which is smoky and tapped right from the wooden barrel. Fans of the beer say it’s reminiscent of beef jerky!
Augustiner–Bräu brewery first started producing beer in 1328 and it’s Munich’s oldest, independent brewery. It was originally situated within an Augustine monastery and it’s one of the very few breweries left in Munich which isn’t owned by a huge multinational company.
The Augustiner Helles is its most popular beer and if you visit any German supermarket, you’ll spot it on the shelves.
The brewery is one of only six to supply the prestigious Oktoberfest, but its the only one which pours directly from their wooden barrels.
Erdinger Kristall is one of the biggest producers of wheat beer in the world. The brewery was founded in 1886, and now produces ten different types of beer. Its Kristallweizen and Weissbier are the most well-known.
As a more specialist brewery, Gaffel mainly produce Kölsch. This light beer is only produced in the Cologne region and served in 200ml glasses.
Fans of Paulaner have a group of Minim monks from the Neudeck ob der Au cloister to thank for the creation of this brewery. Production began in 1634 and the brewery was named after the head monk at the time.
It is the within the top six best-selling beers in Germany and is one of the six breweries which supply Oktoberfest. It produces a special Oktoberfest beer, but also has a doppelbock which is very popular.
Radeberger is the largest group of breweries in Germany, making 15% of all beer in the country. Some of their subsidiaries include Berliner Kindl, Freiberger and Stuttgarter Hofbräu. In total they produce approximately 13 million hectolitres of beer annually. Their headquarters are in Frankfurt but they produce beer in 16 different locations around the country.
Opened in 1872 by Georg I. Schneider, Schneider Weisse has an outstanding reputation for producing many different types of wheat beer. However, possibly its standout beer is an Eisbock, the Schneider Aventius. Offering a hint of plum, it has caramel and nutty tones complemented by a heavy, malty body.
This brewery produces beer under the dual names of Spaten and Franziskaner, and dates back to 1397. Its biggest claim to fame is being one of the Oktoberfest beer providers. All of the beer it produces for the festival is made during March and carefully stored before being ready to serve six months later.
This Bavarian brewery is the oldest in the world which is still producing today. First opened in 1040 by Benedictine monks in Benedictine Weihenstephan Abbey, it is best known for producing hefeweizen although it also sells other types of beer too.
Choose wisely, enjoy responsibly and don’t drink and drive!