Believe it or not, the history of German beer begins with the ale. Actually, the history of all beer begins with the ale. Ales have been around for more than 3,000 years! Brewers have only been producing lagers for the last five hundred years. It wasn’t until the 16th century, about the same time Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue, that Germans began brewing the lagers we know and love today.
Law, Climate and Technology
So, what changed? First, Germany banned brewing in the summertime because they wanted their citizens to focus on harvesting crops. Second, the summer climate was too risky for fermentation. As a result, Germans began brewing in the early spring. They would store the beer in cold caves or cellars during the summer months and release it in the fall. (Fun fact #1: the word lager comes from the German word lagern
, which means “to store”).
Fast forward to the 19th century, German brewers began experimenting with lager yeast (a bottom fermenting yeast called saccharomyces pastorianus
). Simultaneously, there was a boom in malting technology. German brewers began to make better Munich malt, which is good for brewing amber or darker lagers. This, combined with the springtime brewing, led to the creation of the Oktoberfest or Märzen style beer. (Fun fact #2: the word März means “March” in German).
The Adaptation of the German Pilsner
There were light lagers too. The first blonde lager was created in 1842 in the city of Pilsen (now the Czech Republic) when it was part of the German-speaking Austrian Empire. It was called Pilsner Urquell
, and it’s still available today. This lager was a huge success and imitated by every major brewery in Europe.
The first Pilsner-style brewed in Germany was in the early 1870s. However, the style became more prevalent after WWII as German brewers began to focus on more modern techniques. The German Pils tends to be light in color, ranging from straw to light gold, with a strong hop flavor and aroma.
Between Lagers and Ales
While the rest of Germany was perfecting lagers, two small cities segregated by the Rhine River invented a couple hybrid beers. I say hybrid because they’re brewed with ale yeast (a top fermenting yeast called saccharomyces cerevisiae
), but conditioned at cold temperatures. These styles are called Kolsch and Altbier.
The Kolsch originated in the city of Cologne. It’s Germany’s only true, all-barley pale ale. The Altbier was created in a city called Dusseldorf. Altbier is a well-balanced, sometimes fruity, dark ale. (Fun fact #3: the word “alt” means old in German, which alludes to the old style of brewing). Cologne and Dusseldorf are the only major German cities still producing ales.
Lagers of Today
Lagers are often characterized by their clean taste and high levels of carbonation. However, what truly makes a beer a lager is the fact that it uses a specific yeast and is conditioned at low temperatures.
Until the 19th century, German brewers referred to all types of cold conditioned beers as lagers. Today, the term is primarily reserved for the prevalent lager styles of Southern Germany, like Helles, Dunkel, Bock, and Märzen. The most popular lager of all time is the Pilsner.
Today, Pilsners are one of the most popular beer styles in Germany – and arguably the world. Some of the most iconic beers to derive from this style include Pabst Blue Ribbon, Coors Light and Budweiser.