Photo by Maggie Hoffman/Flickr CC
Consider the subtitle to this post "Mr. Risen's Presumptuous Task." Germany has thousands of great beers. How is one man--and a relatively young, lightweight man at that--supposed to pick just five? By admitting up front: This list is subjective and woefully incomplete. These are not the five best beers in Germany, just the five that, after spending two months drinking my way around the country, stood out for me--and my taste buds.
1.) Aventinus Weizen-Eisbock Technically a cousin of Bud Ice & Co., in that they all use a freeze distillation process to remove some of the water and thus increase the alcohol content. But really, they're more like third cousins twice removed: Aventinus Eisbock is a malty-sweet bomb of a beer, clocking in at 12 percent ABV--basically a doppelbock, amped up to 11. The color is almost completely black; you have to hold it to a light bulb to notice its rich brown shades. The flavor is full of bananas, caramel, and cloves. It has a strong boozy overtone that will turn off some drinkers, and it's definitely not one for session drinking. But it's a great cooler. I had my first on a hot August day in Berlin, after several hours working and walking; it not only cooled me off, but at 12 percent, it made sure I didn't notice the heat--or much else--for a good hour or so.
2.) Uerige Sticke Alt One of the more bizarre results of German localism is that this beer is one of the hardest to find inside the country, but only relatively hard to find in the States. The Uerige website even brags about how difficult it is to locate--it's only available two days a year, and only at the Uerige brewery in Düsseldorf (ugh, Düsseldorf...). "Sticke" is supposedly a shortened version of "Stickum," which was the password drinkers-in-the-know used to use to get a glass. But enterprising Americans manage to snag a few barrels every year, and unlike Germans, they don't have a problem serving it outside Düsseldorf. I had a glass recently at Churchkey, a new bar in Washington, and they've carried it at Max's, in Baltimore's Fell's Point neighborhood.
Sure, some of the beer's appeal is its rarity. But it's also a fun, easy quaff. It's a well-built, medium-bodied Alt, though with a lot more going on--a robust but balanced mix of hops and malt, with caramel and raisin in both the nose and the taste. It has a thicker-than-expected mouthfeel, but it weighs in at a manageable ABV of 6 percent. Count yourself lucky if you find it on tap somewhere--and wise if you order a glass or two.
3.) Herforder Pils I was tooling around west central Germany on a story assignment, riding shotgun with Reimar Ott, a local freelance photographer. I asked him, "Reimar, it seems you've been doing this photo thing a while. Have you ever worked at anything else?" He said, "Yes--I worked there," and pointed to the Herforder Brewery, whose front driveway we were passing at that very second. That's neither here nor there as far as the beer goes; just a funny story.
As for Herforder itself, I include it not because it's a fantastic beer--though it is--but as a stand-in for all the hyper-local beers across Germany, the kind so fresh and fragile that no one should ever drink outside a 20-mile radius of the brewery, the kind that rarely if ever gets bottled, the kind that people an hour away have never heard of. Like the thousands of anonymous, small- and medium-sized businesses that drive the German economy (the famous Mittelstand), these breweries are what give Germany its reputation as the world's home to great beers.
Most of them, like Herforder, are Pils, or Helles--light, in other words. Herforder pours a very thick head, with a hoppy and floral aroma; it's almost creamy in texture, with a nice hop presence all the way through to the end. Don't worry if you can't find Herforder; it's one of thousands. But if you find yourself near Herford, be sure to try a glass or two.
4.) Andechs Doppelbock Dunkel I've already sung the praises of Andechs, so I won't repeat myself. But for me it's the king of the doppelbocks. There are many great ones, but there is simply nothing like a fresh-pulled stein of Andechs Doppelbock Dunkel on a crisp autumn day (preferably a day where you don't have anything else to do, because a few glasses of this will knock you on the floor).
5.) Schneider Weisse This legendary brewery, among Germany's best, makes several beers (including the Aventinus Weizen-Eisbock), all of them fantastic. But I'm putting the original on this list for a wholly subjective reason. One of the beauties of Germany, and especially Berlin, is that at 3 a.m. on a Tuesday morning you can walk into a corner shop, grab a beer from the fridge and drink it right there--or on the street, or the subway, or almost anywhere you like. When I showed up in Berlin, Schneider Weisse was easily my favorite German beer. When I found out that almost every corner shop in a five-block radius of my apartment carried it--my favorite beer, available any time I wanted, to be drunk anywhere I wanted--I was ready to sell my soul to Angela Merkel, or whatever it took to stay in this particular brand of heaven forever.
Though you don't need to go to Germany to get it--it's readily available in the States, perhaps the best widely distributed Germany beer in this country. It's a straightforward wheat beer, with 5.4 percent ABV and a nose full of cloves and subtle bananas. They're in the taste, too, without too much of the yeastiness that can easily mar a lesser wheat beer.
Like I said, these aren't necessarily the best German beers; just my favorites. Ask ten people, even (or especially) ten Germans, and no one will have the same list. What beers are on yours?