I have a confession: when I went to my first Oktoberfest, I knew absolutely nothing about German beer. Like many of the 6 million Lederhosen- and Dirndl-wearing visitors who storm onto Theresienwiese in Munich each year, I was there as much for the sheer spectacle of the world’s largest beer festival as for the beer itself. I was there to see extremely muscular, take-no-shit waitresses wielding a dozen one-liter Maß glasses at a time and 5,000 drunken revelers dancing on tables to the mildly oppressive beat of Schlager music.
But the beer? I knew there was a dunkles (dark) and a helles (light) option, and that was about it.
While it’s true that there’s not much variation when it comes to traditional Märzen, the ubiquitous Bavarian Oktoberfest-style lagers, I assumed that the same was true of German beer in general.
It didn't help that I'd recently moved to Berlin, where trendy, American-style craft breweries felt as though they were at war with their more traditional German counterparts. The oft-repeated narrative was that the Reinheitsgebot, the revered Bavarian “Purity Law” from 1516, strictly prohibited the use of anything other than hops, barley, water, and yeast in beer, thereby throttling innovation in the name of stodgy tradition.
That meant no bourbon barrel-aged stouts and triple IPAs and (perhaps for the best) Lucky Charms-infused beers. Coming from a culture that glorifies endless choice, I assumed that German beer must be, well, kind of monotonous.
To make matters worse, muttering the words “ein Bier bitte” in just about any Kneipe, or old-school dive bar, in Berlin inevitably produced a macrobrewery pilsner. Cold, straw-colored, and usually costing no more than a euro or two, it was refreshing in its utilitarian simplicity, but hardly thrilling stuff. I found myself questioning how a country so synonymous with beer, one in which the average citizen drinks more than 100 liters a year, could have such a boring brewing culture.
The whole concept of craft beer is kind of weird in Germany, since historically you had all these small, independent breweries.”
“It was 2009 when we started homebrewing because at that time in Berlin, it was hard to get anything that wasn’t a helles, a dubbel or a hefeweizen,” says David Spengler, one of the three Americans behind Vagabund Brauerei. As a member of Berlin’s growing craft movement, I half-expect him to wax poetic about the superiority of American-style IPAs, but instead, he quickly insists, “We highly respect German brewing traditions. The whole concept of craft beer is kind of weird in Germany, since historically you had all these small, independent breweries producing goses, rauchbiers, and steinbiers.”
While Spengler still has a deep love for popular American craft beer styles, traveling around Germany has given him a newfound appreciation of the level of regional variation and complexity. He’s gone to Leipzig in search of goses and to the UNESCO World Heritage City of Bamberg to try rauchbier where it originated. That level of reverence manifests back at Vagabund Brauerei’s taproom, where customers will find a number of more traditionally German offerings alongside their American-style counterparts.
“Rauchbier is just a tasty beer brewed with smoked malts. We call ours Social Smoker and it has a mild, almost bacon-y smokiness,” Spengler says. “We also have a gose called Chasing Sunsets with lime leaves and coriander.”
The Reinheitsgebot is a marketing technique, one that has been very successful, because so many Germans believe it.”
Here’s where the legend of the Reinheitsgebot starts to fall apart: goses, which contain salt and coriander, have existed in German for centuries, despite their clear violation of the law. It turns out that the truth is murkier than propaganda would have you believe. While Duke Wilhelm IV of Bavaria did indeed declare in 1516 that beer could only contain hops, barley, and water—yeast was unknown then—the word “Reinheitsgebot” wouldn’t appear until centuries later.
“The Reinheitsgebot is a marketing technique, one that has been very successful, because so many Germans believe it,” says Fritz Wülfing, who founded the craft brewery Ale-Mania in Bonn in 2014. “It was not originally so much about upholding the purity of food as it was for taxation purposes. It was changed for political reasons.”
In 1871, when Chancellor Otto von Bismarck was in the process of creating a unified Germany, Bavarians demanded that the rest of the new nation adopt their brewing restrictions. Adopting the Reinheitsgebot made sense not only in terms of creating a nationalist identity, but also when it came to trade. It wasn’t until 1906 that the rules became standard practice throughout the rest of Germany. As a result, certain styles such as the Preussen Weisse—a Prussian beer made with juniper berries, coriander, ginger, and sugar beet syrup—fell out of favor.
“Bismarck wanted to build up the idea of the Deutsche Reich and he wanted to protect Germany against British influence,” Wülfing says. “At that time, the UK was the biggest brewing country in the world. The Reinheitsgebot was partly put into place in order to stop the import of British beer.”
Sylvia Kopp, a Berlin-based beer sommelier and the Brewers Association's new American craft beer ambassador in Europe, has mixed feelings about the Reinheitsgebot and the impact it has had on German brewing. Despite the popular misconceptions surrounding the idea, many German brewers have internalized the concept of the Reinheitsgebot as a point of pride. Her one qualm with the idea is that the adherence to tradition stifled creativity among German brewers for quite some time.
“German beer culture is very much identified the term ‘purity laws’ and it’s not a bad thing per se. I love beers that are created only with these four ingredients,” Kopp says. “I always like to say what Germany represents for the beer culture is it’s like Greek antiquity. We have great styles and a great sense of beauty and aesthetics, but for the longest time, there was no sense of innovation. American craft beer has become more like modern art, more creative.”
What Germany represented for a long time for beer culture was like Greek antiquity. American craft beer has become more like modern art.”
As American craft brewing culture has made its way across the Atlantic Ocean and around the world, that dynamic has started to shift. While German brewers and beer-drinkers have been less receptive to international beer trends than, say, the Danes, you can still find plenty of American IPAs in Berlin or Hamburg.
Yet while virtually everyone I have spoken with agreed that innovation is a boon, there is much to be said for honoring the history of a country with one of the oldest and proudest brewing traditions in the world. Thankfully, I learned a thing or two about German beer culture after my first Oktoberfest. Most importantly, I realized that in order to fully grasp the breadth and diversity of it, you need to hit the road.
“Beer culture was very much shaped by regional styles,” Kopp says. “If you order a beer here in the north, you’ll automatically get a pilsner, whereas in Cologne, it'll be a kölsch and in Bavaria, it'll be a lager. In the same way, being in a Cologne Brauhaus feels very different from being in a Bavarian Gasthaus or a Berlin Kneipe.”
Once you’ve downed a slew of tiny glasses of kölsch in Cologne—waitstaff will keep bringing them until you indicate otherwise—or an amber-hued Altbier in Düsseldorf or even an old-school helles in a Bavarian beer garden, you won’t want to have that particular beer any other way. Beer in Germany is synonymous with a place in a way it seldom is in our increasingly globalized, homogenized world.
While I’m glad to know that I’ll be able to find sours, imperial stouts, and IPAs on my next trip to Berlin, I selfishly hope that Germany’s regional brewing traditions continue to thrive. Yes, room for innovation is generally a positive thing, but I’ve never quite bought into the idea that change always equals progress.
“What we have now with the craft beer movement is homogenization. There might be a parallel to a hundred years ago, when pilsner became the dominant beer style both in Europe and in the US,” Kopp says. “Now we see these multitap bars pouring IPAs, sours, and stouts everywhere. They all have a similar aesthetic and the guys there all have beards. At a certain point, it becomes a bit boring, because you have all the same stuff.”
Regardless of the style of beer they brew, Kopp hopes to see German brewers willing to look beyond passing trends.
“As a beer sommelier, I am interested in finding those who express themselves as individuals through beer,” Kopp says. “The old styles are still here and we still love them very much. German craft brewers are turning to historic, unfiltered versions of kölsch and reinterpreting Berliner weisse as a gose. They bow to their heritage.”
Wülfing is one such brewer. Although Ale-Mania leans heavily on IPAs, he can speak passionately about the pleasures of a classic top-fermented, faintly bitter Altbier. He is happy to look forward, but some of his brewery’s most innovative work has actually sprung from looking into the past. For instance, he brews a beer, called Wieß, that draws on a version of kölsch that predates the style’s more pilsner-esque incarnation that has existed since the 1980s.
“Kölsch culture didn’t come about until after the Second World War, because all the big breweries were destroyed. So people went back to a smaller, simpler style and would drink it very fresh and unfiltered in the brewpub,” Wülfing says.
Wieß, from Cologne slang for “wife,” is both traditional and not. It’s grounded in regional heritage, yet also the unorthodox creation of a craft brewer happy to flaunt the Reinheitsgebot. It is, in short, a celebration of what makes German brewing culture so special at this precise moment in time.