A Brief History of German Beer

In a German Beer GardenWhy is beer so important in German culture? Is it based on history or habit, climate or culinary preference, quality or quantity — or all of the above? Well, here’s your portal to learning everything you should know about German beer: the history, the types, brewing processes, ingredients, nutrition, flavors, culinary matches drinking places and recipes. Open a bottle and enjoy learning more about the history of German beer!

How Beer Began

The Germans did not invent beer. Already 13,000 years ago, even before the agricultural revolution, some folks in the Middle East discovered that roasted grain soaked in water made a fine-tasting, nourishing, slightly alcoholic drink. Recent archeological excavations in the area of Haifa, Israel, discovered the remnants of an ancient brewery. Eventually, slightly alcoholic, ‘liquid bread’ became a staple drink in nearly all cultures around the globe.

German monasteries have been producing beer for mass consumption since around the end of the first millennium, the year 1000. The beer-producing monasteries were predominantly located in Southern Germany, and some of them are still around today, such as Kloster Andechs, St. Gallen, Weihenstephan, or Weltenburg. Drinking beer back then was safer than drinking water. Beer was regarded as safe, nutritious and caloric, even good for small children (and it kept them quiet, too). Beer became increasingly popular in Germany, especially after the enactment of the Beer Purity Law.

The German Beer Purity Law

Munich Maypole with Purity Law SignAround the world brewers use a variety of different starchy grains as base for the malt — barley, rye spelt, emmer wheat, semolina wheat, even rice or maize. But it turns out that when barley malt is mixed with a special type of Bavarian hops, found primarily in the region of Hallertau, north of Munich, an especially high quality beer results. This combination was codified in the Beer Purity Law of 1516, promulgated by the heads of the Bavarian estates under Bavarian duke Wilhelm IV. The German Beer Purity Law mandates that all beer in Bavaria must be made only from barley, hops and clean water. The Beer Purity law was adopted throughout Germany and is still in effect today.

Three hundred years later, in the late 19th century, French and German scientists discovered the role that airborne fungi, aka yeast, plays in the fermentation process. Eventually two separate strains of yeast were isolated and commercially produced for the brewery trade, each affecting the flavor of the beer. One yeast floats to the top at the end of the fermentation process (the top-fermenting yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae); the other sinks to the bottom (the bottom-fermenting yeast Saccharomyces carlsbergensis).

The 19th century witnessed a beer revolution in German-speaking nations, from the creation of Pilsner to the introductions of Bock and Export beers. German emigrant brewers created beer empires in the Unites States, China, Japan Mexico and Africa. Until the 1980s, Germany had by far the greatest number of breweries in the world.

However, starting in the 1990s, beer consumption in Germany started a slow but steady decline. Historic breweries merged with others, and new young players emerged. Today, total beer consumption is down a bit, but the German love affair with beer continues.

The types of German beers

Beer has been a global product since the beginning of the agricultural revolution, but Germany has set global standards for distinct types of beers. Although most are made with only three ingredients — barley malt, hops and water (with the addition of brewers yeast beginning in the 19th century) — they differ profoundly in flavor, aroma, body, and froth. Following is a list and the origins of the major beer styles; you can read a fuller description in our Guide to German Beer.

 

  • Pilsner – from Pilsen in the Austrian-German region of Bohemia (today’s Czech Republic)
  • Helles or Dunkles Lager – from in Dortmund and Munich
  • Export Lager – from Dortmund and Munich, but big in Bremen
  • Koelsch and Alt – the local heroes of Cologne (Köln) and Düsseldorf on the Rhine
  • Weißbier (Wheat Beer) – a Southern German favorite, malted wit barley and wheat
  • Berliner Weisse – a Weißbier from Berlin
  • Schwarzbier – originated in the Eastern German states of Thuringia and Saxony
  • Starkbier/Bockbier – originally created in Einbeck, near Hannover, but popularized in Bavaria
  • Märzen/Oktoberfest Beer – a Helles Lager beer with a bit more alcohol, originally from Bavaria
  • Gose – A flavored wheat beer from Goslar, popular in Saxony
  • Naturtrübe Biere – unfiltered, unpasteurized specialty beers with lots of nutrients from Northern Bavaria
  • Rauchbier – Barley malt smoke over beechwood, a specialty from Bamberg in Bavaria

There’s more to learn! Select from the following articles to increase your German beer expertise and enjoyment!

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