Ales are beers made in northern Germany and are most closely associated with the area around the city of Düsseldorf. They are typically copper to brownish-amber in color, with a light to medium body and a pronounced malt character that is not overpowering. Ales lack hop aroma but have medium to high bitterness, particularly in the finish. The hops should provide balance without being assertive. While fruitiness from top-fermentation can be present, it is often minimized by lagering at very cold temperatures. Altbeirs have a smoother palate, less yeastiness, and less acidity than classic British ales. Despite the pronounced malt character, they have a dry finish without any roasty overtones.
Kölschbier is a local style found in Cologne and is commonly ordered as “Kölsch.” It is very pale in color and is known for its delicacy rather than its robust flavor. Kölsch is clean-tasting, light-bodied, soft, and highly drinkable. These beers have a faint fruity aroma, less than that of a Pilsner, and are slightly acidic. They possess a medium-hoppy dryness and often have a slightly herbal taste in the finish.
Traditional German bocks are not too bitter and do not have significant hop aroma or flavor. Hops are used only to balance the sweetness of the malt. Melanoidins, which are colored compounds providing malty and bready aromas and flavors, are crucial for making quality bock beers. Bocks have a residual dimethyl sulfide (DMS) character, enhancing the malt profile and adding to the “lager” flavor. Most fusel oils are below the threshold of perception, but isoamyl and phenol alcohols contribute banana and rose flavors, respectively. Bocks have minimal to no esters or diacetyl. The water used in brewing bocks is usually high in calcium carbonate. The bock family includes substyles such as dopplebock, dunkler bock, eisbock, and heller bock.
Dortmunder Export is produced throughout Germany but is considered a local specialty in Dortmund. It is a strong pale lager characterized by more bitterness and less maltiness than Munich heller, but with less bitterness and more malt body than German Pilsners. Dortmunder Export does not have distinctive hops or malt flavors, but both are moderately present and balanced. It has a very pale color, similar to Pilsner, but a higher gravity than other mainstream pale lagers.
“Oktoberfest” or “märzen” are terms used interchangeably. They originally referred to a brewing process where beer was brewed in March and served in October. This style is amber-red in color, slightly above average in gravity and alcohol content, and moderately hopped without lingering bitterness. It is medium-bodied, with a focus on maltiness and just enough bitterness to prevent it from being overly sweet.
Munich Dark, labeled as “dunkels,” is a traditional style in Munich. In the United States, it is often referred to as “dark beer.” It is typically dark-amber to dark-brown in color, distinctly toasted (but not burnt), and exhibits a nutty, chocolate-like malt sweetness in aroma and flavor. Munich Dark has a dextrinous mouthfeel and may have mild bitterness and/or slight astringency. Buttery notes can sometimes be present but not as a primary flavor.
Munich Helles, often called “light Munich,” is a mildly hopped, malty, well-balanced pale to golden-straw-colored beer. It is not as dry as Pilsner but closer in style to Dortmunder, with lower alcohol content and some sweetness. The malt sweetness, described as caramel-like, is the defining characteristic of this beer. It is maltier and less hoppy than dunkel, sweet, lightly hopped, and has a straight malt nose.
The most well-known type of lager beer in Germany is Pilsner. It was first brewed in German-speaking Bohemia, which was a province in the Austrian Empire. Sometimes spelled as “Pilsener” or abbreviated to “Pils,” it is not regarded as a regional style, as outstanding examples are produced throughout Germany. Pilsner is a golden-colored beer with good malt presence and a pronounced hop accent, which is evident in both its flowery aroma and dry finish.
Rauchbier, meaning “smoked beer,” is darkish-amber and opaque in color. It has a unique blend of smoke and malt flavors, with varying balance and intensity. The beech wood smoke imparts a bacon-like taste to the beer. Malt character can range from low to moderate, with a slight sweetness, toastiness, or maltiness. Rauchbier does not exhibit fruity esters, diacetyl, or DMS.
Schwarzbier (Black Beer)
Schwarzbier, meaning “black beer” in German, is a medium to very dark brown beer with deep ruby to garnet highlights. It is a medium-bodied, malt-accented dark brew with mild, almost bittersweet, notes of chocolate, coffee, and vanilla. Despite its dark color, Schwarzbier is soft and elegant, rich, mild, and well-balanced. It should not taste harsh, toasty, or acrid. Schwarzbier is sometimes referred to as Schwarzpils, a “black Pils,” but unlike a Pilsner, which can be assertively bitter, the hop bitterness in Schwarzbier is always gentle and subdued.
The Vienna style lager originated during the emergence of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, specifically in Vienna. It is amber-red to copper in color and has a soft maltiness in both aroma and flavor. Vienna lager should have a dry finish with a touch of sweetness on the palate. It is light to medium-bodied, with low to medium bitterness and a mild hop flavor and aroma.
Berliner Weisse, commonly produced near Berlin in northern Germany, is often referred to as the “champagne of beers.” It has a pronounced sour taste and is very pale, effervescent, and lightly hopped. The sourness is characterized by an intense vinegary taste due to lactic and acetic acids, complemented by ester fruitiness. The acidic nature is central to Berliner Weisse. Modern versions are less sour and devoid of esters. Berliners often add sweetened raspberry syrup (turning it red) or woodruff syrup (turning it green) to balance the acidity. It is considered a summer drink.
Dunkles Weizen is highly popular in lower Bavaria and the Bavarian Forest.