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Focus On: Beers Of Germany

Beers Of Germa

Like the rest of Germany, they’re solid, reliable, but somewhat predictable

Like the rest of Germany, they’re solid, reliable, but somewhat predictable

Ask any casual beer drinker which country makes the best brews and Germany is bound to be one of a few countries most commonly given in reply. Ask the same drinker to name four ultra popular German export brands, he’s hard put to name anything beyond Becks.

Becks is, indeed, one of the more popular German brews, along with Krombacher, Warsteiner, and Bitburger.  Once you name these four, few but diehard German beer lovers can give you the names of any others. 

Some of the finest beer in the world, but drinkers can’t rattle off scores of great brews off the top of their heads?   Is there a good reason why?

No one argues that German beer is of high quality.  They’ve had plenty of time to get it right. There is archaeological evidence in northern Bavaria that the people who inhabited the region were brewing beer 2,800 years ago.  Those beers were nothing like the ones Germany is famous for today.  Instead of malted barley, these ancient brews used half baked bread loaves made from barley or wheat. 

Up until about 1,400 years ago, brewing was done primary in the home, by women no less as just one of the standard housewifely duties. By the eleventh century, monks and nuns did most of the professional brewing. The Weihenstephan Brewery was a Benectine abbey and has been brewing since 1040, making it the world’s oldest existent brewery. Later, in southern Germany, feudal lords took over very profitable brewing activities while businessmen did the same in the north.

Until the 1500’s, all the beers brewed in Germany were top fermented ales. The pilsners for which the Germans are so famous for today weren’t produced, initially in the Czech Republic, until 1842.  Carl Paul Gottfried Linde’s research on refrigeration modern refrigeration to Germany and greatly expanded the production areas for lagers, in particular the lighter styles that currently make up more than two-thirds of the German beer market. 

The Germany purity decree from 1516, otherwise known as the Germany Beer Purity Law, inadvertently boosted Germany’s integrity as a solid brewing nation.  Only water, barley and hops were initially permitted, and the hops had to be added while the wort was boiling. Louis Pasteur’s 1857 discovery of yeast’s role in fermentation was enough of a gamechanger for the purity decree to be amended to allow for yeast’s addition. 

Some semblance of this decree was already in motion centuries before. The monasteries and convents which once held the exclusive rights to brew watched this right chipped away by feudal aristocrats upset that the church was minting all the money from beer.  Quality slid and beer consumption along with it, which inspired various city officials to pass codes to protect beer’s quality. An 1156 law stated that a brewer making bad beer was to be punished and, after three offenses, his brewing license stripped. More local ordinances followed, dictating how much a calibrated tankard was to be filled, the exact cost the beer was to be sold for, how much beer one was permitted to brew, when one can start a fire to start brewing, when the amount was to be publicly announced, what happens when you break a beer mug, and other bureaucratic and timewasting nonsense Germans continue to be specialists in.

Traditionally, Germans were always concerned with drinking local product. Germany’s most famous festival, the Oktoberfest, stipulates that only beers conforming to the German purity law and brewed within the Munich city limits can be designated Oktoberfest Beer and served. This localization has kept more than 90% of the approximately 1,400 breweries in Germany independent. 

That independence plus the localization gave way to a wide number of different regional beer styles that were never later quashed from the brewery consolidation witnessed in other nations. The range of just wheat beers is astounding. Berlin birthed the Berliner Weisse, a low alcohol tart beer mixed with syrups. Leipzig laid claim to the Gose, an amber sour wheat beer brewed with salt. There is the weizenbock, roggenbier, hefeweizen, kristallweizen (fermented with sparkling wine instead of yeast), and the kottbusser. In the pale beer category, you have altbier, export, helles, kolsch, maibock, marzen, pilsner, and spezial.  Dark beers include bock, doppelbock, dunkel, schwarzbier, and rauchbier (brewed with smoked malts).   Kellerbier is unfiltered lager conditioned like a cask ale.

European Union food regulatory standards led to the eventual repeal of the purity decree by a European court of justice in 1987, but with tradition and localized drinking always the norm in Germany, the 1516 law lives on as an unofficial standard and is even voluntarily adopted by breweries in other lands as a marketing play on quality.  

The Germans remain one of the largest per capita producers (118.4 liters) and consumers (106.1) in the world, though that’s all relative. In 1991, Germans were drinking 140 liters. This shows a different trend than that seen elsewhere, where the beer market as a whole expanded but the consumption of macrobrews declined as the consumption of micros increased. Today’s Germans sip wine, coffee drinks, and summer cocktails like the hit Hugo instead of beer.

There is a growing microbrewery scene in Germany, with more than 30% microbreweries now than there were in 2005.  Microbrewers like Oliver Lemke feel German craft beer can reinvigorate the beer market like it’s done elsewhere. But in other nations, beer variety was stagnant and monopolized by huge macrobreweries. The microbreweries which stepped in could tap a new market just by launching versions of styles Germany already had for centuries. 

Most of Germany’s breweries are already independent and would already be classified as microbreweries in the American sense of the word. The passage in 1993 of a looser Provisional German Beer Law continues to dictate to German brewers, but with more leeway, what can go into a product that can legally be called beer. As a result, a German microbrewer isn’t as free to make experimental products that could incorporate everything from doughnuts to pasillo chilis as possible ingredients. 

This has made German beer a lot like Swiss chocolate.  Not all Swiss chocolate and German beer is fantastic, but there is a certain rather high level of quality which Swiss chocolates and German beers never descend below.    You’ll never bite into a really horrendous Swiss chocolate bar or sip an undrinkable German beer. 


Germans may complain drinking life could be better, but drinkers in other lands spent almost the entire twentieth century tasting how it could be worse. The non-German tippler quickly realizes he doesn’t need to remember which German beers are good when quality is always present to some degree. 

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