A German Beer Mini-Series: Part 1A Guest Post by James Meads
This is the most common beer found in most parts of the country and almost certainly what springs to mind when most folks conjure up a “typical German beer” in their head. The word Pils actually is short for Pilsener (or Pilsner) meaning coming from the city of Pilsen. Pilsen has actually been Czech territory since 1945 and the city is known in Czech as Plzeň.
German Pils is pale, served traditionally in a tall, narrow glass to enable formation of a large, frothy head. It is somewhat bitter in taste, whereas the Czech version of Pilsener is a golden brew more akin to a German Helles (see below). The most common and widespread brands of Pils, both within Germany and internationally, are Bitburger, Warsteiner and Beck’s. If you order “a beer” anywhere in Germany except for Bavaria, this will almost certainly be what you are served.
Pils typically is between 4.5% and 5.0% in alcohol. If Pils has thus far been your only introduction to German beer, I strongly recommend you read on to discover that there’s much more to try! I usually avoid drinking mass-produced Pils if I can because there are so many other wonderful types of German beer to sample.
A clear, light-coloured and well-bodied lager primarily hailing from Bavaria and Southern Germany, Helles is an easy-drinking, smooth beer which is very similar in taste to native beers over the border in the Czech Republic, though they tend to be slightly more malty.
Where in other parts of Germany, ordering “a beer” will result in you being served a Pils, in Bavaria and parts of its neighbouring state of Baden-Württemberg you would be served a Helles. The word translates into English as “light” or “pale”. These beers are typically a little stronger and less gassy than Pils, coming in at around 5.0% to 5.5% ABV.
Helles is also served without a large head and usually in a wider glass, more reminiscent of a “pint glass” in the United Kingdom or the United States. Paulaner, Augustiner, König Ludwig, Löwenbräu and the fabulous Andechser are all typical examples of Helles (the Andechser Helles in the photo above is in the red- and green-labelled bottles). Americans who are used to drinking craft beer have probably come across the term “Munich Lager”, which is also a synonym for Helles, but not brewed in Germany.
A Dunkelbier, or Dunkles for short, is a dark, reddish-brown lager closely related to Helles. The alcohol content is similar to Helles but the taste is maltier and somewhat sweeter. The main brands of Helles will also usually produce a Dunkles in their range. It’s the perfect accompaniment in the evening after a day on a ski piste in the Bavarian Alps, together with a pork knuckle and dumplings also served in dark beer sauce! Dunkel is similar in strength to Helles and hails also from the same region.
Anyone who has been to the Oktoberfest or any of its imitations has no doubt drunk Märzen. This is a seasonal Festbier (festival beer) that was traditionally brewed in March (hence its name, from the German, März). Golden in colour with a dry, malty taste, it lends itself to festivals because it is so smooth and easy to drink.
In Austria, the term Märzen is more or less synonymous with Helles, which can be confusing. Märzen can range anywhere from 5.0% to 6.5% in alcohol and may also be labelled as Oktoberfestbier. Lots of privately owned, smaller breweries in Germany offer a Märzen in season but there is no widespread, mass-produced brand as there is for Pils, Helles or Hefeweizen.
Export is golden in colour and somewhat similar in taste to Helles, hailing traditionally from Dortmund in the industrial Ruhr region of Western Germany. Export nowadays is brewed throughout Germany due to its historical popularity. During the 1950s and ‘60s, this was the most common type of beer in Germany but has since lost ground to Pils, Hefeweizen and Helles.
Stronger in content than its more common rivals at around 5.5%, Export is a mild, clean lager, pale in colour. The most recognised brand is DAB, although many regional German breweries also offer an Export in their range of beers.
James Meads swapped England’s postindustrial West Midlands for the beautiful German spa city of Wiesbaden in 2006. He is both highly organised and hopelessly unpunctual, which thoroughly confuses the Germans. James thinks in English and German at the same time, and when he suggests “going for a beer”, he means at least three – and definitely not Bitburger. He founded and runs Live Work Germany, a website aiming to help people relocating to Germany settle in happily. You can follow him on Facebook and Twitter.