A trip to an atmospheric Bavarian beer garden or a Cologne beer hall is a Germany must but with well over 1200 breweries in the country, it's hard to know where to start. Famed for location, age, popularity, atmosphere or sheer number of beer-related sights, here are our top six beer destinations in Germany (with bonus beer glossary!):
Of course, Munich. No visit to Munich would be complete without a visit to a raucous beer hall or family beer garden and there are plenty of places to choose from. The Hofbräuhaus is Bavaria’s (and possibly the world’s) most celebrated beer hall. Bury your head in an enormous stein before checking out the medieval vaults and pretzel-shaped postcards.
Pour over old brewing vats, historic photos and some of the earliest Oktoberfest regalia at the Bier & Oktoberfestmuseum, Housed in a 14th-century timber-framed house this museum provides a potted history of Germany’s national tipple.
Talking of Oktoberfest, this 16-day extravaganza is held from mid-September to the first Sunday in October and draws over six million visitors. A special dark, strong beer (Wies’nbier) is brewed for the occasion and Müncheners spend the day at the office in lederhosen and dirndl in order to hit the festival right after work.
Munich was also winner of Lonely Planet's best beer cities in the world poll.
The most tempting tour offered by the Bamberg tourist office is the self-guided Brewery Trail that showcases the Franconian Brewery Museum and includes beer vouchers and a souvenir stein in the price. While in Bamberg, also check out Klosterbräu, a beautiful half-timbered brewery – the oldest in town.
For a fascinating look at the brewing process, head to the enormous Maisel’s Brauerei-und-Büttnerei-Museum, just outside Bayreuth. A tour takes you into the bowels of the 19th-century plant, with atmospheric rooms filled with 4500 beer mugs and amusing artefacts.
Klosterschenke Weltenburg has been brewing its delicious dark beer since 1050 and is the oldest monastic (now state-of-the-art) brewery.
Lore has it that Alpirsbach is named after a quaffing cleric who, when a glass of beer slipped clumsily from his hand and rolled into the river, exclaimed: All Bier ist in den Bach! (All the beer is in the stream!). A prophecy, it seems, as today Alpirsbacher Klosterbräu is brewed from pure spring water. Two beers are thrown in for the price of a brewery tour ticket.
Beer reigns supreme in Cologne where over 20 breweries produce the local variety called Kölsch, which is served in skinny glasses called Stangen. At Brauhaus Peters drinkers knock back their Kölsch in a web of highly individualistic nooks; Früh am Dom is a warren of a beer hall; and Päffgen has been pouring Kölsch since 1883.
Jever, the capital of the Friesland region, is famous for its pilsner beer and Friesisches Brauhaus has been producing dry pilsner since 1848. Brewery tours allows visitors a peek behind the scenes and travel through the production and bottling facilities, as well as a small museum. Reservations are essential.
Half of Germany's breweries are found in Bavaria and not the north but one brewery in particular has long washed beyond the shores of Germany to establish itself as an international brand. You can see where the wares come from during a two-hour tour of the Beck’s brewery. Prost!
Thanks to the tradition of the Reinheitsgebot, German beer is supposed to be unique in not giving you a Katzenjammer or Kater (hangover). However, party-goers downing 5 million litres of the stuff at Munich’s Oktoberfest must surely disagree!
German Beer Glossary
Alkoholfreies Bier Nonalcoholic beer.
Altbier A dark, full beer with malted barley from the Düsseldorf area.
Berliner Weisse With around 2.8% alcohol content, draught (Schankbier) is mostly brewed in and around Berlin. It contains lactic acid, giving it a slightly sour taste, and a blend of malted wheat and barley. Top fermented, it’s often drunk mit Grün (with green or woodruff syrup), or with a dash (mit Schuss) of raspberry (Himbeeren) syrup.
Bockbier, Doppelbock These two strong beers are around 7% alcohol, but Doppelbock is slightly stronger. There’s a ‘Bock’ for almost every occasion, such as Maibock (usually drunk in May/spring) and Weihnachtsbock (brewed for Christmas). Eisbock is dark and more aromatic. Bock beers originate from Einbeck, near Hanover.
Dampfbier (steam beer) Originating from Bayreuth in Bavaria, this is top fermented and has a fruity flavour.
Dunkles Lagerbier (dark lager) Dunkel (dark) is brewed throughout Germany, but especially in Bavaria. With a light use of hops, it’s full-bodied with a strong malt aroma. Malt is dried at a high temperature, lending it a dark colour.
Export Traditionally with a higher alcohol content to help it survive a long journey, this beer is closely associated today with Dortmund, and is often dry to slightly sweet.
Helles Lagerbier (pale lager) Helles (pale or light) refers to the colour, not the alcohol content, which is still around 4.6% to 5%. Brewing strongholds are Bavaria, Baden-Württemberg and the Ruhr region. It has strong malt aromas and is slightly sweet.
Hofbräu This is a brewery belonging to a royal court (Hof) – for some time in Bavaria only a few nobles enjoyed the right to brew wheat beer.
Klosterbräu This type of brewery belongs to a monastery.
Kölsch By law, this top fermented beer can only be brewed in or around Cologne. It is about 4.8% alcohol, has a solid hop flavour and pale colour, and is served in small glasses (0.2L) called Stangen (literally ‘sticks’).
Leichtbier (light beer) These low-alcohol beers are about 2% to 3.2% alcohol.
Leipziger Gose An unusual beer, flavoured with salt and coriander, this contrives to have a stingingly refreshing taste, with some plummy overtones. Tart like Berliner Weisse, it’s also often served with sweeteners, such as cherry (Kirsch) liqueur or the almond-flavoured Allasch.
Malzbier (malt beer) A sweet, aromatic, full-bodied beer, this is brewed mainly in Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg.
Märzen (March) Full-bodied with strong malt aromas, this is traditionally brewed in March. Today, it’s associated with the Oktoberfest.
Obergäriges Bier Top fermented beer.
Pils (pilsener) This bottom-fermented full beer, with a pronounced hop flavour and a creamy head, has an alcohol content of around 4.8% and is served throughout Germany.
Rauchbier (smoke beer) This dark beer has a fresh, spicy or ‘smoky’ flavour.
Schwarzbier (black beer) Slightly stronger, this dark, full beer has an alcohol content of about 4.8% to 5%. Full-bodied, it’s fermented using roasted malt.
Untergäriges Bier Bottom-fermented beer.
Weizenbier, Weissbier (wheat beer) Predominating in the south, especially in Bavaria, this is around 5.4% alcohol. A Hefeweizen has a stronger shot of yeast, whereas Kristallweizen is clearer with more fizz. These wheat beers are fruity and spicy, often recalling bananas and cloves. Decline offers of a slice of lemon as it ruins the head and – beer purists say – the flavour.
This article was updated in Jan 2012.
Want to explore Germany beyond the beer hall? Our Germany guide has it all.