Fading in Popularity: East Germany’s Beer Styles

History by the Glass by | Oct 2017 | Issue #129

I’ve recently returned from a visit to Berlin, a city where I spent a lot of time in the run-up to my marriage.

To be more specific, East Berlin, as my future wife was a DDR citizen. It gave me a great chance to experience East German beer up close and personal. I was delighted to learn it wasn’t as bad as was often assumed in the West. Some of it was downright delicious.

On draft, it was mostly Pils and, if you were lucky, Berliner Weisse. In the shops, Helles and Pils prevailed. Occasionally, something a bit more interesting, like Porter, Bock, or Schwarzbier, showed up. Yet the list of styles that were brewed was much longer, although I never came across most of them.

East Germany’s love of bureaucracy wasn’t exaggerated. So it should come as no surprise that there was a document officially describing each style that could be brewed. TGL 7764, the relevant document, lists 22 types of beer, although a few are actually duplicates.

While most German lager styles are represented, there’s a far narrower range of top-fermenting styles than in the West. And apart from Lichtenhainer, which doesn’t even make the official list, Berliner Weisse is the only wheat beer brewed. Not surprising, really, as it was only produced by one small brewery in tiny quantities.

Some of the styles were extremely rare. I never saw Dunkels on sale and I’ve only ever come across a handful of labels for it. Märzen was even rarer: I’ve seen just a single label for it that looked like it was from the early 1950s. In fact, I’m not convinced that all of these types of beer were still produced in the late 1980s, just before the fall of the wall.

Doppel-Karamelbier, which after WWII seems to have been specific to East Germany, is an odd one. Despite being brewed to the original gravity, around 12º Plato, of a normal-strength beer, it was no more than 1.5 percent ABV. That seems a bit of a waste, if you ask me. Not so much an intoxicating drink as a meal in a glass. Judging by the number of different labels I’ve seen, it was pretty common, though I can’t remember ever seeing it.

Pilsator, a slightly stronger and hoppier version of Pils, was a particular favorite of mine. All of the examples I tried were lovely drinking beers. That is, beers you’d want to drink more than one of, which is the highest praise I can give.

Schwarzbier, as far as I can tell, was only produced at one brewery, Köstritzer, in Thuringia. It remains the most famous example of the style, which since reunification has been picked up by several breweries in Saxony and Thuringia.

You’ll note that Bockbier, with an original gravity of 15–15.5º Plato, was weaker than in the West, where it was a minimum of 16º Plato, and typically over 6 percent ABV. Both the pale and dark versions were fairly common in East Germany, though usually only in the colder months.

Strangely enough, several of these beers wouldn’t have been allowed in West Germany. The rather unusual banding of beer types by gravity had a couple of holes in it: Schankbier was 7–9º Plato, Vollbier 11–14º Plato, and Starkbier above 16º Plato. In other words, a 10º or 15º Plato beer wasn’t permitted. The law was altered in the 1990s to allow beers of any gravity.

Much has changed in the East since the wall came down. Not least beer preferences. Where Helles was once the most popular style, now, as in the West, it’s the ubiquitous Pils.