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A History of German Beer Styles

January 2, 2020  |  By Matt LaRosa

Weissbier’s Rise to the Top 

While Germany is considered by many as one of the world’s epicenters of beer, brewing did not originate in Germany. The history of brewing dates back to the Ancient Sumerians, the oldest known civilization on Earth, who produced the oldest known beer recipe in a 3,900 year old poem/ode to the goddess of brewing, Ninkasi. Believe it or not, the Sumerians were also the first to brew a wheat beer, or Weissbier in German, which is often associated strictly with Bavaria. German Weissbiers are obviously more complex than their Ancient Sumerian predecessors and are legally required to be at least 50% malted wheat and are most often unfiltered and appear hazy due to the excess yeast left in the beer.

Germany’s Weissbier history begins in the 12th century in Bohemia, where the Pilsner originated as well. The style then spread to Bavaria where in 1520 the noble Degenberg family obtained the exclusive rights to brew wheat beer which they profited off of for 80 years. The rights were reclaimed by the Wittelsbach family, the original owners and ruling class of Bavaria, who monopolized the wheat beer brewing process. Weissbier were to be poured by every innkeeper in Bavaria and bought exclusively from the network of Noble owned breweries for the next 200 years. By 1798, Weissbier’s prominence waned and the dukes began selling the brewing rights to monasteries and private breweries. 

This was around the time during which Weihenstephan Brewing, well known for its Hefe Weissbier, fell under the control of the state of Bavaria. Weihenstephan is the oldest brewery in the world and continues to produce world class beers to this day. Weihenstephan began brewing officially in 1040 when the monks at the Weihenstephan Monastery, in the city of Freising, obtained a license to brew and sell beer. Their documented history of brewing at the monastery dates back even further to 768 AD when there was the first recorded mention of hops at the monastery. That year the Church began collecting 10% of the yearly hop produce from a nearby hop farm as a tax.

After more than a hundred-year lull in popularity of Weissbier, during which Georg Schneider and his successors kept the faith alive with their production of the classic Schneider Weisse, the 1960s saw an immense surge in demand for Weissbier. Weissebier is now once again the most popular beer style in Bavaria and comprises 33% of the overall beer market in the region. It is immensely popular in the rest of Germany as well as with craft brewers across the globe. 

Bavaria: The Birthplace of Lager Brewing

While Weissbier, a top fermenting ale, may currently be the most popular beer style in Bavaria, the region is much more well known for its long history of lager brewing and the development of some of the most popular beer styles in the world. Classic styles such as the Märzen, Helles, Rauchbier, Kellerbier, Dunkel, Schwarzbier, and Bock all can trace their lineage to this southern region. The start of Bavaria’s brewing history, as well as that of continental Europe, begins in 800 BC. An archeological dig unearthed amphorae, tall clay jugs, that have been determined they were used to hold “beer-like” liquids. From then on, brewing in the region continued to expand and evolve. While modern styles as we know them today did not develop until the 18th or 19th century, the tradition of lager brewing goes back further due to both the region’s climate and the previously discussed feudal control of brewing.

Prior to Louis Pasteur’s discovery of the importance of yeast and the advent of refrigeration, Bavarian brewers took advantage of their cold winters in the shadow of the Alps and would brew the majority of their beer in the winter months. They would then bury their beer in mountain caves, or they would dig cellars and fill them with ice to keep them stable during the warm summer months. As a result of the cool temperatures brewers unknowingly “selected”  wild, bottom fermenting yeast that thrived in cooler temperatures and fermented slower. This process is known as lagering – lager is the German word for storeroom or warehouse – and the wild yeasts that naturally thrived in these cooler temperatures were harvested and later developed into pure yeast strains.

Beer brewed during the summer often soured quickly as the natural yeast and other bacteria in the air would go into overdrive eating the sugars in the beer, whereas they would lay dormant in the cooler temperatures. The adherence to brewing in the cooler months and lagering in caves became law on April 23rd, 1516, when Duke Wilhelm IV of Bavaria passed the Reinheitsgebot, or German Purity Laws, which regulated the production of beer for the entirety of Bavaria. The Reinheitsgebot stated that only Barley, Hops, and Water were to be used in the brewing process (yeast was later added once its importance was understood) as well as regulating the price of beer and enforcing confiscation as a penalty for making impure beer. Duke Wilhelm’s successor Albrecht V took the Reinheitsgebot a step further by outright banning brewing between April 23rd and September 29th. 

This decree led to the advent of several new styles of lager, namely the original Marzen and the Dunkel and its cousins the Rauchbier and Schwarzbier. Marzen, or March beer, developed as a result of the decree since brewers would ramp up production in March to create stronger beers that would store well in their lagering caves and tunnels in the summer months. The modern style of Marzen was developed by Gabriel Sedlmayer, the owner and head brewer at Spaten in Munich, in 1841 when he introduced it at that year’s Oktoberfest celebration. This beer set the standard for the style and led to the 1872 creation of Spaten Oktoberfestbier, the world’s first Oktoberfest beer and a recipe that is still used to this day. This malty, amber hued beer was a perfect segue into the fall and winter season where Dunkels had their time to shine. 

Dunkels are the original winter lager as they were very malty with nutty and bread-like flavors. The dark colors came from the roasting of dark malts over open flame. Depending on the darkness of the roasted malt or its exposure to smoke, dunkels began to be classified as Schwarzbiers (Black Beer) or Rauchbiers (Smoke Beer). In modern days and as brewing practices became more of a science, brewers are able to get precisely the right amount of dark color and smoke out of their roasted malt to dial in these classifications creating two distinct styles. As a result of their prominence and the winter only brewing decree, Dunkels were the most popular beer style in Bavaria until 1894 when Spaten once again disrupted the German brewing scene by introducing the Helles Lager. This pale, straw colored beer is very clean and crisp tasting and a stark visual contrast to the dunkel. 

The Helles style was Bavaria’s answer to the popular Czech Pilsner, which had begun to infiltrate Germany. At first, the people of Munich were not at all receptive to the new pale beer that looked and tasted nothing like their beloved dunkels. In fact, the Association of Munich Breweries held a meeting in late 1895 to declare that no brewery was to produce any type of pale lager. This declaration did not stick as many brewers went ahead and brewed Helles as they saw it as the future of beer. At the turn of the century more brewers began to change their tune and adopted the style which now holds equal weight with pilsner in the Bavarian beer market. While helles has captured the attention of American craft brewers, it is not at all prominent in the rest of Germany.

On top of developing major beer styles, Bavaria revolutionized other aspects of brewing as well. The Reinheitsgebot and Albrecht’s decree led brewers to be more inventive in controlling temperatures leading to the creation of the first industrial refrigeration system. Once again Spaten took charge to innovate the industry when Gabriel Sedlmayer hired Carl Von Linde to install refrigeration in Spaten’s lagering cellar in 1873.This breakthrough in temperature control, paired with the ever increasing understanding of yeast strains, gave German Brewers the ability to further experiment and hone their craft thus creating the modern day styles of German beer. Additionally, Bavaria is the world’s largest producer of hops accounting for one third of hops used in brewing across the globe. They are also a major producer of barley, wheat and specialty malts that are regarded as some of the best in the world. With all this rich history and tradition, it is clear to see why Bavaria continues to set the standard for German lagers.


Traditional Styles

German Ales

  1. Weissbier (Wheat Beer) – Known to Americans as Hefeweizen this style is tart, spicy, and fruity with flavors of banana and clove due to its high content of active yeast.
  2. Berliner Weiss – A low ABV version of a Weissbier that often is enjoyed with a splash of sweet fruit syrup to cut the bitterness
  3. Kölsch – A light, crispy and clear wheat ale that is quite refreshing and native to the city of Cologne
  4. Gose – A tart and sour beer with salt and coriander typically added to create its citrusy and spiced aroma

German Lagers

  1. Bock/Doppelbock – Dark, heavy, and malty beers enjoyed during the winter months as they contain sweet, toasty and often caramel flavors and aromas
  2. Export Lager – Malty, crisp and quite dry lager that is brewed with noble hops (low bitterness/high aroma hops) and was originally brewed for working class people in the city of Dortmunder
  3. Pilsner – Originating in the now Czech Republic city of Pilsen, Pilsners are the most popular beer in Germany and many nations across the world. They are pale to golden in color and are light, crisp beers with a floral aroma 
  4. Märzen – First brewed by Spaten, these mildly hoppy, toasty, and often copper colored lagers are enjoyed during the fall and particularly during Oktoberfest celebrations due to their strong ties to Munich
  5. Helles – A pale crisp lager akin to a Pilsner that also originated in the City of Munich
  6. Schwarzbier – Literally “Black Beer” in English, this beer uses long roasted dark malts to obtain its color, but its flavors are mild and not as rich or roasty as similarly colored styles, such as stouts or porters
  7. Rauchbier – A lager that utilizes malt that has been smoked over open flames thus imparting strong smoky and rich malt flavors in this unique brew
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