German Beer Styles:
Variety, Quality, Complexity, Versatility

Brewing in Style
Germans are very conscious of distinct beer styles. When they order a beer, they rarely ask for it by its brand name. Rather they order beer by its style designation, asking for a Pils, an Alt, a Kölsch, a Weissbier, a Helles or a Dunkel, for instance. Depending on your definition of beer style, there are arguably between two and four or five dozen styles in Germany. Some people consider Bockbier, for instance, a broad style that comprises many subcategories, such as the stronger Doppelbock and the even stronger Eisbock, while others count each of these brews as a separate style. The same goes for Altbier and its stronger version, the Sticke Alt, for instance. Likewise, the large family of yeast-turbid German wheat ales, called Weissbiers or Hefeweizens, has a clear, filtered member, called Kristallweizen, as well as a strong member, called, Weizenbock, which many consider separate styles.

Except perhaps for the ubiquitous Pils, which holds a roughly 60% market share throughout Germany, most styles have a stronger following in their regions of origin but are much less known, though usually available, elsewhere. The unfiltered, low-carbonation, malty Kellerbier, for instance, is a specialty of Franconia in northern Bavaria, but it can be hard to find along the Atlantic and Baltic coastlines. Likewise, the blond Kölsch, which is by far the most popular beer in and around Cologne as well as the copper-colored Altbier, which holds the same rank in and around Düsseldorf, would be hard to find in, say, southern Bavaria. Conversely, Weissbier, which is the most popular beer style in Bavaria, with more than a one-third market share there, holds only about a 10% market in the rest of Germany.

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German Beer Regions
German beer making has taken different paths in different parts of the country. Broadly speaking, beers become maltier as you travel from north to south and hoppier as you travel in the reverse direction. In addition, some styles have more than one, often regional, name. A Kellerbier, for instance, may also be called Zwickelbier, Kräusenbier or Zoigl; a Dortmunder may be called Export; a Maibock, Helles Bock.

Among all the German regions, the southern-most state, Bavaria, clearly has spawned the greatest variety of beer styles. They vary in shades of color and strength. There are very blond and almost black lagers as well as clear and yeast-turbid, pale and brown wheat ales. Some brews, like the Helles, are quaffing, or easy-drinking, beers, while others, like the Eisbock, are sipping beers.

Neighboring Bohemia to the east of Bavaria (once part of the German-speaking Autro-Hungarian Empire and now part of the Czech Republic) has produced, under Bavarian influence, the world's most popular style, the Pilsner, which is the mother of all modern lagers, including the popular German Pils, the Dortmunder Export, and the Bavarian Helles.

Rhineland and Westphalia, which together now form the state of North-Rhine-Westphalia, probably rank second in contributions to the German beer landscape. The Rhineland, with its Alt and Kölsch ales, has become the custodian of the ancient German ale tradition, while Westphalia has enriched the world with its peculiar interpretation of the blond lager, the Dortmunder Export.

The northern regions, until the late Middle Ages hot-beds of ale brewing, have given us the dry, assertively hoppy Pils, the original Bock from Einbeck (which was an ale in the Middle Ages), and a light, acidic wheat beer called Berliner Weisse.

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Understanding German Beer Labels
German breweries often use prefixes or adjectives in conjunction with their style names to highlight a particular characteristic of their beer. For instance, ungespundet means a low-effervescence beer that was fermented to the finish in an unpressurized fermenter. The carbon dioxide in the solution, therefore, is minimal and the beer tastes only gently pétillant and very smooth.

The word hell or helles means "light," but, unlike in North America, this designation refers to color only, not to the beer's calories or alcoholic strength. A light beer in the North American sense would be called leicht or, more commonly, by the English term "light."

If a beer features the prefix ur or urtyp, which mean "original" or "original type," the brewery tries to emphasize the authenticity of its beverage.

A spezial is just what you suspect it is: A beer that the brewery made as a seasonal special or one it considers especially good.

If a brewery designates its brew as edel, which means "noble," it points to the lofty rank of its hops, because the best hop varieties in Germany are called Edelhopfen noble hops).

German breweries pay taxes by the "heaviness" of their sweet wort (which is the run-off from the malted grain in the mash tun, i.e., unfermented beer). Wort heaviness is measured as the percentage of non-water substances—mostly fermentable malt sugars—dissolved in the wort. Most German beers contain around 88% water and 12% extract. As a rough rule, depending on the fermentation method used, one extract point contributes about 0.3 to 0.4% alcohol by volume to the finished beer. The higher the extract level of the unfermented beer, the more tax the government collects on the brew, regardless of the final alcohol content of the beer that results. Thus, in additon to belonging to style categories, German beers also belong to one of four official tax categories, which are sometimes noted on the label:

By law, a Vollbier (literally "full" or "entire" beer) contains 11 to 14% extract. This category holds about 99% market share in Germany. A completely fermented Vollbier usually has between 3 and 5.3% alcohol by volume. Pils, Helles and Weissbier (Hefeweizen) belong in this category. Three other beer categories occupy the remaining 1% of the market: Einfachbier (literally "simple" or "plain" beer) has about 0.1% market share. It is defined by a taxable extract value of 2 to 5.5% and generally has no more than 0.5 to 1.5% alcohol by volume. Schankbier (literally "tap" or "draft" beer) has a 0.2% market share. Its extract value is 7 to 8%, and its alcohol by volume level tends to be between 0.5 and 2.6%. Berliner Weisse, for instance, falls into this category. Finally, Starkbier (literally "strong" beer) has a 0.7% market share. All beers with an extract value exceeding 16% are Starkbiers. Their alcohol level is invariable above 5% and usually no more than 10%. All Bockbiers, Doppelbocks, and Eisbocks belong in this category. Until 1990, beers outside these extract bands — that is, beers with 5.5 to 7%, 8 to 11%, and 14 to 16% extract — were not permitted to be brewed, by law. Oddly, the law has since been changed, but the definition of beer categories has not.

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From the Brewery to the Consumer
Germany never had Prohibition, as did the United States and Canada in the early part of the 20th century. As a result, Germany lacks the stringent alcoholic beverage regulations that prevail in North America. There are no state-run or province-run beverage stores, nor is there a three-tier system that rigidly separates licensed producers from licensed distributors, and both from on- and off-premise retailers. Instead, anybody in the beer trading chain — including breweries and wholesalers—can sell beer directly to the public and many beer distributors make "house calls." In Germany, therefore, beer is just another food commodity. It is readily available just about anywhere, any time, including on Sundays, at convenience stores, supermarkets, department stores, newspaper kiosks, gas stations, company cafeterias, and even vending machines.

Every brewery—national or local—makes several beer styles, and a brand is a brewery's particular interpretation of a style. While stores are likely to carry more than one brewery's brands, pubs and restaurants tend to be tied to just one, often local, brewery and serve only that supplier's brands. The brewery, in turn, supplies all the establishment's glasses, taps, trays, and neons, and often even the pub's or restaurant's entire furnishings. Thus, unlike in North America, when you order a beer, you can rarely choose the brand you will be served.

Still, with such a great variety of beer styles, from the racy, edgy Pils to the mellow, malty Schwarbier (black lager), there is usually a beer for just about any mood and any occasion. On a hot summer afternoon, for example, the lazy quaffer may crave a Helles to keep his internal temperature in check, while on a wintry afternoon, he may crave a tankard of nourishing Doppelbock to warm his insides and to help him forget the frosty punishment from his long wait at the commuter bus stop.

In Germany, brewers are much like great chefts. They emphasize technique as much as they do ingredients. Restricted by the so-called Reinheitsgebot (purity law), which allows them to use only four ingredients in their beer — malt, hops, yeast, and water — they insist on working only with quality raw materials. The incredible variety of German beers, therefore, stems largely from technique in the service of a traditional style. At right is a complete list of the styles that you might encounter while traveling in Germany or while shopping for a German beer in North America.

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For a general discussion of what a beer style is and how many there are, click here.

Alkoholfreies (NA) Bier



Berliner Weisse




Diätbier/"Diet Beer"
















Gose (Leipziger)




Helles Bock

























Sticke Alt












Illustrations courtesy of the German Brewers Federation