Is German beer truly German?

For historical reasons, and due to geographical proximity, in Italy when we think of beer, we can’t help but also think of Germany.. But are you really sure that all German beers are... German?

Simone Massenza
Simone Massenza
birre tedesche

For historical reasons, and due to geographical proximity, in Italy when we think of beer, we can’t help but also think of Germany.

In our country’s most recent history, that’s where beer comes from. Our dear German friends Otto and Franz (any reference to real people or events is purely coincidental), boasting an average consumption of 99 liters each per year, descended upon Lake Garda and the Adriatic Riviera like modern-day Landsknechts, bringing with them this golden-blonde beverage.

But are you really so sure that all German beers are… German? (No, it’s not some psychoanalytical question à la Barbara Walters and it’s not a rhetorical question either). Whether right or wrong, Man (also) relies on stereotypes, which, despite their many flaws, have the virtue of being straightforward and simple. Let’s get back to Otto and Franz for a moment…

Blonde, bearded, clad perfectly in suede dirndls, and donning woolen hats adorned with a boar bristle brush and capercaillie feathers, who, between one Schuhplattln and the next (you know that dance made up of hops and jumps and virile slaps on the heels and backside), leisurely gulp down countless steins of beer (and the German-shaming award of the year goes to…).

Okay, now I’ll ask you the question again: are you sure that all German beers are German? German beers fall into the Czech-German category, one of the three historical-geographical continental beer families.

Within this diverse group, made up of approximately thirty different types of beer, the primary “shareholder” is Germany, accounting for 76% of the styles. In second place is the Czech Republic with 14% (hence the term Czech-German), and finally there are Austria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland, together accounting for the remaining 10%.

But… (careful, here comes a plot twist) are you sure that all German beers are German? Germany, like Italy, was unified relatively recently, in 1871.

Up until then it was, like our own Belpaese, made up of multiple sovereign and independent states. Of these, one of the most important has always been Bavaria, the brewing empire par excellence. Bavarian beers first conquered Germany, in its entirety, and then the rest of the world, spreading rapidly and becoming one of the most popular styles worldwide.

The vast majority of German beers, therefore, aren’t German… but Bavarian! Due to habit and proximity, we tend to confuse Bavaria and Germany, to blur the lines between the two, to stereotype, and to extend Oktoberfest to an entire nation.

Just like our friends Otto and Franz, who are evidently Bavarian! Still not convinced? I see we’ve got a doubting Thomas on our hands!

Helles? Bavarian. Lager? Bavarian. Weizen? Bavarian. Bock? Bavarian… Need I go on, or have I convinced you?

And all this not only thanks to the (undeniable) centuries-old expertise of its brewers, but also because producing “Bavarian-style” beer was one of the conditions that the Kingdom of Wittelsbach demanded for the country’s unification.

The Reinheitsgebot, or rather the notorious Purity Edict (“only barley, hops, and water”), was extended to the entire national territory, limiting ingredients, traditions, and the creativity of brewers, and became law from 1919 to 1989, enough time to eliminate the competition. But a few defiant Highlanders (“There can be only one…”), survived, like revolutionaries, outside of Bavaria, having weathered the perfect storm. So allow me to present to you the seven German  (and not Bavarian!) beers that every true beer-connoisseur simply must be familiar with!

birre tedesche


Altbier, known simply as Alt among friends, is a traditional beer of Düsseldorf, in North Rhine-Westphalia.

Its secret is hidden in its name. Altbier, literally “old beer” in German, implies the ancient method of production, before everything became Bavarian-ized. As with all historic beers, top-fermenting yeast is still used to produce it, in contrast to the bottom-fermenting lagers produced in the south. This style originated in the city in 1709, surviving against all odds and continuing to exist to this day.

It’s well-balanced, with an amber-copper color, harmonious bitter-sweet taste, and pleasant carbonation. Despite being a light and drinkable beer (only 5% ABV), it has a rich aromatic profile characterized by malt, bread, cherries, and dried fruit, which makes it anything but ordinary or predictable.

Verdict: an old dame


With this, we move directly to the capital city of Germany, which from now on, even for you, will no longer be gastronomically famous only for its Currywurst.

Despite the name, the only thing it has in common with its more famous Bavarian cousin, the Weizen, is the use of wheat. We’re once again talking about an ancient product, first created in the 16th century and inspired by the (then) much more famous wheat beers of Hamburg (the brewing world is more of a spy-story than you’d think!). Here, in addition to the use of top fermentation, a second bacterial fermentation takes place, in which lactobacilli transform simple sugars into lactic acid, creating an irrevocably characteristic taste.

The result is a very light beer (3% ABV), featuring a blend of flavors such as wheat, lemon, and green apple. It has a pale color and refreshing taste, thanks to its carbonation and acidity. This beer reached its peak of fame in the 19th century when, thanks to these characteristics, the Napoleonic French gave it the nickname “Champagne of the North“.

To soften its acidity, it’s traditionally consumed “mit schuss”, meaning with the addition of syrup (I see you wrinkling your nose) such as raspberry, sweet woodruff, or caraway. Furthermore, it’s the only beer in the world that’s consumed… with a straw!

Verdict: eccentric as a Berlin nightclub


Known as Helles Export, Export, or Dortmunder, this beer is typical of the city of Dortmund, in Westphalia. The first blonde beer in history, it originated in 1873 as a local response to the rampant dominance of the fashionable, imported Czech Pilsners. Over time it became the official beer of the working class in the Ruhr, the coal mining region, their fates closely intertwined.

Extremely popular in the 1950s, as the mines closed one by one, between the 1970s and 1990s, it was increasingly forced to downsize. Dortmunder is a golden lager, stronger than a Bavarian Helles, but without the full character of a Pils. Light (5.5% ABV), delicate, and refreshing, it’s the perfect beer to replenish yourself after hard physical labor.

Verdict: proletarian goodness

birre tedesche


Be careful! It’s absolutely not to be confused with the Belgian Gueuze, with which it shares only a phonetic similarity (and is so easy to mispronounce).

Gose is one of the oldest beers in all of Germany. Legend has it that Gose was first produced as early as the year 1000 in Goslar, Saxony, a town situated on the Gose River, from which it takes its name.

This river has a unique characteristic: it’s salty! And when I say salty, I mean it’s like a shot of water from the port of Marghera in Venice. This incredible sapidity is transmitted entirely to the beer, to which  lactic acid, from lattobacilli, and coriander  are added, and… it’s a done deal!

The region is rich in salt mines, such as those in Wolfenbüttel or Stassfurt, and the river, which traverses the terrains and mountains, erodes the salt, resulting in its savory character. With the financial crisis and the desertion of the mines, production moved to nearby (as well as richer and more stable) Lipsia.

However, in order to satisfy the tastes and preferences of their customers, the master brewers were forced to add salt to the recipe, as the water in Leipzig was salt-free. Production experienced a crisis during WWII, and in 1966 the last historic brewery closed. Starting in the 1980s and 1990s, it would take three breweries, three master brewers (a little off their rockers if we’re being honest), and two failed attempts to revive it.

Verdict: thirsty for saltwater


Nomen omen once again, (the brewing world certainly doesn’t stand out for its imaginative toponymy). Kölsch, if produced in Cologne, German Ale for the rest of the world, is a close relative of Düsseldorf’s Alt (they’re separated by only 39 km). Actually, truth be told, until the mid-19th century they were the very same beer. During that period the new Pale Malts (light malts that originated in England) arrived in Germany as well.

Düsseldorf continued on its own traditionalist and conservative path, while Cologne succumbed to fashion and began inserting them in its recipe, creating, effectively, two different beers. Kölsch is a pale, light beer (5% ABV), with a well-balanced and light body.

Its refreshing quality, combined with a high amount of carbonization, are two of its distinctive features. In order to preserve these characteristics, in addition to being served cold, it’s also traditionally served in a Stange, a small, narrow, tall glass that contains only 200 ml of liquid, completely out of scale with Germany’s thirsty standards.

Verdict: the revenge of the blondes


A traditional beer of (you guessed it…) the city of Lichtenhain (zero imagination), Thuringia. Definitely the strangest beer among the survivors. Like its relatives, Gose and Berliner Weisse (as well as many other ancient German beers) it’s a top-fermented wheat beer. What’s unique about it?

It’s both sour (lactic acid, you’re becoming experts) and smoky at the same time. Only for the brave of heart. It’s the only style in the world to have both of these flavors in the same beer, but I’m still not sure if this a good or bad thing… It’s not always the case that “Du gust is megl che uan” (two tastes are better than one).

A blend of grains, apple, lemon, smoke, fire, and wood, ready to destabilize even the savviest drinker with a cry of WTF!

Basically, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. It reached its peak of popularity in the mid-19th century, but let’s not forget that back then there was no Netflix, no supermarkets, no penicillin, no clean drinking water, and no indoor bathrooms, so it may have seemed like the lesser evil. It disappeared in 1983, only to be rescued by a new brewery in 1997, but it remains a niche beer.

Verdict: good, but not great


The name leaves no room for misunderstanding: black. Black like cocoa, black like coffee, black like the chocolate it tastes of. The issue of its paternity is controversial and contested between Thuringia and Saxony.

It has deep roots that stretch all the way back to the 14th century. Originally a top-fermented beer, over the centuries, it evolved into a bottom-fermented one, just as happened to Bock, with a Christian-democratic and pacifying gesture towards Bavarian tradition. Despite its intimidating color, it’s an easy-to-drink light beer (5% ABV).

Even in terms of aroma, it isn’t as rich and strong as the dark British beers you may be familiar with (Stout and Porter).

It’s a slightly milder, more delicate, and easier-to-drink version, which also features aromas that are less roasted, like bread and caramel. Forgotten in the obscurity of East Germany, where post-war Thuringia had ended up, beyond the Iron Curtain, it experienced a moment of revival with the reunification of Germany in 1989, before, over time, settling back into its natural niche.

Verdict: all bark and no bite

birre tedesche

Thanks to this busy modern world we live in, ever more convenient and globalized, almost all of these styles can be found, even in Italy, through local beer shops or online stores, so you can dispel any doubt and taste them for yourself.

My advice? Now that it’s summer, take advantage of low-cost airlines (thank God they exist), and use these seven beers as travel recommendations for seven weekend trips, outside of the usual German destinations. First of all, you’ll have the opportunity to try more than one beer of each style, on location, savoring and appreciating every nuance, and second of all, you’ll get to experience the places and fragrances of where they were first created..

The culinary experience, including beer, is an important part of a place’s history and culture, and there’s no better way to explore it than through travel. Prost!