In the second part of our 'Ode to Bavaria', Claire Bullen, Beer Author and editor of Good Beer Hunting, delves into the rich history of Bavaria's plentiful beer styles and what modern beer culture looks like today.
Bavaria’s Beer Styles and Traditions
“Think of Germany, and it is hard not to think of the beer culture of Bavaria,” notes legendary beer writer Michael Jackson in his Beer guide. That’s because - in addition to its production of the raw materials of brewing - the region is also behind the lion’s share of Germany’s beer traditions.
For one, Bavaria has spawned many of the world’s major beer styles, as The Oxford Companion to Beer notes. “These include helles, dunkel, märzen, Oktoberfest, kellerbier, rauchbier, schwarzbier, and bockbier in all its variations (doppelbock, maibock, weizenbock, and eisbock among them).”
Before helles was the toast of Bavaria’s beer gardens, darker styles like dunkel were what local drinkers enjoyed. In part, that’s because they didn’t have a choice: until the 19th century, rudimentary kilning methods made it impossible to create evenly golden, lightly toasted grains; instead, the malt emerged dark, even scorched, and often noticeably smoky. Styles like schwarzbier (“black beer”) and rauchbier (“smoke beer”) represent the darker side of Bavaria’s brewing history.
Once Bavaria’s lagering traditions were codified, märzen arose: named for the month of March, these beers were traditionally brewed in spring, prior to the summertime brewing ban. Though such brewing traditions date to the 16th century, the first modern märzen, as we would recognise it today, was released by Spaten in 1872, just in time for Oktoberfest. Today, both märzens and Oktoberfest beers are deep amber, malt-forward lagers. (One technicality worth noting: since the 1990s, the beer served at Oktoberfest is actually a lighter-hued beer that can be likened to a stronger and sweeter version of a helles.)
Malt-forward and high-ABV bock styles, meanwhile, began as ales in Einbeck, Germany. The popular beers were copied by Bavarian brewers beginning in the 17th century. Adapted to Bavaria’s lagering traditions, local bocks are still made with bottom-fermenting yeast today.
Though The Oxford Companion to Beer describes Bavaria as “the undisputed cradle of the world’s lager beer culture,” it’s famed for one ale in particular: hefeweizen, also known as weissbier or weizenbier. Purportedly “the world’s most popular wheat beer,” the hazy, sun-yellow style is known for its ample froth and for characteristic notes of banana, clove, and bubblegum, which are imparted by the region’s distinctive yeast. Hefeweizen is also joined by its sibling styles dunkelweizen (which features a darker malt profile) and kristallweizen (which, true to name, is filtered until it is crystal-clear).
As a relatively recent innovation, the helles lager only began catching on with drinkers beginning in the 1890s. But upon its debut, the style experienced almost immediate success, inspired in part by the increased availability of glassware (rather than opaque steins) that allowed its bright, golden appearance to be admired.
Today, the helles lager is a fixture of Bavarian biergartens, where it’s traditionally enjoyed alongside dishes like weisswurst—local white sausages—and pretzels. That said, versatile helles is at home in all kinds of settings.
It isn’t just the style’s refreshing character or brilliant appearance that have won it admirers: in many ways, helles represents the heights of Bavaria’s brewing savvy. It is a finely tuned marvel, with a bready malt character, the subtlest perfume of floral hops, a hint of sweetness and a clean, dry finish, all held in tempered, perfect balance. It is both terrifically complex to produce and remarkably accessible to enjoy. No wonder it is still one of Bavaria’s most-consumed beer styles.
Modern Beer Culture
For beer drinkers all over the world, “Bavaria” conjures images of medieval town squares and verdant biergartens; of frothy maß and Oktoberfest celebrations; of cosy bierkellers and oompah bands. In many ways, Bavaria’s culture and traditions have been built around beer—and that’s still just as true today.
“There are few places in the world where beer is as firmly interwoven with the daily culture of its inhabitants as in Bavaria,” notes The Oxford Companion to Beer. “Bavarians call their way of life Gemütlichkeit—an inimitably Bavarian form of conviviality—and beer is an integral part of that Gemütlichkeit, a basic food, the people’s daily ‘liquid bread.’”
Tradition still guides the region’s breweries and beer lovers today, from the ongoing adherence to the Reinheitsgebot and the dominance of classical beer styles to the annual crowds of dirndl- and lederhosen-clad revellers at events like Oktoberfest (the world’s largest beer festival, which welcomes some six million attendees each year) and Starkbierfest (the “Strong Beer Festival”, which is held in March, and celebrates the advent of stronger, darker, doppelbock-style beers).
Even if you don’t visit during festival time, there are still ample ways to experience Bavaria’s beery customs. Landmarks like the state-owned Hofbräuhaus in Munich—billed as the world’s most famous tavern—offer a taste of the traditional Bavarian experience, including a range of freshly brewed lagers on top, plates of hearty fare like roast chicken and suckling pig, and the chance to step back in time to the 16th century.
Munich is also host to a wealth of bierkellers, or beer cellars, which offer a cosy, pub-like experience. And it has dozens of biergartens, where drinkers can sip in the shade of chestnut and linden trees, and even bring their own picnic fare.
But for all that heritage-focused Bavaria celebrates its brewing traditions, it isn’t mired in the past. Instead, the region has invested in new technology, new flavours, and new breweries that will ensure it keeps pace with 21st-century innovations.
The Hop Research Center in Hüll, for instance, may be in the heart of the traditional Hallertau growing region, but it has made the breeding of new hop strains—including varieties that taste more like tropical or stone fruits than the austere herbaceousness of its noble hops—one of its core missions. As changing climate patterns mean Bavaria is facing increasingly dry and hot summers, breeders have also worked to create new varieties that are more resistant to harsh conditions.
Breweries, meanwhile, are pursuing new techniques that still abide by the Reinheitsgebot—including the increased use of dry-hopping, as well as experimental barrel-ageing. And Bavaria has recently seen a generation of new, boundary-pushing craft breweries arrive on the scene.
Innovations are changing Bavaria, even while its traditions remain strong. As the craft brewing world turns ever more fondly towards lager styles, all eyes are once again on Bavaria as the progenitor of the world’s great lager legacy.
“Lager can be a canvas for creativity, whether that’s a progression on the old classics or something completely new,” writes Mark Dredge. “The complementation between old and new means that lager can now be the most varied and exciting type of beer as well as the most prevalent.”