Excuse the Bavarians if they scoff a bit at America’s newfound craft-beer obsession. It’s just, they’ve been doing this for a while. They started codifying beer styles and production in 1516, with purity laws that are still in effect. And the state’s capital, Munich, is home to Oktoberfest. Here’s your cheat sheet to getting to know some of the classic German styles, as well as their American craft counterparts.
“Rauch” is German for smoke, and this beer, native to the Bavarian town of Bamberg, has plenty of it. The malt for this beer is dried over wood fire, imbuing it with such a strong smoky flavor that it’s sometimes called “bacon beer.” It’s been around since the 1500s or earlier and was probably one of the original malt beers.
Traditional: Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier Märzen
American Craft: Jack’s Abbey Smoke & Dagger
“Yeast wheat beer” or “wheat beer,” respectively, is not made exclusively in Bavaria, but it is made particularly well and prolifically there. A large proportion of malted wheat, instead of malted barley, makes this cloudy, light-colored beer sweet, creamy and refreshing.
Traditional: Franziskaner Hefe-Weisse
American Craft: New Glarus Dancing Man Wheat
On March 21, 1894, Munich’s Spaten Brewery put its first cask of helles on a boat to Hamburg, and a new style of beer was born. Its name means “light one,” and this beer is a light, clear gold color. It’s crisp and dry, with little aroma or aftertaste, and a mildly malty flavor.
Traditional: Spaten Premium Lager
American Craft: Surly Brewing Co. Hell Lager
Although it’s named after Pilsen, Bohemia (which neighbors Bavaria and is now part of the Czech Republic), Pils or Pilsner was invented by a Bavarian brewer. Effervescent, with a hoppy bite upfront that mellows into a dry finish, it’s one of the most commonly drunk beers in the world. Stick to the Bavarian or American craft bottlings and avoid the mass-market products brewed with adjuncts like corn.
Traditional: Pilsner Urquell
American Craft: Firestone Walker Pivo Hoppy Pils
This dark (“dunk” is German for dark) ale has a malty flavor with little of the bitterness, fruitiness or toastiness traditionally associated with dark beers. It’s made with mostly barley and was the first German beer style to be codified and regulated.
Traditional: Hofbräu Dunkel
American Craft: Von Trapp Dunkel Lager
Of all the Bavarian beer varieties, this one is hardest to find in North America. Its name means “cellar beer,” because it’s cask-conditioned in cool, dark places. Amber in color, with little to no carbonation, they are unfiltered, with rich, aromatic hops and malt and a clean finish.
Traditional: Weihenstephaner 1516 Kellerbier
American Craft: Samuel Adams Alpine Spring
Sweet, malty and high in alcohol, this “double bock” was invented by monks to sustain them through Lenten fasts. Bock was invented in Einbeck, in nearby Saxony. When the Bavarian monks got their hands on it, they pronounced the region “ein bock,” which translates to “a goat,” so you may see goats on the labels. They brewed it in a lager style and made the signature, stronger double.
Traditional: Ayinger Celebrator Doppelbock
American Craft: Tröegs Troegenator Doublebock
Last Updated: May 4, 2023