If you follow us on Instagram odds are you probably saw way too many photos of Anna, myself, and my brother wandering around Europe this summer. While we really enjoyed Amsterdam and Bruges, we loved Germany. Fortunately we got to experience both Munich and Cologne, and like any German would tell you, those cities are polar opposites not only when it comes to culture, but beer as well. While Munich is known as traditional and Cologne as progressive, there is a constant we enjoyed in our travels: damn good beer. Why am I writing this post at this exact moment? It’s Oktoberfest, so you should be choosing your German beer of choice wisely. Let me tell you a little about the basics and favorites from my travels to guide your beer of choice. Prost!
Basics of German Beer
Bavaria enacted beer purity laws in 1516 (otherwise known as “Reinheitsgebot”) that mandated beer could only be made with the following ingredients: water, barely, and hops. Well…so much for creativity. Actually, its been argued that the Reinheitsgebot stagnated or eliminated other beer drinking traditions and encouraged the mainstream implementation of pilsner-style beers.
Fortunately, the laws eased up making way to favorites outside of pilsner, as described below.
If you find yourself and Munich and are looking for that everyday beer, look no further than Helles. The word “hell” in German can mean “light”, “bright”, or “pale”, and I would charitably say that “pale” is the most descriptive of this lager. Stateside I would say a Helles compares to a Budweiser in the sense that it has a full body with low alcohol content (usually around 5% ABV) and a generally crisp taste. It’s not a beer for everyone but does embody many of the beer traditions of southern Germany. My favorites were found on journeys to both Hofbrauhaus Munchen and Augustiner-Keller, but if you’re looking for something easily accessible in a bottle or tap stateside, Spaten and Lowenbrau are excellent options. I enjoyed this beer not only for its simplicity but its ability to be paired with about any German food.
Okay, there is “weizenbier” which is wheat beer, and then there is “hefeweizen” which is unfiltered wheat beer. Hefeweizen was my favorite in my travels because of the complexity of the flavors. Because of its fermentation process (it is top-fermented), the yeast in these beers produce a variety of flavors, the most common being banana, clove, bubble-gum, and vanilla.
My brother and I enjoyed a little too-much hefeweizen in our travels so I have a word of caution: it is highly carbonated, filing, and while delicious, I advise not having more than two of these in one sitting. Personally, I think hefeweizen tends to get a little bit better as it reaches room temperature so it is an excellent choice while hanging out in a beer garden.
If you are traveling in Munich check out my favorite, Schneider Weisse. It is a very full-bodied hefeweizen and I really enjoyed the flavor profile – nothing overbearing, but the notes of clove and banana really come out. Another hefeweizen recommended by the locals that I really enjoyed was Franziskaner, which is owned by Spaten/Lowenbrau and part of the Anheuser-Buch InBev portfolio of beers. Much like Schneider Weisse, the beer has very good clove and banana notes, but in my opinion has a fruitier profile. Apricots definitely came to mind.
Now, if you’re not in Bavaria, and let’s say, Iowa, I’m going to promote a Des Moines local beer, Exile Brewing’s Hannah, which is a pretty damn good hefeweizen in my opinion. In fact, I’m having one while writing this post!
I love dunkel, just not in the summer. That being said, visiting Munich in July didn’t deter me from trying this local favorite – I just had to wait until it got cooler at night.
Dunkel is much like Helles in the sense that it is one of the more traditional beers you can drink in Bavaria – in fact, dark beer was probably the first beer made in Bavaria. The flavor is built around the mashing process, and the texture is lager-like. Even though the perception sometimes is darker beer = higher alcohol content, that isn’t the case with Munich-style dunkel. The alcohol by volume ranges from 4.5-6% for which makes for a very nice drinking beer.
Some favorites from my travels were Augustiner’s Dunkel and Hofbrauhaus’ Dunkel (go figure, beer at the two most famous beer gardens in Munich). However, if you want to go off the beaten path Andechser makes an excellent dunkel that you can enjoy outside while admiring the two domes of the Frauenkirche, the oldest cathedral in Munich. But I tell you now, Augustiner’s Dunkel is dangerously good.
In Munich I learned to love Radler. My previous disdain was based upon Leinenkugel’s Summer Shandy, which was always too sweet for my taste. However, German Radler is a low alcohol (think 2.5-3.5%) beer that mixes lemonade/lemon water with Helles. My god, it is so refreshing on those summer days in the beer garden! My advice, ditch Summer Shandy and start looking for literally anything German-made. Though if pressed, Boulevard Brewing makes a pretty groovy Ginger-Lemon Radler that’s easy to find.
In Cologne you drink Kolsch and I wouldn’t have it any other way. While we loved all the beers we tried in Munich, Kolsch was the winner for us. But what is Kolsch? For starters, Kolsch is made only in Cologne. Many people describe it as a mix between an ale and a lager, but is more complex with lower alcohol content than a pilsner (4.5% alcohol by volume). It is also top-fermented, which helps with carbonation, but is also stored like a pilsner in cold tanks.
What made drinking Kolsch so special has to do with Cologne’s culture. In Cologne, Kolsch is continually served with your meal until you put a coaster on top of your glass. Now, this might sound dangerous though you have to realize that Kolsch is only served in 0.2 liter glasses. This makes a big difference compared to what you find in Munich, where beer is routinely served by the liter. What does that mean? You can have several Kolsch’s while enjoying your meal, and it is continually cold and fresh.
If you are adventureous, go out on a limb and try Mett – raw minced pork served on rye bread with red onion. It goes hand-in-hand with Kolsch.
However, for the faint of heart there is always Cologne caviar (blood sausage) and plenty of potato pancakes to pair with your Kolsch.