On a recent trip to Germany I was confronted in my hotel lobby not by a pot of coffee, but a vat of complimentary hot dogs. They sat vertically and splayed when the top was lifted, like straws in those old-timey straw holders. To a jet-lagged American, the sight of so many oddly arranged wieners in an unexpected location, late at night, was unsettling; too much too early in my visit, Germany. But it confirmed that German enthusiasm for sausage runs deep, and I respect their position that no location is the wrong location for enjoying sausage. I asked for mustard and ate two.
It’s that time of year again, when many of us join the Germans in their zeal for intestinal casings stuffed with ground meat. Oktoberfest runs for 16 days from late September through early October and celebrates Bavarian culture, but it’s also the perfect excuse to eat copious bratwursts chased by preposterously large beers, which happen to be some of the world’s best. In step with craft brewing and increasingly meaty culinary trends, German food and drink seems to be having a moment, particularly in cities rampant with new beer halls and gardens like NYC, Philly and Chicago. To help navigate the links and lagers this Octoberfest season, I’ve put together a crash course in German sausage and beer. Let’s start with terminology:
German for sausage.
Any grain that has partially sprouted, and therefore contains sugars which yeast can ferment into alcohol and carbon dioxide. Craft brewers typically brew with barley, wheat, rye and/or oats, but mass-market breweries often toss in corn and rice to reduce costs and produce a lighter beverage. In beer speak, “malty” generally refers to beer’s sweet, bready and grainy qualities.
Lager vs Ale
Lagers are brewed and stored – or “lagered” – at cold temperatures using so-called “bottom-fermenting yeast.” Ales are brewed with “top-fermenting” yeast that prefer it warm. Both styles can vary considerably, but ales tend to be sweeter and fruitier, and lagers clean with noticeable grain. Prior to Munich’s Spaten Brewery installing a refrigeration system in 1873, the majority of German beers were ales. Following the innovation, lagers, Pilsners in particular, took the lead and are now the most consumed style of beer in the world.
Now, onto the sausage…
Hot Dogs, Franks and Wieners
German sausage takes many forms. The most familiar to Americans is, of course, the hot dog. The import has roots in Frankfurt, where pork sausages on buns have been served since the 13th Century (hence, “frankfurter”), and Vienna, home to slender pork and beef sausages and root of “wiener” (“Wien” is German for Vienna). Order either in Germany, or at German restaurant, and your meal should approximate the dog you grill in your backyard on the Fourth of July.
The next most common German meat encasement in the States is the bratwurst, or a “sausage meat sausage” according to a really sketchy online translator. Made from chopped veal, pork and/or beef, brats are usually grilled, pan fried or cooked in broth or beer. They’re served in a variety of ways depending on the region in Germany, but sauerkraut and spicy mustard are often involved and compliment their rich, meaty, fatty flavor.
Google image search weisswurst before you order one: instead of the expected plated link with a mound of kraut, a porcelain bowl arrives; in it, plump, pallid sausages float in murky gray water. I’ll leave any visual analogies to the reader, but fortunately the subtle, spicy flavor of these Bavarian “white sausages” — often flavored with lemon juice, onion and parsley – makes up for the appearance.
Our political hopefuls drink beer with plumbers. Berlin’s eat currywurst. Germany’s finest late-night drunk food has reached iconic stature, so much so that it’s not if, but when will Berlin mayoral candidates stage their “I’m just hanging out at the currywurst stand like everyone else” photo-op. These steamed, then fried, pork sausages are cut into slices and served with curry-spiked ketchup.
Often misspelled as knockwurst outside of Germany, these fat, stumpy sausages are usually made from pork, veal and lots of garlic. They’re briefly aged and smoked over oak for big flavor and bigger breath. “Knack” translates as “crack” and refers to the sausage skin bursting when grilled.
Small, dried sausages blended from beef, pork, lard, red wine and spices, landjagers (or, “country hunters”) served as trail snacks for hunters and hikers. Imagine salami crossed with a Slim Jim.
Also see, for more tubesteak porn than you can shake a stick at: 10 German Sausages To Know And Love. And now, the drink. There are countless styles of German beer, so I’ve narrowed my focus to 10 of the most common:
Before refrigeration most German brewing took place during the cold months to avoid bacterial contamination. Come March (Marzen), brewers worked overtime to stockpile a summer supply — any “March Beer” left once brewing season came back around was tapped at Munich’s annual Oktoberfest. Most beers of the day were brewed on the same schedule, but it was this malty, amber style that, from 1818 on, became the festival’s official beer. Only Marzens brewed in Munich by the city’s “big six” — Hacker-Pschorr, Augustiner, Paulaner, Hofbräu München and Löwenbräu — are served at the now debaucherous bash, all of which date from a ridiculously long time ago (really Augustiner, 1328?!). The style can be a bit underwhelming, but the sweet, toasty flavor goes great with sausage.
The world’s most popular beer, Pilsner lagers account for nine out of 10 beers consumed. Pilsner Urquell was the first, developed in 1842 by a Bavarian brewer in the Bohemian city of Pilsen (now in the Czech Republic). German brewers, mostly in the north, followed suit and the light, approachable brews blew up quick across Europe and — thanks to immigrant barons like Eberhard Anheuser, Adoph Coors and Frederick Pabst — the States. Though the occasional Budweiser is definitely refreshing, decades of dilution have rendered mass-market American Pilsners far different than the originals. A few American craft brewers like Victory and Sixpoint manage impressive old-style Pilsners, but the German and Czech varieties can’t be touched. Due to some combination of the water, and centuries old mastery of hops and yeast, they tend to have this awesomely sharp, almost metallic bitterness balanced by a hint of sweet malt. Two of my go-tos are the perfectly bitter, slightly herbal Mahr’s Pilsner and the crisp, dry Pinkus Organic Ur Pils.
This gets confusing, but stick with me. In the Middle Ages, weissbier (or “white beer”) referred to any lightly colored beer, regardless of its grain base. Now the term is used synonymously with weizenbier, or “wheat beer” as wheat-based beers tend to be pale. Unfiltered German wheat beers also go by “hefeweizen” (or “yeast wheat”), referring to the cloudy haze caused by residual yeast. Really they’re all more or less the same thing: Bavarian ales brewed with at least 50% wheat. Certain yeast strains give these brews hints of banana and clove, and sugar added prior to bottling — known as bottle conditioning — supplies their characteristic carbonation. If you see it on the menu, the Weihenstephaner Hefeweissbier might be the perfect representation of the style, and Ayinger Brau Weisse is nearly as good. Richer, darker wheat ales go by dunkelweizen and weizenbock, one of which, Schneider Aventinus, is considered one of the world’s finest beers.
Northern Germans also dabbled with wheat. But this rapidly returning style from Berlin is far more modest than Bavaria’s big and bubbly weissebiers. Classic Berlinerweisses, like Fritz Briem’s 1809, are light in body and low in alcohol, often as low as 3% ABV. Lactobacillus bacteria contribute a nuanced citric sourness traditionally countered by a dash of raspberry or woodruff syrup.
These light, straw-toned brews from Cologne are hybrid beers, brewed with top fermenting ale yeast, but cold-aged like a lager. They’re a hint sweet, mildly hoppy and traditionally served in small .2 liter cylindrical glasses which keep waiters working. Plenty of modern craft brewers attempt the style, but like Pilsners, it’s hard to beat originals like Gaffel and Reissdorf.
These dark, potent lagers are big, big beers. The name likely comes from the city of Einbeck where the style originated. Pronounced with a Bavarian accent, and “beck” comes out “bock”, which happens to mean goat in German (hence the tongue and cheek critters on many bock labels). Bocks are heavy and deeply malty, yet creamy and smooth. They tend to weigh in at over 6% ABV, while doppelbocks (“double” bocks) climb upwards of 7%. The boldest variant, often hitting double digit ABVs, is the Eisbock, or “ice” beer (some of the water is frozen off, hence the scary strength).
By the mid-to-late 1800s, Bohemian and North German Pilsners were blowing up. To compete, Spaten developed this awfully similar lager and heavily promoted it throughout Germany (shrewd Spaten, real shrewd). In Spaten’s defense, Helles beers are a bit maltier than Pilsners, with a more subdued hoppiness. But both styles have a similar complex, yet easy-going disposition that encourages prolonged drinking (“Hell” translates as “light”).
“Dunkel” (or “dark”) is often applied to beer styles with a dark variant (ie, dunkelweizen). But on its own, the moniker refers to an ancient style of Bavarian lager perfected by the usual Munich suspects: Augustiner, Paulaner, Hacker-Pschorr…Aggressively roasted malts give Dunkels a deep mahogany tone and rich, hard-candy sweetness. Hop bitterness is mild, if barely there at all.
I had to include the beer that tastes like bacon. These toasty ales hail from Bamburg and are typically bready and a bit sweet. They’ve caught on recently with American brewers but start with the two surviving originals, Schlenkerla and Spezial, both of whom smoke their malt over beechwood fires for a smokiness that’s just shy of too intense.
And that’s it. Sausage, beer, prost!
Read more about German food and drink on Food Republic: