German Beer Primer for Beginners
Why German Beer is Special

Brewing is an ancient craft in Germany, dating back to at least the late Bronze Age, generally considered to have lasted in Central Europe between roughly 2000 and 700 B.C. The ancient Germans did not invent brewing, but they were probably the first Europeans to make beer. The honor of inventing beer goes to the Sumerians of Mesopotamia (now southern Iraq), mankind's oldest civilization. These ancient Mideasterners started brewing some 10,000 years ago, right at the dawn of history itself, when humans first gave up their hunting and gathering ways and settled down to farm, raise animals, develop a written language, work in metal, and generally organize themselves into civic communities. The Mesopotamians then taught the Babylonians, Assyrians, and Egyptians how the brew. It was in these lands, along the rivers Tigris, Euphratis, and Nile that the ancient Greeks and Romans first encountered beer.

When the Romans ventured across the Alps, in the first century B.C., they found another tribal culture, the forest-dwelling germanii, who, without any contact with the people from the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East, also practiced the art of making an alcoholic beverage from grain instead of grape. The oldest archeological evidence of brewing in Germany, and indeed in Central Europe, is an earthenware amphora from around 800 BCE. It was found in 1935 in a Celtic burial mound in the small northern Bavarian village of Kasendorf, some seven miles west of Kulmbach. The amphora contained residues of black wheat ale flavored with oak leaves. The arifact is now on exhibit at the Bavarian Beer Museum in Kulmbach.

The old Germans, like the Mideasterners, made beer by half-baking moist loaves of bread and then crumbling these crocks of water. They then waited for airborn yeast cells, riding on a breeze, to be swooshed into the crocks to start fermenting the rich gruel. The brew that resulted must have been a murky and sour quaff, not the sort of beverage we would now associate with modern beer; but technically, it was beer.

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Brewing Basics
The most important raw material for making any alcoholic beverage, including beer, is yeast, a single-cell organism that is responsible for all fermentations. The other key ingredients are grain (usually barley; often wheat; rarely rye, emmer, or dinkel) and water (beer is about 90% water) as well as flavorings — nowadays almost exclusively hops, the bitter-aromatic female flower (below) of a creeping vine related to canabis. Before the discovery of hops for beer-making in the late eigth century A.D., brewers used just about any flavorings in their brews, including herbs, leaves, rushes, bark, or even oxen gall.

Though man has been brewing for millennia, strangely, yeast (below, right) was the very last beer ingredient to be recognized for the vital function it performs. The workings of yeast were discovered only in the 19th century, notably by the French microbiologist Louis Pasteur and the Danish botanist Emil Christian Hansen. Until that time, most brewers considered yeast not the agent of fermentation, but its waste product. Though yeast is probably the single most importantbeer ingredient, brewers had simply failed to grasp that, without it, there would be no beer—or wine and distilled spirits, for that matter. Technically, fermentation is the conversion by yeast of sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide gas. Sugar is a type of carbohydrate, which yeast "eats" (or "metabolises"). As a "metabolic byproduct," yeast then releases alcohol and carbon dioxide into the brew. The former, of course, gives our fermented beverage its kick, while the latter, if trapped under pressure, gives it its effervescence.

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Malting
The process of beer-making is much more intricate than that of wine-making, yet most anthropologists are convinced that beer-making came before wine-making, maybe even before bread-making. While wine is simply fermented grape juice, beer is a fermented extract made from grain in a lengthy process. Grape juice, like all fruit juices, already contains natural sugars, a simple carbohydrate, so all you need to do when making wine is press out the juce and add yeast.

Beer-making, on the other hand, is a much more complicated because grain does not contain suagars, but starches. These are complex, unfermentable carbohydrates. These becomes suagrs only after they have undergone a process called enzymatic conversion. Fortunately, all grain kernels contain enzymes (types of natural proteins), that are capable of converting starches into fermentable sugars. This conversion, however, can take place only in a moist, warm environment of roughly 145 to 165°F or 63 to 74°C—the same conditions the kernel would you would encouinter in the soil on a warm spring day. The maltster, therefore, purposefully imitates these "field" conditions in the malting plant, as does the brewer in the mash tun. The maltster first steeps the grain in water, imitating the melting snow that is needed to hydrate the kernel. The moist grain is then allowed to germinate in a warm chamber until the kernel begins to sprout a new shoot. If germination were left unchecked, this shoot, called an endosperm, would consume all the sugars converted earlier by enzymes. To save these surgars for the yeast instead, the maltster kiln-dries the grain, killing the sprout. At this stage, the grain is called brewers malt. The longer and hotter the grain is dried the darker and more flavorful it gets—from caramel, to chocolate to roasted. The darker the malt, the darker and more aromatic will be the beer made from it. Nowadays, most most beers, including the very dark ones, are made from a base of at least 50% pale malt. The brewer then adds slightly to severaly toasted or even roasted malts to achieve the desired beer and flavor required by the style defintion.

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Mashing
The brewer mills and remoistens the malt with warm water in the mash tun. This reactivates the enzymes and completes the starch-to-sugar conversion. (The ancient Mideastern and Germanic brewers, incidentally, had figured out this same process by trial and error. When they half-baked their moist loaves of bread, made from coarsely ground grains, the kernels' enzymes became active in the bake ovens of antiquity as they now do in modern malting chambers and mash tuns.)

There are two traditional ways of mashing malt, either by just steeping grain in hot (but not boiling) water or by first steeping and then boiling the mash. The former is called infusion mashing, the latter, decoction mashing. British ale brewers never use decoction mashing, while German lager brewers have always used it — until very recently, that is. Decoction, like enzymatic conversion, can break down starches into sugars—a useful technique especially for enzyme-poor grains. Modern brewing grains, however, are especially bread for high enzymatic strength. Most German breweries, therefore, now use just infusion mashing. Because boiling the mash is also very energy-intensive, infusion-mashing has the added advantage of cost savings and energy conservation.

After the grain is mashed, either by infusion or decoction, the brewer then strains off the sugary liquid, much the way we make filtered coffee. It is no accident that we "brew" both coffee and beer. The process of washing the sugars out of the grain bed is called "lautering." The brewer calls the extract that results "wort." The wort is collected in the brew kettle.

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Boiling
Before the wort can be fermented into beer, however, it must be boiled for at least an hour to drive off unpleasant volatile substances leached out of the grain husks. Boiling also coagulates and precipitates any gummy grain residues that may have found their way into the brew. To balance the sweetness of the wort with some bittering, the brewer adds hops at the boiling stage, much like a cook might add a flavorful bone to a boiling soup.

There are hundreds of hop varieties. Hops grows all over the world, but there are only a few places where hops has evolved to deliver superior and delicate flavors: Most noteably among them are Germany, England, the Czech Republic, and the United States. Each of these growing regions produces hops with particular flavors. The United States is known for very zesty, pungent, aggressive hop varieties. Britain is more known for its floral varieties. The Czech Republic produces the most aromatic hops, while Germany produces varieties that seem to combine the best traits of all of the other hops. They are at once citrusy, floral, and aromatic. The brewer refers to the typically "German" hop flavor as "noble."

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Fermenting
After the boil, the wort is cooled and drained into a temperature-controlled fermentation vat, where it is finally introduced to a thick slurry of active yeast. It takes about a quart (one liter) of yeast slurry to ferment 15 U.S. gallons (about 50 liters) of beer — which is the equivalent of one standard keg. There are literally hundreds of yeast varieties in the environment, but only two of them are suitable for brewing beer. Brewers call one "top-fermenting" yeast (technically known as Saccharomyces cerevisiae, which means "beer yeast"), and the other "bottom-fermenting" yeast (technically known as Saccharomyces uvarum, which means "clump-like yeast"). Brewers call all other strains "wild" yeast. Top-fermenting yeast is so named because it rises to the top of the beer and forms a rocky layer during fermentation. Bottom-fermenting yeast, on the other hand, sinks to the bottom of the beer and forms a thick slurry near the end of fermentation. Yeast, and yeast alone, is responsible for the difference between ales and lagers. All top-fermenting strains make ales, all bottom-fermenting strains make lagers. There are many differences between ale and lager yeasts, but their working temperatures and their flavor-full fermentation by-products are of greatest importance for beer-making.

First, ale and lagers yeasts prefer to work at different temperatures. Ale yeasts produce the best beer flavor at an ambient temperature of 59 to 77°F (15 to 25°C). This allows brewers to make beer year-round in most climates and it explains why ales have been the standard brew almost everywhere throughout human history, before the invention of refrigeration in the late 19th century. Lager yeasts, on the other hand, produce the best beer flavor at a low ambient temperature of 41 to 50°F (5 to 10°C). Before refrigeration, lager yeasts, therefore, were unsuitable for beer-making in much of the earth's temperate zone for most of the year.

Second, ale and lager yeast impart different trace elements to the fermenting beer, in additional, of course, to alcohol and carbon dioxide. As a general rule, ale yeasts produce more flavorful trace elements, and more of them, than do lager yeasts. As a result, ales tend to taste fruitier and more complex than lagers. Conversely, lagers tend to taste cleaner and crisper than ales.

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Conditioning
Fermentation is usually finished within a few days to a week, after which the yeast-turbid, almost still, beer is allowed to mature in so-called conditioning tanks. Depending on beer type, the brew may mellow in the tank for one week to six months. It is during the conditioning stage that the tank is usually capped to build up carbonation produced by any remaining yeast buds finishing off any residual sugars in the brew. Ales usually mature within no more than two weeks at cellar temperature, while lagers take at least twice as long near the freezing point. The need for such long, cold storage is precisely the reason why bottom-fermented beers are called lagers. "Lagern" is the German word for to store, to warehouse.

Packaging
After conditioning, the ale or lager is ready for packaging into bottles, kegs, or cans. Most beers nowadays are filtered before packaging to remove any yeast cells left in suspension; but there are several beer styles, such as Weissbier (a German wheat-based ale) or Kellerbier (a German barley-based lager), that are usually sold unfiltered and that look yeast-turbid when poored into a glass.

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Pouring a German Beer
German beers, both ales and lagers, tend to be more effervescent and richer in protein than most other brews, especially English ales. Proteins in beer come from the grain. They are responsible for a beer's body and mouthfeel, and are the main building blocks of beer foam. During the pour, proteins are dragged out of the brew by escaping carbon dioxide bubbles to form a rocky, white, long lasting head, as shown, in the photo to the left, on a half-liter glass of German Dunkel. To contain the foam, always use a glass that is larger than the volume of beer you intend to pour. In pubs, German beer glasses must have a measuring mark way below the rim to indicate the proper fill level, such as 0.5 liters (right). The mark is required by law for all beer glasses used to serve the paying public. The head space starts above the fill mark.

Before pouring, rinse your glass in cold water without drying it. This helps remove any detergent residues that could destroy the beer's foam. Most German beers are best poured at about 45 to 50°F (7 to 10°C). Only the exceptionally efferevescent Weissbier (Hefeweizen) likes to be poured two or three degrees cooler. Before serving any German beer that is kept in the fridge, allow it to warm up at room temperature for five or 10 minutes, because beer that is served too cold loses its complexity. For the same reason, never store German beer glasses in the freezer. Frosted glasses chill the beer too severely, dilute the taste, and numb rather than stimulate your palate. When pouring a German beer out of a bottle or tap, tilt the moist glass at a 45-degree angle and let half the beer cascade down the side. Then hold the glass upright and pour the other half right down the middle. This lowers the carbonation slightly while producing just the desired amount of head.

Note that wide-rimmed British pint glasses, which happen to be the most popular glasses in North American brewpubs, tend to be unsuitable for German beer. While German beer glasses always have enough head space above the measured amount of beer, British pint glasses do not. Instead, they are already full to the rim (right) when they hold the measured amount of exactly 16 fluid ounces of beer (left). There is no room for a head! Therefore, when you are served a pint (approx. 0.47 liters) of German beer in a British-style glass, you will be cheated: Either you get no foam or you get less than the amount of beer you ordered. Also, because German beers are more effervescent than Brtitish ales, the wide opening of a pint glass tends let the wonderful hop aroma of most German beers escape long before you have a chance to enjoy it.


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The German "Beer Purity Law"
(Reinheitsgebot) De-Mystified

German beer labels always carry the inscription "Gebraut nach dem deutschen Reinheitsgebot" or "Gebraut nach dem Bayerischen Reinheitsgebot von 1516" (brewed according to the German Purity Law or the Bavarian Purity Law of 1516). This "beer purity" law is one of the most remarkable and perhaps most misunderstood pieces of legislation. The original law was a ducal decree issued on April 23, 1516, by the Bavarian co-rulers Duke Wilhelm IV and Duke Ludwig X (below). It was introduced at a meeting of an assembly of the Estates of Bavaria, at Ingolstadt, some 60 miles north of Munich. Initially only in feudal Bavaria, but later in all of Germany, the Reinheitsgebot gave government the tools to regulate the ingredients, processes and quality of beer sold to the public (and to levy taxes on beer!). The Reinheitsgebot is the oldest, still valid food safety law in the world.

The 1516 Reinheitsgebot simply stipulated that only barley, hops, and water may be used to make the brew. The existence of yeast had not yet been discovered. The intent of the law was to keep beer "pure" by feudal decree, that is, to keep cheap and often unhealthy ingredients — such as rushes, roots, mushrooms, and animals products — out of the people's drink. In medieval times, brewers often used such ingredients to raise their profits by lowering their standards. The word "Reinheit" (purity), however, did not appear anywhere in the original text. It only started to make its appearance in German legal texts around 1918. Until then, the law was usually referred to as the "surrogate prohibition." In modern times, the purity law is part of the German tax code. It states that, in bottom-fermented beers, that is, lagers, brewers may use only barley malt, hops, yeast and water. Specifically, this rule forbids the brewing in Germany of lagers containing spices (as do many Belgian beers), corn or rice (as do virtually all mass-produced industrial beers in the rest of the world), sugar (to be found in many Belgian and British beers), un-malted grains (required for many Belgian and British beer styles), as well as chemical additives and stabilizers.

For ales, that is, for top-fermented beers, which hold about 10% of the German market, the Reinheitsgebot is somewhat more generous in terms of allowable ingredients, in part to accommodate an ancient and varied, mostly barley-based ale-brewing tradition in northern Germany, in part to accommodate the centuries-old, entirely wheat-based Weissbier (wheat beer) brewing tradition in Bavaria. German ales may contain — next to barley malt, hops, yeast, and water — "other" malted grains (including, of course, malted wheat for Weissbier), as well as various forms of sugar (derived cane or beet) and sugar-derived coloring agents — but still no chemicals or other processed compounds. Curiously, this wording of the purity law almost inadvertently forbids the brewing of wheat-based lagers. This is so entirely for reasons of tradition, not logic.

Though called the "purity" law, its regulations do not imply that beers made by other nations are "impure." Rather, the significance of the Reinheitsgebot lies in the fact that German beer is all natural! It may not contain any chemicals, preservatives, or artificial process enhancers (such as artificial enzymes or yeast nutrients) nor may it contain any cheap and flavorless sources of starch (such as rice and corn). This means, a beer made in Germany is always a wholesome and flavorful product. It is the art and craft of the brewer that turns the Reinheitsgebot's simple and restrictive list of ingredients into a cornucopia of beer styles, from blond to black, from light to heavy.

Over the centuries, acceptance of the Reinheitsgebot spread gradually from Bavaria northwards to other German states. By the time Bismarck (right, at his desk in 1886) forged the Second German Empire in 1871, the Reinheitsgebot was in force in many of the kingdoms and principalities that formed the new union. By 1906, it became the official law in all of the realm of the German Kaiser, with the addition of yeast as a basic ingredient and malted wheat as an allowable component in top-fermented beers, such as Alt, Kölsch and Weissbier (Hefeweizen).

With the formation of the Weimar Republic in 1919, the old Bavarian beer ingredients law, now renamed the Reinheitsgebot, became firmly anchored in the German beer tax law, in part, because the Free State of Bavaria, a large region in the south of Germany (bordering Switzerland, Austria and the Czech Republic), declared that it would not join the new Republic unless the Reinheitsgebot was enforced in the entire country!

The Reinheitsgebot survived the upheavals of recent German history, remained on the books during the Third Reich, and is still part of the tax code of the current Federal Republic. Even brewers in Norway, Switzerland and Greece have since embraced the cannons of the German purity edict.

However, all good things must come to an end. International trade and the global economy have finally — after almost 500 years — got the better of the Reinheitsgebot. To the dismay of German brewers, the Reinheitsgebot, with its narrow selection of ingredients, was struck down by the European Court in 1987 — as a restraint of free trade. The restrictions it contained were held not permissible in the newly integrated European market.

After centuries of ensuring beer quality, the Reinheitsgebot, therefore, fell victim to the triumph of form over substance. Since the ruling, it has been legal to import beers into Germany that are brewed with adjuncts (corn, rice, non-malted grains and sugar) and treated with chemicals for an artificial head and a longer shelf life. German brewers, however, still adhere fiercely to the Reinheitsgebot as a matter of pride and tradition. German beer labels and advertisements still proudly proclaim the purity of the local brew, and many a German imbiber would not think of letting anything but a "pure" beer pass his or her lips.

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Home

On This Page

Brewing Basics

Malting

Mashing

Boiling

Fermenting

Conditioning

Packaging

Proper Pouring

Beer Purity Law


Illustration credits: Malt courtesy of the Weyermann Malting Company; brew house and fermentation cellar courtesy of Kaspar Schulz, both of Bamberg, Germany