The Babylonians around 6000 B.C. may have been the first to brew it, but Austrians and Germans have long been ranked among the top beer drinkers. They down enough foamy brew to consistently place in the top five of the annual liters-per-person ranking, but Germany recently lost its number one ranking to the Czech Republic, home to the original Pilsner and Budweiser beers. In Germany, Bavarians and Saarlanders are the thirstiest beer drinkers. The Swiss aren’t even in the top ten.
The range of beer varieties is enough to make your head spin without drinking a drop: Alt, Bock, Dunkel, Export, Hell, Kölsch, Lager, Malzbier, Märzen, Pils, and Weizenbier, to name just a few. These brews differ in the ratio of ingredients, brewing temperature and technique, alcoholic content, aging time, color, and, of course, taste. While many beer drinkers are content merely to distinguish between Dunkles (dark) and Helles (light), a true beer connoisseur would never just ask for a Bier. At the very least you should know if you want Pils or Export, ein Grosses or ein Kleines (large or small), or whether you want draft beer vom Faß or beer in a bottle (Flasche).
Even alkoholfreies Bier (non-alcoholic beer) has grown in popularity in Germany; but light beers have been slow to find a market. In Germany, Pils (Pilsner) is the most popular beer variety, with Export taking a distant second. Austrians, on the other hand, prefer Lager, an Austrian invention, with Pils making up only about six percent of the brews preferred in that country. No matter which variety, Germany’s strict purity law, the Reinheitsgebot, dating back to 1516, dictates that German beer may contain no ingredients other than hops, malt (barley), yeast, and water.
The brand of beer offered will generally depend on where you are. Germany has few national beer brands.
You can’t go wrong by ordering the local brew. It will be served cold, but not too cold, in an appropriate beer glass or mug. It will display a white foam head that won’t disappear in thirty seconds like that of most American beers. Austrians and Germans like to say a proper draft beer can’t be poured in less than seven minutes to achieve the proper head.
Beer is such a vital part of the culture that the right to drink beer is even written into some labor contracts, and a beer with lunch in the factory cafeteria is taken for granted. The traditional beer garden is still very popular, especially in southern Germany and Austria…
The German community of Aufseß (pop. 1500) claims the world record for beer brewery density: one brewery for every 375 persons. A 15 km Brauereiweg (brewery trail) offers hikers a way to burn off calories as they hike between the area’s four breweries in scenic Franconia, with no more than 5 km (3 mi.) between any two. (See link below.) Source: www.brauereiweg.de
Germany, Austria, and Switzerland also produce some very respectable wines, particularly white wines… For domestic consumption Germans prefer “dry” wines (trocken). These wines are less sweet than many of the exported wines.
Germany has several major wine regions, including Franconia, the Rhine, the Moselle, and the southwestern “Badische” wine region. Austria produces some excellent wines from grapes grown in wine regions like the Wachau and those around the Neusiedler See (Lake Neusiedl). While Switzerland has some vineyards, its wine production is small and limited mainly to domestic consumption. Although many Austrians, Germans, and German-speaking Swiss enjoy a good glass of wine or a lighter wine cooler (Schorle or Gespritzten, a mixture of sparkling water and wine), they consume far less wine than beer or even mineral water.
Besides enjoying a fine wine with a meal in restaurants, you can also visit a Weinstube, a wine room, to drink wine and perhaps enjoy cheese (Käse) and other hors d’oeuvres to go with the wine. Before becoming full dining establishments, many restaurants were Weinstuben. You can recognize this origin in restaurants with names such as “Weinstube zur Traube.”
Note: This article is based on a chapter in the book The German Way by Hyde Flippo.