The Complete (Chicago) Beer Course: Zwickelbier

When COVID-19 closed taprooms and cancelled festivals, I looked for ways to still engage with Chicago’s craft beer scene. I therefore decided to finally work my way through The Complete Beer Course. Doing so involves the tough job of sampling beers for each style the book details; I’ll balance national (and international) recommendations from author Joshua Bernstein with examples from Chicagoland breweries. Unless otherwise stated, historical background comes from The Complete Beer Course.



History Lesson

Zwickelbier and the related Kellerbier originate in the German region of Franconia. Both are young, unpasteurized, and unfiltered lagers. Originally, kellerbier (cellar beer) referred to any beer that had aged in the cellar. By the 19th century, however, it came to mean beers that were served young and straight from the cellar. Zwickelbier, meanwhile, refers to the spigot (zwickel) that brewers used to sample that young beer as it fermented.

Sources differ on whether these are, in fact, two different styles or not. Bernstein, our guide on this sudsy safari, describes kellerbier as more “assertive” than zwickelbier, while conceding that neither beer obeys strict style guidelines. The Beer Judge Certification Program, meanwhile, considers zwickelbier to be a synonym for kellerbier, and differentiates kellerbier into the milder “pale kellerbier” and more robust “amber kellerbier.”

Where does that leave Chicago-based beer drinkers? In practice, you’re more likely to see a zwickelbier than a kellerbier at your local brewery. When you order one, you can generally expect an unfiltered golden lager.

BJCB Description:

“A young, fresh Helles, so while still a malty, fully-attenuated Pils malt showcase, the hop character (aroma, flavor and bitterness) is more pronounced, and the beer is cloudy, often with some level of diacetyl, and possibly has some green apple and/or other yeast-derived notes. As with the traditional Helles, the Keller version is still a beer intended to be drunk by the liter, so overall it should remain a light, refreshing, easy drinking golden lager.”

Note: Description reflects BJCB’s overview of the “pale kellerbier,” which more closely resembles the ingredient profile and flavor of a zwickelbier from American breweries than the “amber kellerbier.”

Fun Fact

Zwickelbier was rare enough when Bernstein wrote The Complete Beer Course in 2013 that it only received a brief paragraph, shoved in-between other lager styles. Five years later, he was writing about it in The New York Times.

Third Coast Review’s Take

Given that zwickelbier isn’t an official part of The Complete Beer Course, we easily could have skipped it. Two Chicago breweries execute such noteworthy interpretations, however, that we’d be remiss not to take time for this unfiltered gem.

We Tried

  1. Off Color Brewing You Can’t Take Me Anywhere Nice
  2. Metropolitan Brewing Heliostat

A beer with mainstream appeal from a brewery that typically eschews convention, Off Color’s annual release has a noticeable hop flavor with a crisp finish. That said, it mellows out a bit over time, with more of the bready malt notes shining through after a few sips. Its name used to be slightly different, but, well, COVID:

Metropolitan’s Heliostat is bright and hoppy, especially compared to the brewery’s other German-style beers. Nevertheless, it retains all-important balance. While I managed to get a can recently, it’s best consumed as soon as it’s on draft at Metropolitan’s lovely riverside taproom in Avondale.

Up Next

We bring things back to North America with California Common

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Nicholas Blashill

Nick Blashill is a native of Downers Grove who has recently returned to the Chicago area. By day he works in market research, but he is looking forward to sharing the experiences with Chicago’s craft beer and music scenes that fill his free time.