Euch ist bekannt was wir bedürfen, wir wollen stark Getränke schlürfen.
When I was 20, I was offered the opportunity to spend two months in Bavaria.
I was learning German due to a love of languages; I had already sampled and fell in love with many German beer styles; and I was working at the old movie theater at the Palm Desert Town Center, cleaning up theaters and selling stale popcorn—so it didn’t take me long to say yes. I spent those two months trying to shake the feeling of drowning from not having fluency in the German language while exploring the area, its customs and its beer. I left with the feeling that I’d only scratched the surface—and considering I never made it anywhere else in the country during that time, I think I was absolutely right.
At the top is a toast from Goethe’s Faust: “You know what we need is to gulp down a strong drink.” I think it fits the times—and I cite it because I’d like to practice some escapism again. A few months back, I tried to take you to Belgium in spirit, and since I write about beer, the next logical step is to head over the border into Germany. The beer tradition there is as deep as Belgium’s, while producing very different beer styles.
Bavaria is a fitting place to start our tour. Its most well-known style would arguably be the hefeweizen (often called weißbier there; literally, “white beer”). I had some really gorgeous examples of it and its darker, more-interesting sibling, the dunkelweizen (“dark wheat”). On a warm weekend day, a crisp hefeweizen is a staple, and it goes wonderfully with weißwurst (a lighter-colored sausage flavored with a mix of herbs, spices and lemon). Happily, you can find the real deal easily in the import section of beer stores. I’d recommend anything from Weihenstephaner, as they’ve been doing it for centuries and have seemingly never failed in making delicious ales.
But that’s not all there is to Bavarian beer. The Munich helles and dunkel styles are what you’ll find flowing in biergartens across the state. They’re both lagers, very easy to drink, but still tasty enough to sate the beer lover who knows that “light” doesn’t have to mean bland. Having a beer and a pretzel at places like the Hofbräuhaus is a pleasure I wish every beer-lover could have once in their lives, and the good news is that it’s not too hard to do: There is a Hofbräuhaus in Las Vegas that has beers flowing (although it’s closed as of this writing due to COVID-19), and if the saurbraten I had there is any indication, the food is authentic enough to give you the experience of a biergarten in Bavaria without having to travel all the way there.
We head northwest from Bavaria to the most-populous state in the country, North Rhine-Westphalia. If you read my columns regularly, you might suspect why we are here, but if you don’t, I will be happy to spell it out for you. Our first stop is Cologne, and its city’s signature style, the kölsch. It is a pale hybrid ale (an ale that has been lagered) that is similar to a pilsner, but with a softer and often maltier body. Many American brewers have fallen for the style, so it’s not too hard to find a domestic version.
Next door to Cologne is Düsseldorf, and its signature beer style is the altbier. Its name translates simply to “old beer,” and the reason is that it harkens back to a time before lager yeast was discovered. In the city, this style is as cherished as the kölsch is in Cologne, and it is currently being brewed by eight breweries in the city. Very little of the style is consumed elsewhere. I won’t linger here other than to say this tasty copper ale is a wonderful alternative to a bock or an amber ale. It can occasionally be found locally on an import shelf. Uerige’s Sticke Alt (a seasonally brewed version of the style) is one that I have bought locally before, and you can occasionally find an American craft brewery brewing the style. Hangar 24 used to regularly brew one, and it was very tasty—and it went amazingly well with pizza. It’s a style I would very much enjoy being more available here—but what an excuse to go to its source and enjoy it authentically!
Heading eastward, we go to a small town in neighboring Lower Saxony—Einbeck, the birthplace of the bock. Its name derives from its founding city and became shortened and corrupted over time into the German word for “buck” or “ram,” which has been an adopted image on many a bottle of the style since. It can be light copper to brown in color, and it is somewhat sweeter than most German styles (though never cloying). It has notes of toast and caramel and is usually associated with the seasons. There are variations as well: The maibock (aka helles bock) is a lighter, hoppier, crisper version and is associated with springtime; the stronger doppelbock was born of monks needing something during their Lent fast. Then there is the extremely strong eisbock, and the weizenbock, made with a large portion wheat. All are worth trying and all can be found here by the zythophile with a careful eye.
It’s almost time to depart this lovely country, but first, there must be a quick mention of the Berliner weisse and gose. Both sour wheat ales were virtually limited to the regions in which they originated (Berlin and Goslar, which is near Leipzig), but then American brewers found them, tweaked them and made them popular in craft-beer circles. If you see “kettle sour” in the description, it’s like to be in the Berliner weisse style, and if there is also any mention of salt (and the traditional coriander), it’s probably a gose. They are light, tart and refreshing when done well. The schwarzbier also deserves mention, as it’s a rare black lager with tons of flavor, and a paradoxically light body.
Sadly, it’s time to end our trip, and I have to bid you a hearty Prost! Vielen Glück in your beer exploration of Deutschland, and auf wiedersehen.