Ein Bier Bitte! This time of year, these three simple German words are, perhaps, the most spoken in the world. They are, after all, the linguistic key to survival for millions of beer lovers who’ve made a pilgrimage to Bavaria for Munich’s famed Oktoberfest.
Having lived 10 years in Munich myself, I’ve lost count of how many German Biers I’ve ordered. But in sampling many of the best brews Bavaria has to offer, I learned something that’s often lost on the casual Oktoberfest visitor: German Bier is more than just a thirst-quenching elixir brewed with a distinct balance of malt and hops. It’s also about the glass or mug that holds it – so, that giant, one-liter Oktoberfest Maßkrug? It was designed that way for a reason - not just to become an over-sized souvenir.
The spread of the bubonic plague in the 14th century is often cited as the reason Germany added hinged lids to mugs, creating the well-known beer stein. Porcelain, silver, pewter, stoneware - all these materials have been used in the production of traditional beer mugs and still can be found today. But centuries of brewing resulted in an ever-wider variety of German beers, and with that came the creation of distinct glasses that were designed to enhance the specific qualities of each beer type.
German beer mugs, like the ones used in Munich today, have been made out of glass since the Oktoberfest in 1892. The thick faceted sides of the mug are there to keep the beer cold. And the handle? Its job is to keep your hands off the mug, so your body temperature doesn’t warm the beer before you finish drinking it. Full-bodied beers such as lager and export taste best in this type of glass.
The Pils, on the other hand, is something altogether different. A tapered, cone-shaped glass or a stemmed, tulip-shaped glass is the best way to enjoy the energetic carbonation of a Pilsner. The V-shape of the glass actually forces the brew’s tiny bubbles upwards. It is this constant stream of carbonation that characterizes a Pils with its profuse foam and distinctive, if slightly bitter, taste.
If you’re the type that prefers darker, heavier and maltier beers – these are best served in a rounded, goblet-shaped glass, which is designed to keep the brew’s froth in check - no thicker than about two centimeters, or roughly an inch. Too thick and you’ll lose the full aroma and flavor of these beers. Too thin and the beer will seem flat and stale.
Now to one of my favorites, the yeasty, golden goodness of a German wheat beer, called Weißbier or Weizen. This one brew is so popular in Bavaria, it might as well be the national drink of the southern German state. Weißbier is the refreshing beverage of choice for many, and it’s the traditional accompaniment to the Bavarian breakfast of Weißwurst and Brez’n.
To really enjoy a Weißbier, it needs to be carefully poured into a special glass that is somewhat taller than the others and almost hourglass-shaped. A proper Weißbier glass is heavier and narrower at the bottom – this forces the bubbles to the surface. The top part of the glass is wider, which helps tame the foam and keep the aroma of this delightful brew in the glass.
I can find Paulaner Weißbier – vom Faß (from tap) – here in the United States. But I’ll freely admit that I prefer it freshly poured from a bottle. The not-so-secret feature of a Weißbier is the unfiltered yeast used in the brew. And when poured from a bottle, it’s a time-tested ritual to swish around some of that beer to make sure you don’t leave the best part – the yeast – sitting at the bottom of the bottle. Some German breweries also make a filtered version, called Kristall Weizen.
There is a saying that “Beauty lies in the hands of the beerholder” – that’s especially true, if you have the beer in the right glass. Prost!
For further enjoyment of your German Bier:
- Be like the Bavarians, float a lemon slice on the top of your Weißbier; and, if the steady stream of bubbles fizzles out, dropping a kernel of rice into your beer will get it going again.
- If you have a mug with a lid, leaving the lid open is a signal to your German server that you’d like another.
- To pour a beer, hold the glass at an angle and let the beer slowly run down the inside to produce little or no foam – then hold the glass vertically and pour in the rest to create a foamy head.
- Don’t use your beer glasses for anything other than beer - no juice, and certainly no milk.
- Make sure beer glasses are absolutely clean and fat free; fats or impurities – like dishwashing liquid – can cause a "head crash."
- In Germany, seven to nine degrees C (45-48 F) is considered the ideal serving temperature.
- If beer is too warm, it will foam too much at first and become stale and lifeless later.
- If beer is too cold, it won’t form a proper head.
- Never put a beer in the freezer!
CNN's Destination Adventure series takes a look at great places for eager explorers. Each week, we'll feature favorite regional foods, secrets from the locals and the best photos and stories from readers. Have you been to Munich, Germany? Share your story with CNN iReport. And next week, we'll journey to Argentina.
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