German Beer Styles
Altbiers made in northern Germany are associated with the area around the city of Düsseldorf. Most altbiers are copper to brownish-amber in color, and light to medium in body, with a pronounced malt character that is not overpowering. Altbier lacks hop aroma but has medium to high bitterness, especially in the finish. The hops must balance but not be assertive. Fruitiness from top-fermentation can be a character, but is often minimized by lagering at very cold temperatures, much colder than for typical British ales. Diacetyl character is minimal to nonexistent in altbiers. They have a smoother palate, less yeastiness, and less acidity than classic British ales. Altbier has a dryish finish despite the rather pronounced malt character, but with no roasty overtones.
Kölschbier is a local style found in Cologne and is usually ordered simply as "Kölsch." Kölsch is very pale in color and is noted for its delicacy rather than for any robust distinctiveness. It is clean-tasting, light-bodied (very well attenuated), soft, and drinkable. These beers are faintly fruity (less than a Pilsner) and are slightly acidic, with a medium-hoppy dryness and often with a slightly herbal taste in the finish.
Traditional German bocks are not too bitter and do not have hop aroma or flavor of any consequence. Hops are used only to offset the sweetness of the malt. Many brewers believe that the most important factor in producing quality bock beers is melanoidins. Melanoidins are at the heart of most of the aromas needed for making this style of beer. Melanoidins are colored compounds that provide many of the malty and bready aromas and flavors that distinguish bocks. These beers have a residual dimethyl sulfide (DMS) character, which adds to the "lager" flavor and enhances the malt character. Most of their fusel oils are below the threshold of perception except for isoamyl and phenol alcohols that are responsible for the banana and the rose flavors, respectively. There are no esters, and there should not be any diacetyl. The water used in brewing bocks is usually high in calcium carbonate. The bock family of beers also includes many different substyles, such as dopplebock, dunkler bock, eisbock, and heller bock.
Beers of this style are produced throughout Germany, but it is considered a local specialty in the city of Dortmund. Generally, Dortmunder is a strong pale lager that is characterized by more bitterness and less maltiness than Munich heller but far less bitterness and more malt body than German Pilsners. Neither hops nor malt are distinctive in this style, but both are medium in flavor and in good balance. The color is very pale, like that of Pilsner, but the beer has a higher gravity than other mainstream pale lagers.
"Octoberfest" or "märzen" are terms used interchangeably. They originally referred to a brewing process in which the beer was brewed in March and served in October. This style of beer is amber-red in color, slightly above average in gravity and alcohol, and moderately hopped, but with no lingering hop bitterness. It is medium-bodied, and the balance is decidedly towards maltiness, with just enough bitterness to keep the beer from tasting too sweet.
This is a traditional style in Munich that is labeled simply "dunkels," meaning "dark." In the United States they are often labeled as "dark beer." Munich dark is usually dark-amber to dark-brown in color. It is distinctly toasted (not burnt), with a nutty, chocolate-like malt sweetness in aroma and flavor. The mouthfeel is typically dextrinous, and often a mild bitterness and/or slight astringency is present. Buttery notes are also sometimes present, but not as a primary flavor.
Helles, often referred to as "light Munich," is a mildly hopped, malty, well-balanced pale to golden- to straw-colored beer. It is not as dry as Pilsner but is closer to the Dortmunder style, though lower in alcohol and with some sweetness. The malt sweetness, often described as almost a caramel taste, is the mark of this beer. Helles is maltier and less hoppy than dunkel; yet, like dunkel, it is sweet, lightly hopped, and has a nose that is straight malt.
The most well-known type of lager beer in Germany is Pilsner. Pilsner was first brewed in German-speaking Bohemia, a province in the Austrian Empire. Sometimes the designation is spelled "Pilsener" or it may be abbreviated to "Pils." Pilsner is not regarded as a regional style; there are outstanding examples produced throughout Germany. Pilsner is a golden-colored beer that has good malt and a definite hop accent in both its flowery bouquet and its dry finish.
Rauchbier literally means "smoked beer." Rauchbier is darkish-amber and opaque in color with a blend of smoke and malt, with a varying balance and intensity. The smokiness from the beech wood imparts a bacony flavor to the beer. The malt character can be low to moderate, and be somewhat sweet, toasty, or malty. Märzen-like qualities should be noticeable, particularly a malty, toasty richness. Hop aroma may be very low to none. There are no fruity esters, diacetyl or DMS.
Schwarzbier (Black Beer)
Schwarzbier means "black beer" in German that is medium to very dark brown in color, often with deep ruby to garnet highlights. It is a medium-bodied, malt-accented dark brew with very mild, almost bittersweet, notes of chocolate, coffee, and vanilla. In spite of its dark color, it comes across as a soft and elegant brew that is rich, mild, and surprisingly balanced. It never tastes harsh, toasty or acrid. The beer is often referred to as a Schwarzpils, a "black Pils," but, unlike a Pilsner, which can be assertively bitter, the hop bitterness in Schwarzbier is always gentle and subdued.
This style has its origins during the emergence of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, with the development of brewing in Vienna. Vienna style lager is amber-red to copper in color, with a soft maltiness of aroma and palate. It should have a dry finish, with a little sweetness on the palate. This beer is light- to medium-bodied, with low to medium bitterness and a very mild hop flavor and aroma.
Berliner weisse, which is commonly produced in northern Germany in the vicinity of Berlin, is known as the champagne of beers. The Berliner Weisse style has a pronounced sour taste, and is very pale, effervescent, and lightly hopped. The mouth-puckering sourness is characterized by an intense vinegary taste, caused by lactic and acetic acids, and is complemented by ester fruitiness. The acidic characteristic is central to Berliner Weisse. Modern versions are less sour, with no esters. Berliners often add to their weisse a dose of sweetened raspberry syrup (which turns it red) or woodruff syrup (which turns it green) to balance the acidity. Weisse is often considered a summer drink.
Dunkles weizen is very popular in lower Bavaria and the Barvarian Forest. Dunkles weizen is the dark version of paler weizenbiers, but with a more pronounced malty aroma and flavor. Also, dunkles weizen usually has a little less of the characteristic phenolic, estery, fruity notes. The combination of wheaty tartness and the richness of dark malts make this style full of flavor and complexity. The alcohol content may be slightly less than other weizens since there is less fermentable extract in dark malt. A very mild sourness is acceptable for this style. These beers are similar in flavor to hefe weizen, but the malt aroma is more pronounced.
Hefe weizen is the beer of choice in Bavaria. Some weizens are bottle-conditioned and contain some yeast sediment; accordingly, they are labeled as "mit hefe" ("with yeast") or as "hefe weizen." These beers are pale-to-golden colored, light- to medium-bodied, and highly effervescent, with a slight maltiness. Typical of hefe weizen is its phenolic taste and aroma. It is most commonly described as clove-like, which is particularly noticeable because weizens are traditionally hopped very lightly.
Kristall weizen is usually identified simply as a weizenbier (though sometimes as a weissbier or a weisse). This style is commonly made in southern Germany (in the states of Bavaria and Baden-Wuerttemberg), but it is also made in other regions throughout Germany. Weizen beer is completely different from Berliner weisse. Weizen beer lacks the acidity and sourness of Berliner weisse but often has a phenolic (clove-like) and estery-fruity (banana) aroma produced by the yeasts.
Weizenbock is stronger and more robust than dunkel weizen. The phenolic character is still evident in weizenbock, but more emphasis is placed on the malt character of the beer. Weizenbocks are usually more liberally hopped than the paler weizenbiers.
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