PILSNER/HELLES Walk into the beer section at your local supermarket, spin around a couple times and stick your hand out. You'll probably hit a pilsner or some variation on the ubiquitous style. The Buds, Pabsts and Millers of the world owe their inspiration to this pale lager style that originated at what is now the Czech Republic's Pilsner Urquell brewery. Proper all-malt pilsner comes in two variations: Czech (AKA Bohemian) and German. Both are pale yellow in color and finish with a bitter snap of spicy, floral hops. German-styled takes tend to be lighter in body, drier, and a touch more bitter than their Czech counterparts, but both should be easy to drink and refreshing.
MAIBOCK/TRADITIONAL BOCK Find a beer with a goat on the label and you've probably found yourself a bock. This is a class of beers that range in color from fairly light (maibock) to quite dark (doppelbock and eisbock, more on those later). Plain ol' traditional bock sits right in the middle—amber to brown in color, it's a strong, very malty lager that weighs in around 6 or 7% ABV. Expect a toasty, bready, slightly sweet flavor from the Munich and/or Vienna malt that make up the bulk of the grain in this beer.Maibocks are a springtime seasonal variation (Mai means May in German) that are a lighter in color and a bit hoppier with a floral bitterness on the finish.
DOPPELBOCK AND EISBOCK Stronger, even maltier bock beers are known as doppelbocks (which translates to "double bocks"). Born of a monastic tradition of brewing beers to sustain the monks during Lenten fasting, the style-defining example was first brewed by the monks at Munich's Paulaner brewery. Almost all commercial examples you'll encounter today are very dark in color, but doppelbocks can technically be fairly pale as well. Expect a very rich beer with a lot of caramelized (but not burnt!) sugar flavor. Darker examples can taste chocolatey and dark fruit-like as well. These tend to be rich, decadent sippers that are often named ending in "-ator" as a reference to Salvator, the original doppelbock brewed by Paulaner.
OKTOBERFEST/MÄRZEN/ DUNKEL/VIENNA LAGER
Let's get a few terms clear first: Oktoberfest and Märzen are generally used interchangeably to describe one style. I'll just use Märzen from here on out. Vienna and dunkel lagers are beers that are fairly similar in character, though the history is a little different.
Way back in the 1500s, Bavarian lawmakers forbade the brewing of beer between April and September to ensure quality. In the warmer months, wild yeast and bacteria could thrive, leading to nasty, spoiled beer for the people. Without an understanding of modern fermentation science, the lawmakers were unknowingly establishing a long future for German lager. Fermented and stored in cool caves, the beers produced in the winter and early spring would eventually evolve into the modern dunkel ("dark") lager.
SCHWARZBIER Schwarzbier is a notch darker than dunkel and doppelbock—it's the darkest of all the German lagers. As it should be, too—the name translates to "black beer." Despite its ominous appearance, the schwarzbier is an easy drinker—it's only about 5% ABV and is lighter in body and drier than dunkel lager. Roasty bitterness is fairly restrained—don't expect this to taste like a stout. Instead, look for a lightly bready malt character backed up by a touch of roast and hop bitterness on the finish.
My love for rauchbier is no secret ( especially when these beers are paired with food ), but it's a style that is certainly not for everyone. The defining characteristic is that the beer is made with a large portion of malt that's been smoked over the flames of a beechwood-fueled fire. The result is a powerfully smoky, sometimes meaty-tasting beer that is usually based on a Märzen recipe. A specialty of the Franconian town of Bamberg, Germany, rauchbier is an unusually savory beer that you'll probably either love or hate.
Now, let's move onto the ales, shall we?
WHEAT ALES: HEFEWEIZEN/DUNKELWEIZEN/ WEIZENBOCK When it comes to ales, Germany is most famous for their wheat beers. Hefeweizen is the most common—poured into towering vase-like glasses, this cloudy southern German specialty is all about the yeast. Heck, it's right there in the name—hefeweizen translates to "yeast wheat" in German. The beer's cloudy appearance and powerful banana and clove-like aromatics are the direct result of an unusual yeast strain that is essential to producing this classic style. Darker variations are referred to as dunkelweizen ("dark wheat") and stronger versions are called weizenbock (as in, a wheat beer brewed to bock strength). Dunkelweizens take on a caramelly, dark-fruit like flavor that some liken to liquid banana bread, and weizenbocks are like hefeweizens and dunkelweizens on steroids—stronger and more flavorful in every way. All are delicious!
ALTBIER Altbier is an unusual specialty hailing from Düsseldorf. Its strangeness lies in the fact that it is fermented cooler than most ales with a yeast that operates best just above the temperatures that are usually reserved for lagers. This process allows rich, nutty, bready malt character to shine alongside a firm, spicy, floral hop bitterness. Most are around 5% ABV, but stronger variations exist and may be labeled as "sticke" or "doppelsticke" altbier.
KÖLSCH Kölsch also has a strange fermentation process. Fermented a touch warmer than altbier (but still cooler than most other ales), the yeast produce a delicate, mildly fruity flavor profile. This pairs up with a relatively assertive hop profile from those spicy, herbal German hops and a more mellow pale malt presence. It's a nice, easy drinking beer with about 5% ABV. Kölsch is also unusual for the fact that the name is protected within the European Union so that only breweries within the city of Cologne can give their beer the respected Kölsch name.