The land of lager
Card-carrying lager lout Mark Dredge walks us through the sophisticated and surprisingly varied world of Germany’s greatest export
Monday 28 September 2020
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Germany is the land of lager. A land that’s rich with history, regional variation and local pride, with DNA-deep beer culture, with customs, celebrations, and a few curiosities. In lower Bavaria, the belly of this great beer-drinking nation, pale Helles and dark Dunkel are the beers to drink, while north of there, in Franconia, you find the heart of traditional lager brewing, where a great variety of lagers are made, and wrapping all around the country, from the north down and the outside in, you’ll find bitter Pilseners. Come with me to the land of lager.
Lager was born in Bavaria over 600 years ago and first formalised with the signing of the Reinheitsgebot in 1516, a beer purity law which stated that beer could only be made with barley, hops and water (yeast was added later). Bavarian brewers had the unusual custom of fermenting then storing, or lagering, their beer in cool underground cellars, and the cold natural environment nurtured a special species of yeast distinctly different from the ale yeast species. The cold-fermented and cold-stored beers of Bavaria were a regional idiosyncrasy but they would come to create a whole family of lagers, and become the best-selling beer type in the world.
The earliest lagers were dark in colour, moderate in alcohol and nourishingly sweet, being a basic necessity to Bavarian citizens and a kind of liquid bread to supplement limited diets. Brewing advanced with the industrial and scientific revolution through the 1800s, and the lagers were refined by new malting and brewing techniques pioneered in Munich’s large breweries to produce lagers which were drier, less sweet, and more consistent. That coincided with improved social conditions meaning Bavarians had better and broader diets and beer became a drink of social pleasure, not simple sustenance, though the necessity of lager never left the Bavarian psyche.
By the middle of the 19th century, the beer world was opening up and dark Bavarian lagers became known outside of their then-kingdom, travelling alongside two other new lager types – pale Czech Pilsner and the amber lagers of Vienna. Lager’s ascendance from cold dark cellars to a golden global drink was underway, and it all began with the dark lagers of Bavaria.
Dark lagers, or Dunkels, are still on tables in beer halls all around Bavaria. They are the classic German lager style, one descended from those earliest lagers brewed centuries ago. Today’s Dunkels are all bread crusts and toast, perhaps with a tiny bit of cocoa or something caramelised, but close your eyes and Dunkels don’t taste dark, and rarely ever have a strong roasted flavour. They are brilliant for their full malt flavour, a character that’s almost like umami and able to enhance all the best beer foods, and it’s a hearty kind of beer that’s deeply satisfying with its gentle balanced bitterness and an amplified texture and malt flavour from their use of a special brewing technique, called a decoction mash, which boils the malt and adds a fuller texture and a higher perception of malt sweetness.
Malt is foundational to Bavarian lagers and while dark Dunkel was the forefather, today’s main beer is bright golden Helles. First sold in 1894, and inspired by the ever-growing popularity of golden Pilsner lagers, Helles almost caused a riot among Munich’s brewmasters who thought they should resolutely stick to their traditional dark beers, but within a few years every local brewer was making a pale lager alongside the dark one, and like the rest of the world, the pale lager took off and then took over.
Helles, or Hell (same thing – it means pale or bright), is soft-bodied, lightly toasted but never sweet, with an aroma like breaking into an oven-fresh loaf of white bread. It’s rounded from a decoction mash, and it pleases like a hug with its malt-first flavour and its elegant, clean bitterness. The joy of Helles is how moreish they are, as you go back for gulp after gulp, leaving you wholly satisfied yet also increasingly thirsty, with a low carbonation aiding a high drinking rate.
Augustiner Bräu make the textbook Munich Helles. Augustiner, an independent brewery, are one of Munich’s ‘Big Six’ brewers (the only six lagers allowed at Oktoberfest) alongside the Hofbräuhaus (founded by the Bavarian royal family and now managed by the Bavarian state); Paulaner and Hacker-Pschorr (part-owned by Heineken); and Spaten and Löwenbräu (owned by AB InBev). Helles is the beer of lower Bavaria, but all around the rest of the country, the best-selling beer is Pils, or Pilsener.
Pils accounts for some 60% of the overall German beer market and there are Pils beers from small breweries and very big ones, the largest known colloquially as fernsehbier, or TV beer, because of how it’s mass-marketed (Krombacher is the largest brand, followed by budget brew Oettinger, then Bitburger, Veltins and Beck’s).
Pilsners originated in the Czech city of Pilsen, and were one of the first styles to travel the world and be changed to suit local taste preferences. Where Czech-style Pilsners are caramelly, full-bodied and bitter-sweet, German Pilseners are lean, dry, bright and prominently bitter from herbal, spicy, pithy German hops.
The best Pilseners are light in malt, though still have some cracker-like grain character, and they grip with the bitterness from German hops and a dry, snappy finish, while filtration helps these beers to be even crisper in the finish. Classic – even cult – versions of German Pils include the exceptionally bitter Jever which is brewed in the very north, and Rothaus Pils brewed in the Black Forest.
Bavarians do brew many great Pilseners, though they are treated differently compared to the rest of the country. A Bavarian Pils tends to come in 330ml bottles instead of the half-litre ones, they are infrequently seen on draft, and they’ll be served in neat, delicate flutes instead of a mug.
Pilsners have become the world’s most global beer style and it’s the crisp German versions which have been brewed globally, not the chewy Czech ones. In Germany, Pilsners are as universal as they are familiar, available in every shop around the country. Those drinkers looking for something different and more traditional should head into Franconia (technically part of north Bavaria), in the area between Nuremberg and Bamberg, where you’ll find lagers unlike any others in the world.
In Franconia the everyday kind of beer is Lagerbier, though it’s not always called Lagerbier, and it’s not so much a style, as a passed down brewing tradition; it’s just how beer tastes there. It’s usually deep gold to amber (but often served in a stone mug, a steinkrug, so you won’t always see the colour), it’ll be decocted so will have a sweetish malt depth and a pronounced malt aroma, a spicy German hop bitterness, they often have a smooth, unfiltered texture and the carbonation is low. They are not uniform, yet they are all distinctively of their region, and only of their region. Bamberg’s Mahrs Bräu’s aU, pronounced ‘ah ohhh’, and short for Ungespundet, is a great example of this kind of beer (Ungespundet is a reference to the barrel of beer being ‘unbunged’ in the cellar to give it a softer carbonation).
The city of Bamberg is synonymous with Rauchbier, or smoked beer. The smoked flavour comes from malts kilned over beechwood fires, and centuries ago most malt would’ve been made this way, so most beer would’ve had a smoky quality. Munich’s brewers in the 1830s developed new malting techniques which helped remove the smell of smoke, but two Bamberg breweries – Schlenkerla and Spezial – continue the old tradition, and both smoke their own malts. Schlenkerla’s Rauchbier Märzen is a dark lager with an intense smokiness like smoked sausage, plumped up with some malt sweetness, while Spezial’s Rauchbier Lagerbier is amber-coloured and milder with a campfire smokiness. These are certainly esoteric flavours today, but drinking them in the respective brewery taverns is a great beer experience.
Walk around Bamberg’s breweries and you’ll be able to drink a broader range of classic lagers than in any other city. You’ll find very bitter Pilsners, gently malty Helles, amber Lagerbiers, brown Dunkels, black lagers, or Schwarzbier (a style well-known in the neighbouring state of Thuringia), smoked beers, unfiltered Kellerbiers, modern lower alcohol lagers, and there will be stronger special seasonal lagers, which reveal another important cultural side of German beer.
In Bavaria and Franconia, seasonal beer releases are clockwork calendar page-turns more reliable than blossom or falling leaves, and they go deeper than spring, summer, autumn and winter. The beer garden season, sometimes with its unfiltered Kellerbiers, signifies an unfurling shift into warmer weather. There are Bocks at different times in the year, usually one early and one later, both are around 6.5% ABV, with regular Bocks being dark with a depth of caramel and dried fruit, and Helles Bock and Maibock being pale and lush with toasty malts. Then there’s Doppelbocks, which are even stronger. And there’s the Festbiers brewed for each different festival. Oktoberfestbier is the most famous Festbier, and it’s like a stronger version of a Helles, hitting around 6% ABV. There won’t be an Oktoberfest in 2020, but there will still be Oktoberfestbier because that beer, and the other annual releases, mark the passing of time in Bavaria unlike anywhere else in the world.
The land of lager doesn’t just brew lagers. Hefeweizen is an ale brewed with wheat and it’s distinctive for its hazy appearance and the prominent character given to it by the special Hefeweizen yeast, where we expect aromas of banana, vanilla, clove, pepper, bubble gum, and perhaps a little citrus. You’ll also see Dunkelweizen, or dark wheat beers, and Weizenbocks which are stronger wheat beers. The best Hefeweizen have some weight up front, they are smooth yet also a little lively with fizz and yeast spice in the middle, and they end dry and wonderfully refreshing.
There are also some German ale anomalies, the best-known being Kölsch and Altbier, brewed in Cologne and Düsseldorf respectively, where there’s a patriotically loyal beer rivalry between the neighbouring cities.
Kölsch is a lager-like ale which is golden, filtered, clean and bitter, and can technically only be called Kölsch if it’s brewed in Cologne. They are served in tall, thin 200ml glasses, which you’ll finish and have replaced with a fresh glass right away. There are around a dozen Kölsch brewers in Cologne and Früh is perhaps the best-known export.
In Düsseldorf, 40km north of Cologne, Altbier is brown and bright, toasty with malt and with a strong, herbal bitterness, and it’s served in 200ml glasses just like Kölsch. The name means ‘old beer’, as in an old style, not one sold aged. Uerige is the best-known of the Altbiers.
And there’s the sour styles of Gose and Berliner Weisse. Classic Gose is today associated with Leipzig and is soured with lactic acid and includes salt and coriander seed in the brew, having a distinct saline and floral-orange aroma. Berliner Weisse is typically soured with lactic bacteria (it used to be naturally soured with wild yeast), giving a clean and just lightly tart beer which was historically served with a choice of sweet syrups, either red raspberry or green woodruff. Only a couple of classic examples still remain of these beers and while they originated in Germany, and the initial inspiration came from there, their influence has spread so far and so completely, as to effectively allow us to disassociate the modern versions from their homelands, though that’s not to ignore the classics.
The land of lager gives us so many varied beer glasses which become lenses for us to see and understand this great beer-loving country and how its traditions and characters change. What’s most special about German beer is how it’s so central to the culture, and it’s a culture which loves beer, and totally understands its importance as not just a drink, but as a social unifier with local importance; the table in the beer hall or beer garden is where we meet, where anyone can sit, where we can drink happily, and raise our glasses to one another, wherever we are, and whatever we’re drinking.
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