German Beer. It’s as synonymous with the country’s culture as pretzels, Hansel and Gretel, and the music of the Scorpions. Or Beethoven, I guess. If you’re into that kind of stuff.
But, if there’s one thing that truly defines the country, it’s gotta be the beer.
While the Sumerians get credit for actually inventing the world’s greatest beverage, it’s the Germans who turned it into the bubbly brew we know and love today.
Hoppy beer didn’t exist until the monks at the hard-to-pronounce Brabant Cloister zum Würzen added the aromatic cones to a brew just over 1,000 years ago. Bavarian brewers were the first to really refine fermentation, harnessing the cold temps of winter to slow the process down and create the first Lager style beers.
And on April 23rd of 1516, a newly unified Bavaria adopted the Reinheitsgebot, or beer purity law, decreeing that brewers could use only water, barley, and hops to craft their beloved libations. The law is still in place today, making it the oldest recognized brewing law by far.
Now, German beer is the gold standard by which all other brewing traditions are measured. Sure, there are other great brewing regions like the Czech Republic and Belgium, but German beer grew to dominate pubs, beer gardens, and grocery store aisles around the world.
Until a bunch of young upstarts on the other side of the Atlantic started changing everything.
While American craft brewing started with traditional styles, it soon spread its wings, and like a boozy bald eagle it soared off into experimental hops, new recipes, and innovative practices. These are turning the whole beer world upside down, and since German beer purity laws don’t apply in the U.S., they’re free to fiddle with those styles as well.
Here are just a few of the ways German beer is being adopted, co-opted, and adapted by American craft brewing.
What Gose Around, Comes Around
Gose beer originated in the German city of Goslar sometime in the 13th century, and is traditionally a sour beer brewed with wheat and flavored with coriander and salt.
If you’re awfully perceptive, you might be thinking, “hey, wait a minute! What about the old-school purity laws? I thought weird ingredients weren’t allowed in German beer!”
Here’s the thing about the Gose, though — first off, it predates the Reinheitsgebot, so the style was grandfathered in. Second, the original document has been altered here and there to make room for traditional, regional specialties and culturally significant brews that otherwise wouldn’t make the cut.
So, the Gose is allowed to be a little weird. Although, the folks who govern German beer probably didn’t foresee the type of lawless experimentation that American brewers have brought to this style!
Take Westbrook Brewing’s Key Lime Pie Gose. You might be thinking they add a bunch of different ingredients to make it taste like pie, but that’s not quite the case. They actually add pie! They drop a little more than 3 entire Key Lime pies into every barrel they produce!
Even with a grandfather clause AND a ‘regional specialty’ exemption, that kinda thing probably wouldn’t fly in Germany. But, it positively SOARS stateside! In fact, it’s one of our 10 favorite Fruited Goses in the country!
Too out there for ya? Check out Stone Gose from de Garde Brewing. It’s still a decidedly modern take on the style, but it’s not quite as bizarre as pie beer. To make it, the Oregon brewery uses heaps of peaches and nectarines, balancing the tart flavors from wild yeast fermentation.
The fruit is delicious, but it’s de Garde’s house yeast culture that makes this one really special. It’s the main reason we deem the brewery a Must Try American Sour Ale Specialist.
Those two brews are just the tip of the non-traditional Gose iceberg. If you’re looking to explore American brews in the style, there are plenty more weird and delicious things to choose from!
Ohio’s Urban Artifact makes a Pickle Gose, and yes, it really does taste like pickles. Hoppin’ Frog’s Caramel King Gose tastes just like a gooey dessert, 3 Magnets Brewing made a Michelada Gose with tomato, chili, and spices, and WeldWerks Brewing made their own tomato Gose, but with basil and oregano so it tastes like a plate of spaghetti.
Those are definitely not German-style beers! But, this isn’t exactly Germany, so who cares?
Once, Twice, Three Times a Berliner Weisse!
Like the Gose, the Berliner Weisse doesn’t quite comply with the rules for German Beer, because these traditionally tart brews are made with wheat in addition to barley. And, as with the Gose, American brewers have thrown caution to the winds and crafted Berliners with all kinds of crazy flavors!
Evil Twin’s James Beer is a great example. The brewers flavored it with strawberries, which is not that weird, but they also threw in a whole heap of (brace yourself) OLIVES! How’s THAT for weird?
And the strangest part? It’s freakin’ delicious. But hey, that’s Evil Twin for you. This is the same brewery that made beer with actual biscotti, wedding cakes, even frozen pizza! And they’re always good.
Looking for an even more unusual flavor? How about prickly pear cactus? That’s what the crew at Ex Novo used to create the bright and fruity flavors in Cactus Wins the Lottery. And, because these cacti are native to the Americas, it’s a safe bet that this is the first-ever German Beer style brewed with the delicious fruit!
Which is a shame, because the tart Berliner Weisse body goes beautifully with the light, almost strawberry-like flavors of the prickly pear. It even earned a spot on our list of our Favorite Berliner Weisse Beers for Summer!
And just like with Gose, that doesn’t even begin to cover the ways that American brewers have experimented with this German Beer style. There’s Von Pampelmuse from Perennial Artisan Ales, made with grapefruit and mandarin oranges. Or, try Berliner Weisse with Passionfruit and Mango from Aslin Brewing, Duraznodor Berliner with peaches and apricots from Colorado’s Odd 13 Brewing, or Lake Huron Blueberry Berliner Weisse from Lake Effect Brewing.
That might seem like a pretty radical departure from the purity of German Beer, but it’s probably not as far removed as you think. If you order a Berliner Weisse at a traditional bar in Germany, it’ll almost certainly come with a side of sweet and fruity syrup that you’re meant to add yourself.
Actually brewing with fruit isn’t allowed under the Reinheitsgebot, but the Germans still love to add fruit to this style.
Who’s the Best Oktoberfest?
This one might be the weirdest of all! Not because of any bizarre ingredients or new-school techniques — it’s actually the opposite. To understand, you’ll need to know a little history.
Back before refrigeration existed, brewers in Germany weren’t even allowed to make beer during the summer months. So, they brewed as much as they could before March and stored it in cool cellars until the temps dropped and they could start making Lagers again. They were called March Beers, or Märzen in German.
Those were the first Oktoberfest beers, and probably drank more like a modern Dunkel — light brown in color and very malty. Then, in 1872, a dude named Gabriel Sedlmayr introduced a game-changing amber-hued brew with a lighter, more chuggable body. A beer to wash down all those pretzels!
He called it ‘Original Märzen’ even though it wasn’t, and people loved it. It’s the style we know as Märzen today.
And, here’s where it gets weird: if you go to a modern Oktoberfest celebration, you probably won’t see a single stein of that Märzen beer!
As Oktoberfest grew in popularity, the big German breweries started producing more and more Festbiers — crisp, clean, light gold brews with lower ABVs that revelers could drink liters and liters of. Something more like a delicious Pilsner from Heater Allen. Their Pils is a fantastic summer brew if ever there was one.
While many German breweries still make an actual Märzen, the best place to find the style these days might just be in America.
It’s one of the most iconic German Beer styles, but U.S. craft breweries are the ones revitalizing it! Like Transmitter Brewing, where they make an Oktoberfest brew that any 19th Century German beer lover would recognize and adore!
In fact, that hypothetical German (let’s call him Ulf) would find plenty of American craft beers to his liking. Urban Chestnut’s O-Katz, Pipeworks Brewing’s Oktoberfest, and Firestone Walker’s Oaktoberfest are a few stand-outs.
Every beer drinker owes a debt of gratitude to German Beer. The styles and techniques pioneered by German brewers have influenced brewers and beer drinkers across the globe! But, after a millennia of dominance, it looks like the torch may finally be passed.
There are brewers all over the world ready and willing to usher in the next age of beer innovation, but it’s all starting in a country that’s less than 250 years old — just a baby in the grand scheme of history. A fraction of the age of Germany’s beer culture.
A scrappy upstart of a country called The United States of America.