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European Beer Basics

By Rick Steves Modified: August 14, 2013 at 8:56 am •  Published: August 14, 2013

When I'm far from home, I become a cultural chameleon. I eat and drink regional specialties with gusto, feasting on steak and red wine in Tuscany and stuffing down tapas at midnight in Spain. So when I travel to countries that are known for their beer, I morph into the best beer aficionado I can be.

Germany is synonymous with beer, and there's no better place to drink up than in Bavaria. German beer is regulated by the Reinheitsgebot(Purity Decree) of 1516--the oldest food and beverage law in the world--which dictates that only four ingredients may be used: malt, yeast, hops, and water. You can order your beer helles (light but not “lite”) or dunkles (dark).

Beer gardens go back to the days when monks brewed their beer and were allowed to sell it directly to the public. They stored their beer in cellars under courtyards kept cool by the shade of chestnut trees. Eventually, tables were set up, and these convivial eateries evolved.

My favorite beer garden (and German beer) is an hour's drive outside of Munich at the Andechs Monastery. The stately church stands as it has for centuries, topping a hill at the foot of the Alps. Its Baroque interior--and its beer hall--both stirs the soul and stokes the appetite. The hearty meals come in medieval proportions.

Belgians would argue that they, not their German neighbors, have Europe's best beer. With about 120 varieties and 580 different brands--more than any other country--locals take their beers as seriously as the French do their wines. But the best beers are not available from a tap. The only way to offer so many excellent beers fresh is to serve them bottled. The best varieties generally are available only by the bottle.

Belgian beers come in various colored ales, lagers, and white (wheat) varieties and are generally yeastier and higher in alcohol content than beers in other countries. Lambics, popular in Brussels, are the least beer-like and taste more like a dry and bitter farmhouse cider. Another Belgian specialty is the Trappist beer--heavily fermented, malty, and brewed for centuries by monks between their vespers and matins. Try a Westmalle, Rochefort, Chimay, or Orval.

Belgians are exacting consumers when it comes to beer. Most special local beers are served in a glass unique to that beer. Connoisseurs insist that each beer’s character comes out best in the proper glass. If a bar runs out of a specific glass, the bartender asks if you'll accept a similar glass. Many Belgians will switch beers rather than drink one from the wrong glass.

Another devout beer region is the Czech Republic. Czechs are among the world’s most enthusiastic beer drinkers. Whether you’re in a restaurant or bar, a beer, or pivo, will land on your table upon the slightest hint to the waiter, and a new serving will automatically appear when the old glass is almost empty.

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