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An Obsession Explained: Beer, Brewskies and Liquid Bread

Germany is famous for its beer. But with 1,274 breweries in the country, enjoying a cold one in the country isn't quite as straightforward as you might think. SPIEGEL ONLINE helps you get your buzz on.

One of many ways to enjoy a cold one in Germany.
DDP

One of many ways to enjoy a cold one in Germany.

If one believes in stereotypes, then all Germans waddle around with their lederhosen stretched across prodigious beer bellies, ridiculous hats perched on their heads, oversized mugs of beer clutched firmly in fat-fingered fists with oompah music playing in the background. Most Germans, of course, would find such a caricature deeply insulting. After all, they take their beer drinking much more seriously than that.

Sure, if you happen to visit Munich, you may stumble across a sprawling Biergarten or into a cavernous beer hall. But look closely. Most of the dirndl-clad waitresses, looking to all the world like an aged Heidi with breast implants, are probably from Poland or Hungary. And the customers? Aside from a couple of seasoned alcoholics, most are likely to be dropping off at the pub for a cold one on their way home from the office.

The point is, beer remains Germany's national drink, but for Germans themselves, it's largely just a pleasant way to slake their thirst. You'll see construction workers downing a bottle or two on their lunch breaks. You'll find offices kitchens well stocked. You can get one at movie theaters and in McDonald's. And in the vast majority of cities and towns in Germany, you're never more than a few meters from a bottle, can or keg of beer.

The country is home to fully 1,274 breweries -- about three quarters of all the breweries in the European Union -- and they churn out 5,000 different beers. Although beer swilling has been declining due to greater health awareness -- and you will run into Germans who never touch the stuff -- Germans remain among the world's biggest beer drinkers with consumption of 115 liters per head in 2004.

Faced with such massive quantities of beer, Germans don't shy away from blatantly lying to get you to consume your fair share. For example: "German beer contains no chemicals or preservatives so you won't get a hangover." The editors here at SPIEGEL ONLINE have hundreds of euros worth of aspirin receipts that prove otherwise. But the quality is indeed excellent and dates back to the first food quality law ever passed, the 1516 Purity Law which limits beer ingredients to water, hops, malt and yeast. Put all that together, though, and you end up with varying quantities of alcohol -- which, we can assure you, is the decisive factor in whether you'll end up with your head in a trashcan the next morning.

Before you get that far, though, there are a number of methodological hoops you'll need to jump through before you can even take your first sip. Patience is the first. Leaving aside the genetic allergy to speedy service that afflicts most Germans, pouring a good pils takes time. Three minutes is the standard, though in some bars you'll note the German relationship to time is rather more flexible than you might have been led to believe. If you're thirsty, order a fresh one as soon as you've been served.

Once you've got your beer safely set in front of you, umgotteswillen don't take a sip before toasting with your table mates. Raise your glass, look your fellow drinker in the eye, clink glasses and say "Prost!" The eye contact thing is vitally important; it is said that, should you forego this social nicety, you will be punished with seven years of bad sex. A quick glance at the low German birth rate confirms that the Teutonic gods are indeed watching.

FIFA, soccer's world governing body organizing the World Cup, would like you to believe there are just a couple of different types of beers in the world. Exclusive sponsoring deals mean that the 12 host stadiums and the official big-screen broadcasts may only sell officially allowed beverages such as that Yankee swill Budweiser tries to pass off as beer. But visitors would be foolish not to imbibe the local brew no matter where you are. Especially, it must be said, in the southern state of Bavaria. Munich doesn't host Oktoberfest -- the world's biggest beer bash -- for nothing. The state has over 500 breweries.

So get out there and drink! SPIEGEL ONLINE, committed to maximising its readers' beer enjoyment, has compiled the following beer guide:

TYPES OF GERMAN BEER, WHERE TO FIND THEM, AND HOW YOU'LL FEEL THE NEXT MORNING

Pils, often lumped in with lager in Britain, is the most common German beer and accounts for 65 percent of output. It is served everywhere in Germany and takes its name from the city of Pilsen, in what is now the Czech Republic, where it was first served by a Bavarian brewer in 1842, when the city was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Pils is a light golden color and has an average alcohol content of 4.8 percent. It is a bottom-fermented beer (the yeast settles to the base of the fermentation vessel and fermentation takes place at a cool temperature which limits the production of byproducts and results in a cleaner tasting beer). Ask for "ein Pils bitte" and you're likely to get the local brand of Pils.

Hangover risk: Varies from Pils to Pils, but acceptable

Alt, Altbier (ale), is a dark top-fermented beer, brewed using the original, centuries-old process that uses yeasts which rise to the top of the fermentation tank, to be skimmed off when fermentation is complete. Fermentation temperatures are higher than for bottom fermented beers, and the beer contains more byproducts as a result -- hence its darker color. It is available nationwide but is most prevalent in Düsseldorf and the cities of North Rhine-Westphalia.

Hangover risk: Ugh

Kölsch, confined to Cologne and the surrounding area. Only 24 breweries have permission to make it. It is a top-fermented yet light-colored beer and has a distinct "hoppy" taste. It will seem unusual at first but stick with it; you'll develop a taste for it after about five. It is usually served in small -- Bavarians would say girlie -- 0.2 liter glasses. Waiters in the pubs and breweries of Cologne walk around with big round trays of Kölsch glasses and quickly substitute empty glasses for full ones, to ensure a steady supply of the brew.

Hangover risk: Surprisingly low though, ironically, the small size almost guarantees you'll get rather tipsy. After all, ordering one last beer isn't much of a commitment.

Helles, Lager Hell, Export Hell is served predominantly in the southern states of Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg, so it will be encountered by fans watching matches in Munich, Nuremberg, Stuttgart and Kaiserslautern. It is light-colored and can be strong, with an alcohol content of between 4.6 and 5.6 percent. It has a strong, sometimes slightly sweet taste. It can be utterly, dangerously, delicious.

Risk of waking up in a ditch with a massive headache: High

Lager Dunkel, Dunkles, Export dunkel are dark, malty brews, with an alcohol content of between 4.6 and 5.6 percent, served predominantly in Bavaria (World Cup host cities Munich and Nuremberg). It is bottom-fermented and brewed with dark malt.

Hangover risk: High

Bockbier, Starkbier are generally dark golden or brown, bottom-fermented beers with a high malt content. Served mainly in the south (World Cup cities Munich, Nuremberg, Stuttgart and Kaiserslautern). Watch out for these: they have a high alcohol content of around 7 percent.

Hangover risk: Make sure you don't have to check out of your hotel before 3:00 p.m. the next day.

Berliner Weisse is served mainly in an around Berlin and you really shouldn't allow yourself to be seen drinking the stuff. It's an embarrassment. At just 2.8 percent, the alcohol content is low and it is often served with a straw. Popular in the summer, it is served with a disgustingly sweet syrup that makes it green or red.

Hangover risk: Inapplicable. If you drink enough of this stuff to get a hangover, it's your own damn fault.

Weizenbier/Weissbier is the most Bavarian of all beers, but spreading northwards. It is quite strong, with an alcohol content of 5.4 percent, but nevertheless is part of a traditional Bavarian breakfast completed with white sausage and a pretzel. Made largely from wheat malt, it has a fruity flavor and a frothy head -- many drinkers will even send their beer back for a re-pour should the head have collapsed before serving. Served in distinctive long glasses with a wide, mouth, Kristallweizen is a clear, golden beer, while Hefeweizen is slightly cloudy. Kristallweizen is often served with a slice of lemon, which should be removed, according to the purists at the German Federation of Brewers.

Hangover risk: Medium. Drink it slowly.

In addition to straight beer, Germans are also known to imbibe a dizzying array of beer-soft drink concoctions. A few of them are listed below:

A mixture of beer and lemonade is known as Radler in the south and Alsterwasser in the north is a perfect way to cool off in the middle of the day while avoiding that often-annoying early afternoon buzz. There are a number of other terms for it, including Panache or Wurstwasser ("Sausage Water"). Its low alcohol content of some 2.5 percent makes it a popular drink in the summer for people who don't mind desecrating the amber nectar with sugary fizz.

A close relative of the Radler, the Russn is made in equal parts lemonade and Weizenbier. Legend has it that communists meeting in Munich's Matthäser Keller restaurant in 1918 either wanted to keep a clear head or were drinking too much beer -- hence it was diluted to form the Russn.

Another bastardization of beer sees cola being mixed in, a concoction with a plethora of names including Colabier, Diesel, Dreckiges, Schmutz, Drecksack, Schweinebier and, believe it or not, Neger ("Negro"), a name which is confined to Bavaria.

If you have no taste at all and are in Bavaria trying to get hammered quickly, try Goassnmass. It is a mixture of beer, cola and cherry liquor or Asbach Uralt, a sweet brandy. (Don't blame us if you can't get out of bed the next day.)

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© SPIEGEL ONLINE 2006
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