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Tapping American beer’s German roots

David Flaherty has more than 20 years experience in the hospitality industry. He is a certified cicerone and a former operations manager and beer and spirits director for Hearth restaurant and the Terroir wine bars in New York City. He is currently marketing director for the Washington State Wine Commission and writes about wine, beer and spirits in his blog, Grapes and Grains.

We hopped the train in Munich and headed north, soon leaving the borders of Bavaria and entering the famed region of Franconia.

We were brave beer tourists on a well-worn path laid out centuries before. Our train let us off on the outskirts of town and we began the walk to the city center, our thirst and curiosity increasing with each step. For beer geeks, the tiny town of Bamberg, Germany, offers the chance to step centuries back in time — literally, as its city center is a protected UNESCO World Heritage Site. One can skip, or stumble, between the nine breweries that dot the cobble-lined streets, and with less than 75,000 inhabitants, one doesn’t need to go far.

We made our way to the Aecht Schlenkerla brewery and were swept to another era, our glasses filled with their renowned Rauchbier — a smoked beer style made from malted barley dried over an open flame, as opposed to in a kiln — whose production has remained unchanged since the brewery began operating in 1405. It was a rare opportunity to play time traveler and drink the same type of beer that countless others have done in this same spot for more than 600 years. As I sat back and took my first sip of this strange beer that elicited aromas of campfire and roasting bacon, with the joyous sounds of laughter and conversation reverberating from the wooden rafters above, I felt I had truly left the modern world, with this unique beer as my transporter.

But you don’t need to make an expedition to Germany to experience this. These historical recipes can be found on the shelves of local beer shops and at intrepid bars and restaurants everywhere. Germany’s impact on the greater beer world has been profound, particularly in the United States. If you created a family tree for today’s beer styles, many branches would lead back to Germany. That was where the foundations for beer quality were meticulously laid, and its offerings are a cornucopia of styles and historical connections just waiting to be discovered. For any serious beverage professional, having at least a cursory understanding of the beers of Germany will unlock not only a world of unique flavors in the glass, but also offer food pairing potential that will delight your guests and rival any category of beverages.

Due to its climate, Germany has primarily been a beer-centric country, the glorious wine regions in the southwest and the beloved Rieslings from there not withstanding. Taking a magnifying lens and moving it slowly over a map will showcase a dizzying range of historical beer styles.

A stop over the northern regions reveals the original home of the Berliner Weiss, a low-alcohol, sour, wheat beer made with the addition of lactobacillus culture, which gives it a citrusy zip. Move southwest from Berlin to Leipzig and you’re in the home of Gose, a mouthwatering, snappy and crisp beer made with the addition of coriander and salt.

Both styles had their heyday hundreds of years ago and nearly slipped into the annals of the history books, but they have of late been gloriously resurrected and are seeing unprecedented popularity in the American craft beer scene for their “sessionable” drinkability — meaning customers can drink a lot of them over a long period of time — as well as their unique flavors.

Serving a Berliner Weiss with buttery cheeses like Camembert, Cheddar or Gouda will provide a delicious contrast that slices through the fatty richness like a katana blade, refreshing the palate for another bite. And a goat cheese salad served with a refreshing Gose will spin your customers’ heads in delightful circles.

Moving south into Bavaria, you’re met with a completely different toolbox of liquid delights. A considerable number of styles hail from this rich region. Many know this area as the home to the world’s largest beer festival, Oktoberfest, which is an annual 16-day extravaganza that, according to The Guardian, draws more than 6 million visitors who spend more than €320 million ($340 million) on the Oktoberfest grounds, alone — and let’s not even begin to fathom the number of sausages consumed.

Six breweries, all within the city limits of Munich, provide the beer, with the vast majority falling under the style guidelines of a Märzen, which is a richer, toastier lager that’s usually dark copper in color, with medium to high alcohol content. With its malt-forward flavor profile, it’s a shoo-in for a great pairing with grilled and roasted meats, especially pork and, yes, sausages of all shapes and sizes.

Munich was also the epicenter for ensuring that its brewers were making the highest quality products possible. Often referred to as the “German Beer Purity Law,” the Reinheitsgebot was adopted across all of Bavaria in 1516. In addition to setting beer prices depending on type and time of year (a reaction to greedy innkeepers who were heavily profiting from inflated pricing), it also deemed that beer could only be made from the following ingredients: water, barley and hops. Yeast was later added to the list after its discovery as part of the fermentation process by Louis Pasteur in 1857. The Reinheitsgebot essentially put an end to “gruit” beers, which were often seasoned with things like bog myrtle, yarrow and wild rosemary, and pushed brewers to perfect their craft using only basic ingredients.

German beers on the world stage

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Pulling back to the full map of Germany, the country has brought a plethora of unique beer styles to the world stage. Its Weissbiers, brewed with a large proportion of wheat, are second to none, and can range from the golden-colored, creamy-textured, yeast-centric Hefeweizens that showcase aromas of clove and bananas, to their higher-alcohol, richer cousins, the Weizenbocks, which can range from 7 percent to 10 percent alcohol by volume and offer more malt character and complex fruit flavors. Hefeweizen served with a vinegary salad? Oh yes, sure fire. And with a Weizenbock, try spicy Asian or Mexican food and watch harmony unfold.

Dark beers? Yep, Germany’s got ’em. From Schwarzbier (“black beer”) to Doppelbock, if you’re looking for a dynamite pairing with braised meats and chocolate, you found them.

On the other side of the spectrum, Germany is often tops in the pale beer category, as well, which includes such popular styles as Kölsch, Helles and, of course, German Pilsner. Pilsner in particular is a beer so beautifully hoppy and crisp that it was seemingly born to be poured alongside shellfish and sushi. It also was a game-changer for the beer industry and fueled the great German-American brewing dynasties that still dominate much of the market today.

Without the influence of German immigrants, America’s brewing history would look quite different. In the decades before the Civil War, Americans predominantly drank spirits. Some beer was brewed in states like New York, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, but it was mostly consumed locally, as barley proved difficult to grow in many areas and spirits were cheaper to produce. With the influx of Germans, this started to shift radically, and they brought with them a taste for lager beer — a style produced by yeast strains that thrive in cold temperatures, eliciting a cleaner, crisper character with less fruity aromas than ale. This coincided with the invention of refrigeration and freed brewers to brew year-round. Previously, brewing was only done in the cooler months when batches weren’t subjected to off flavors and spoilage from warm temperatures.

Which German beers are popular at your restaurant or bar? Join the conversation in the comments below.

Further technological advancements in the 1870s such as pasteurization, steam power and the expanding railroads enabled audacious German brewers such as Pabst, Busch and Schlitz to build vast distribution networks. They were able to bring beer to places like the South, where little had been before, and in the process became national brands in the U.S.

Digging through the history of familiar and unfamiliar beer styles can lead operators down many paths and shed a light on the roots that formed today’s thriving and diverse beer scene. Many of these routes will lead back to Germany, a country with a rich brewing history and a large set of classic beer styles that continues to drive trends and inspire countless brewers the world over. Any beverage director can benefit by keeping a few of these front and center to surprise even the savviest of diners with their food-friendly characteristics and their wholly unique flavors.

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