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When Oktoberfest is over and the beer steins are put away, it’s easy to forget that the world owes much of its gratitude to Germany for creating some of the most tried-and-true beer styles. The mighty lager, the beer that has found a home in Michelin-starred restaurants and the dusty fridge in your parents’ garage alike, can be traced back to a corner of the globe known as Germany before "Germany" even existed. Budweiser is a lager, sure, but so are the beers that grace the long tables of Oktoberfest. These ancient beers, which are distinguishable from ales by the fact that they utilize bottom-fermenting yeasts that thrive at cooler temperatures, are the building blocks of any beer education.
“There will always be room for well-made lagers in the world of American craft beer, and this is being increasingly proven by more and more breweries producing them and more and more craft beer fans seeking them out,” says Rob Camstra and Nick Guyton, director of brewing operations and head brewer at Gemüt Biergarten in Columbus, Ohio. The German-inspired brewery and beer garden opened in Columbus’ Olde Towne East neighborhood in late 2019. “A big part of our focus at Gemüt is that we do not want to chase trends: clean, well-crafted lagers are a family of beer styles that are timeless.”
The spectrum of lagers is almost as vast as the spectrum of beer itself, ranging from the full-yet-refreshing helles to the rich and smoky rauchbier. But lagers aren’t Germany’s only claim to fame. The country that runs on beer the same way America supposedly runs on Dunkin’ also blessed us with other ubiquitous brews, including the fruity hefeweizen and crisp kölsch. While some German beer styles are seldom seen stateside, there are plenty of American breweries that have found inspiration in these traditional styles and are committed to introducing them to a new generation of drinkers. Below is a list our experts have curated to showcase the best German beers to drink right now.
Best Overall: Weihenstephaner Hefe Weissbier
Region: Germany | ABV: 5.4% | Tasting Notes: Banana, Yeast, Cinnamon
“The classic hefeweizen from the oldest brewery in the world,” says Hagen Dost, owner and brewer at Dovetail Brewery in Chicago. The brewery specializes in traditional brewing methods to make continental European-style beers, but the beer he’s talking about is Weihenstephaner’s Hefe Weissbier. This lively brew checks all of the boxes for the style, with its layers of flavors that include clove and banana as well as cinnamon and malt.
“[Weihenstephaner Hefe Weissbier is] perfect for a Sunday morning frühschoppen—early pint—with weisswurst, sweet mustard, and a pretzel.” — Hagen Dost, owner and brewer at Dovetail Brewery
Best Oktoberfest: Ayinger Oktober Fest-Märzen
Region: Germany | ABV: 5.8% | Tasting Notes: Malty, Floral, Orange peel, Bread
When you’re talking about Oktoberfest beers, you’re usually talking about märzen. Traditionally brewed in March so they are ready for the fall, these malty brews are just as well known for their rich flavor as they are for the celebration that goes with them.
Ayinger is located near the epicenter of that celebration, just outside Munich, and its Oktober Fest-Märzen embodies the flavors of the festival. This beer has a “beautiful amber and copper maltiness with caramel notes and a huge stand of off-white foam,” Dost says, and discerning Oktoberfest revelers might even discern a flutter of orange peel or cigar tobacco (if they're not too distracted by the festivities).
Best Hefeweizen: Schneider Weisse
Region: Germany | ABV: 5.4% | Tasting Notes: Banana, Cloves, Nutmeg
The hefeweizen can be a polarizing style, especially for those who are new to it, but this one-of-a-kind ale also offers a great entry point for drinkers who don't tend to enjoy beer's more bitter flavors. Meaning “wheat beer with yeast,” hefeweizen is a hazy brew that can taste like bananas and bubblegum. If you're looking for an American option, Texas’ Live Oak makes one of the best. For a German classic, grab a bottle of Schneider Weisse. Camstra notes that it's “the best hefeweizen in the world by a fair margin, in my opinion, with a perfect balance of banana and clove notes.”
Related: The Best Beers
Best Kölsch: Gaffel Kölsch
Region: Germany | ABV: 4.8% | Tasting Notes: Biscuit, Lemon, Grass
In recent years, kölsch has entered the spotlight as the thirst-quenching, impossibly crisp lager of choice during hotter months. While many American brewers have tried their hand at the style, there’s plenty of German imports available as well, such as Gaffel Kölsch.
When it comes to consuming this light, easy-drinking brew, Dost suggests a traditional method. “Do yourself a favor and pick up a traditional Kölner Stange to drink these: a 200 ml glass that, in Cologne, will keep getting replaced by a fresh glass as soon as you reach the bottom until you put your coaster on top of the glass.”
Best Pilsner: Rothaus Pils Tannenzäpfle
Region: Germany | ABV: 5.1% | Tasting Notes: Malt, Floral, Lemon
Ah yes, the pilsner: Germany's most-consumed beer category, and the basis of all of the ubiquitous American lagers that trace their lineage back to German immigrants in the 19th century. (We could list those brands for you here, or you could just turn on ESPN and wait for the next commercial break.) For a bit more obscure of a pilsner, try a Rothaus’ Pils Tannen Zäpfle, which Camstra says is “a classic from the Black Forest region of Germany, produced by the state-owned brewery in Baden-Wurttemberg, which definitely gives the Czech a run for their money for best pilsner in the world.” The beer has recently gained a cult following in New York, after a homesick German ex-pat, Tobias Holler, implored Rothaus for years to export the beer so he could serve it at his Brooklyn beer hall. In 2014 he succeeded.
Related: The 9 Best Pilsner Beers to Drink
Best Dunkel: Weltenburger Kloster Barock Dunkel
Region: Germany | ABV: 4.7% | Tasting Notes: Chocolate, Malt, Bread
A tasting of German beers offers the perfect reminder that not all lagers have to be clear and bright. Despite its name, the dunkel, or “dark,” is a lager that sits in the middle of the beer color spectrum. Its trademark is the use of caramelized Munich malt, which gives the beer a dessert-like quality without being overly sweet. “This beer is over-the-top great,” Dost says about Weltenburger Kloster’s Barock Dunkel. “A category-defining dunkel: malty, full-bodied, chocolate, everlasting off-white foam served in glass tankards.”
Best Helles: Augustiner-Bräu Edelstoff
Region: Germany | ABV: 5.6% | Tasting Notes: Hay, Biscuit, Honey
By the 1890s, Munich had a centuries-old history of producing renowned dark beers, but that's when they began to notice a problem: people were suddenly super into this light, crisp "pilsner" category. So the enterprising Bavarians came up with their own "pale lager," and just so there was no confusion, they called it Helles — which means "pale" or "bright."
Augustiner-Bräu is Munich's oldest independent brewery, dating back to 1328, and their Edelstoff helles is one of their most popular offerings. Compared to pilsner or kölsch, a good helles will be a bit fuller and a touch sweeter, and the Edelstoff is no exception: look for playful notes of hay, fresh-cut grass, biscuit, toasted bread, and even a hint of honey and chamomile.
“If you're not counting how many you've had by the litre then you're doing it wrong.”
—Rob Camstra, director of brewing operations at Gemüt Biergarten in Columbus, Ohio
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Best Bock: Einbecker Ur-Bock Dunkel
Region: Germany | ABV: 6.5% | Tasting Notes: Toffee, Raisins, Molasses
We’re staying in lager territory here, but we’re upping the ABV and taking a trip into the annals of history. Originally brewed in the 14th century in the city of Einbeck (a mispronunciation of the city’s name rumored to have lent its signature beer the moniker of “ein bock”), a bock is a strong lager with a pronounced malty character. They come in a number of styles, from the rich and refreshing maibocks popular in springtime to the darker, more brooding “dunkles bocks” brewed to warm the soul on winter nights.
Einbecker Ur-Bock Dunkel is a classic dunkles bock produced in the same city that originated the style seven centuries ago and is still packaged in a bottle based on the original 1851 design. Look for a smooth, malty flavor profile boasting notes of toffee and raisins, with just a sprinkling of hop character to balance out the interplay of caramel and molasses.
Best Doppelbock: Paulaner Salvator
Region: Germany | ABV: 7.9% | Tasting Notes: Chocolate, Figs, Spicy hoppiness
Even bigger and boozier than the bocks are their beefed-up brothers, the doppelbocks (“double bocks”), which accentuate the signature malt-forward bock profile with more richness, a fuller mouthfeel, and higher alcohol. The granddaddy of all doppelbocks is Salvator, first produced by the Franciscan monks at St. Francis of Paula in the 17th century. Legend has it that the monks created the rich, malty, sweet beer as a clever workaround during Lent: they were compelled by their piety to fast, but that didn’t mean they couldn’t enjoy some liquid bread during those hungry times.
Even if you’re not currently fasting, you’ll have trouble resisting Salvator’s inviting aromas of chocolate and caramel malt, or the rich, figgy breadiness on the palate—all tied up nicely by the faint impression of spicy hops on the finish. And for your next round, be sure to try some of the other iconic Munich dopplebocks—like Spaten’s Optimator and Ayinger’s Celebrator—all of which traditionally end in “-ator” as a nod to the beer that launched the enduring style. (Even some of the excellent American takes on this German classic retain the “-ator” suffix, like Tröeges’ highly decorated Tröegenator.)
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Best Schwarzbier: Kostritzer Schwarzbier
Region: Germany | ABV: 4.8% | Tasting Notes: Nutty, Pumpernickel, Bitter chocolate
If I asked you to name a dark beer with deep roasted malt flavor but without huge body or high alcohol, Guinness might seem like the obvious answer. But Germany has its own take on “dark beer with light body,” and instead of a creamy stout, it’s a lean, sleek lager, with all the elegance and precision we expect from fine German engineering. Schwarzbier (“black beer”) is a 4 to 6 percent alcohol lager made from dark-roasted malt, and one of Germany’s best-known schwarzbiers is Kostritzer. Produced in a brewery that’s been in operation since 1543, Kostritzer offers a roasty, nutty nose and flavors of pumpernickel and bitter chocolate.
It’s said that the iconic German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe subsisted on nothing but Kostritzer schwarzbier during a period of illness in which he was unable to eat food. (We’re not suggesting you start replacing all your meals with Kostritzer, but it would certainly be a delicious experiment if a slightly ill-advised one.)
Best Rauchbier: Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier
Region: Germany | ABV: 5.2% | Tasting Notes: Smoke, Roasted malt, Meat
If you thought the hefeweizen was polarizing, how about a beer that straight-up tastes like smoke? For that discerning drinker who wants her brew to be reminiscent of bacon, or a slab of smoked brisket, the rauchbier is the way to go. It’s an uncommon style, due to its potent flavor, which comes from smoked malt. Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier claims to be the original smoked beer. “Produced in Bamberg; the märzen variety is my personal favorite,” Camstra says. “They are neighbors with our malt supplier, the legendary Weyermann Malzfabrik.”
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Germany has given the world not only some of its most iconic beers, but also some of its most enduring beer styles, so tip your hat to ol’ Deutschland the next time you enjoy a crisp lager or a flavorful hefeweizen, wherever it may be from. And in the meantime, pop open a refreshing Edelstoff helles from Augustiner-Bräu (buy on Instacart) or a rich Salvator dopplebock from Paulaner (buy on TotalWine.com) and enjoy the inimitable experience of tasting some uniquely Bavarian history.
What's the distinctive style of German beers?
As we've enumerated above, Germany has a remarkably diverse beer culture. Compared to the craft beers that many US beer enthusiasts have become acquainted with, however, it's fair to say that many of the classic German styles place more of an emphasis on malt, and all of its attendant flavors (bread, caramel, toast), than on hops (spice, bitterness, herbaceousness).
Do they have higher or lower alcohol content?
This varies as well: while the lighter, crisper beers (kölsch, pilsner, etc.) have alcohol content commensurate with their international "pale lager" brethren (4.5 to 5 percent), the richer entries like the dopplebocks can easily hover around 8 percent. (And there are other classes of German beer, such as the rarely-seen Eisbock—literally "ice bock," so named because the brewers freeze bock and then remove ice from it to lower the water content and boost ABV—in which the alcohol content can reach well above 10 percent.)
How long can you store German beers?
Alcohol acts as a preservative, so the lower the ABV, the fresher you should plan to drink your German beers. Store your pilsner and your schwarzbier no longer than 4 to 6 months. Even the relatively high-alcohol dopplebocks (8 percent) are generally most expressive when consumed fresh, but while a year or more of aging might decrease the carbonation a bit, the flavors and the mouthfeel will likely still be just as lovely.
What's the ideal temperature at which to serve German beers?
The lighter and crisper the beer, the colder it should be served. Your kölsch and your helles will perform best around 38 degrees Fahrenheit (straight out of the ice bath, or the coolest part of the fridge), while your big, high-alcohol dopplebocks will shine at "cellar temperature" (50 to 55 degrees Fahrenheit). For beers that are somewhere in between—dunkels, hefeweizens—feel free to split the difference. But when in doubt, best to opt for colder rather than warmer. (After all, it'll warm up in the glass anyway.)
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This piece was edited by Jesse Porter, whose first bar job ever was at a mountainside German restaurant in upstate New York, where steins full of dark lager could be found on every table. And although he's worked since then as a sommelier, a wine educator, and a spirits rep, his love for German beer remains as strong as a good doppelbock.
Sarah Freeman is a food and beverage writer based out of Chicago. She has been writing about, as well as frequenting, restaurants and bars for the past decade—from learning about what makes a perfect piece of cocktail ice to the exploring art of beer label design. At the moment, she doesn’t have enough room for food in her refrigerator, because it’s filled with cans of beer and bottles of wine.
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