Drinking Like the Germans at Speisekammer

From pilsners to lagers to bocks, German beers are in a class of their own.


Forget Lederhosen and oompah music; Alameda’s Speisekammer doesn’t fetishize Teutonic culture. It does, however, celebrate the best of German cuisine. The popular restaurant serves hearty traditional fare with a modern, California twist — even on the beer menu, which features American microbrews, a handful of Belgians, and a gluten-free option alongside an unparalleled list of imported German beers.

Germans take beer as seriously as they do cars, and that means precision, performance, and purity. The country’s renowned rules on beer production dating to 1487 initially forbade anything but water, barley, and hops — ruling out, interestingly enough, wheat beers like Hefeweizen, now accepted as a common German beer. Although many beer marketers hoping to appear “pure” are loath to admit it, that law was repealed and replaced with a more permissive 1993 version allowing yeast, wheat malt, and cane sugar.

Either way, German beers are in a class of their own. This is, after all, the birthplace of the stein, the beer garden, Oktoberfest, polka, pretzels, and lumberjack-strong beer maidens. Spiesekammer honors iterations of all of the above at various times throughout the year, but on a recent Saturday night my fellow taster and I settled for a trio of top-shelf German brews.

We began with Bitburger Pils ($6, 4.8 percent ABV). Pilsners are a pale lager named for the city of Pilsen, Czech Republic, where in 1839 officials founded a city-owned brewery and, with the help of a Bavarian brewer, invented the pilsner. The Bitburger came poured with a glorious one-inch head sitting atop seventeen ounces of golden, almost luminescent beer. Crisp and refreshing with a smooth, lightly sweet flavor and fruity nose, it paired well with potato pancakes and applesauce.

The Hacker-Pschorr Munich Gold Lager ($5, 5.5 percent ABV) came next and, for all I cared, could’ve also come third, fourth, and fifth, ad infinitum. Its pleasant, unassuming taste did nothing new and nothing wrong. It’s a staple Bavarian beer — like the bread and the milk you need every day and the elixir you down with abandon on weekends. Less carbonated than the pilsner, it had the sort of mouthfeel that urged rapid consumption and the balanced flavor that rewarded slow savoring. Modern brewmasters might call it a session beer; I’d call it Oktoberfest captured in a bottle.

Around the time we dove into a slice of sweet German chocolate cake, out came our third beer, the Hofbräu Maibock ($7, 7.2 percent ABV). Both were fit to close a meal. The seasonal Maibock, Munich’s oldest bock, dates to 1614 and is traditionally tapped in the last week of April. We tasted a hint of burnt caramel balanced with an aromatic bitterness. The overall effect was complex and hard to place — the sort of beer you sip and swish around in your mouth before adopting a pensive gaze and spouting absurd descriptors. It’s enough to make you think you’re tasting wine. Of course, unlike Speisekammer’s brewed offerings, fine wines don’t disappear 500mL at a time.