The beer most commonly associated with and served at Oktoberfest, this copper-colored lager is medium-bodied and malty tasting, with a surprisingly clean, dry finish. “Never cloying or too sweet,” says Carroll.
Interesting Factoid: Its name means “March,” because before refrigeration, the beer was brewed in the winter up until March (it’s made with lager yeast, which needs cold temperatures to work), cellared or stored in cool caves through the hot months, then drunk in October.
Try: Beers billed as Oktoberfest beers will generally always be Märzens. Try Spaten Oktoberfest Ur-Märzen, Hofbräu Oktoberfest, Paulaner Oktoberfest Bier, Allgäuer Oktoberfest.
The only thing guaranteed with dunkels is that they are darker and have a slightly higher alcohol content than a pils, helles, or märzen. Beyond that, the level of hop bitterness or malt graininess varies wildly. The word just means “dark” in German, and is not so much a specific style as a way of saying that the beer you’re about to order was made with darker-roasted malts.
Interesting Factoid: Although most dunkels are toastier-tasting amber to nut-brown versions of helles and pils, there is also dunkelweizen, or dark wheat beer. This style can be particularly rich-tasting, like a complex brown bread.
Try: Schneider Weisse, Hofbräu Dunkel, Maisel’s Weisse Dunkel, Paulaner Original Münchner Dunkel
You may look at this beer, an ultradark lager whose name literally means “black beer,” and think you’re in for a thick, rich, porter-type experience. On the contrary: Although it does have notes of roasted coffee and chocolate, schwarzbier is dry, light-bodied, and relatively low in alcohol.
Interesting Factoid: Philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe sustained himself on black beer during a period of illness when he wasn’t able to eat anything else, says Tomm Carroll.
Try: Köstritzer Schwarzbier, Einbecker Schwarzbier
Sort of like dunkel, the words bock and doppelbock are less defined styles than descriptors meaning that the beer’s alcohol content is strong or doubly strong, respectively. The name bock, says Carroll, is a derivation of the name of the northern city of Einbeck, where the beer originated. Helles, pils, and hefeweizen beers can all come in bock and doppelbock form, e.g., weizenbock. They’re typically amber-colored or darker, and contain Cognac-y flavors and deliver a big alcohol punch. Think of these as equivalent to the double and triple Belgian Trappist ales.
Interesting Factoid: Rusty Olson, bar manager of San Francisco German restaurant Suppenküche, says doppelbock was originally drunk by monks during the Lenten fast to provide more protein and calories. A fast way to a buzz, more like.
Try: Spaten Optimator (doppelbock), Schneider & Sohn Aventinus (weizenbock)
Versions of all of these types of beers can be found through specialty beer importers like Shelton Brothers, at well-stocked Whole Foods stores, or at specialty beer bars like Spuyten Duyvil in Brooklyn, New York.
With a name literally meaning “old beer,” this ale is from the northeastern region of Westphalia, where it has been brewed for hundreds of years. It tastes much hoppier than most German beers but not as hoppy as an IPA.
Try: Uerige Sticke Altbier
Sometimes referred to as “the champagne of the north,” this Berlin-made wheat beer is golden, effervescent, low in alcohol, and extremely sour, with funky yeasty notes. It’s often served with fruit syrup. U.S. craft brewer Dogfish Head made a great version called Festina Pêche.
Try: Weihenstephaner 1809
Dubbed “bacon in a glass,” this famous smoked style of dark lager beer is the specialty of the beautiful medieval town of Bamberg, in northern Bavaria.
Try: Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier
An ultralight, summery ale-lager hybrid that, by law, can only be made in and around the city of Cologne. This style is becoming more trendy in the States: American breweries like Harpoon, Alaskan, and Goosetown brew it as a seasonal summer release.
Try: Reissdorf Kölsch
A specialty of the town of Leipzig, this is an unusual-for-Germany wheat beer, because it’s brewed with spices, in defiance of the Reinheitsgebot (it was an old style, so it was grandfathered in). It’s got coriander, salt (!), and tart barnyardy notes from Brettanomyces yeast.
Try: Leipziger Gose