For a foreigner like me, coming from a country where beer consumption is relatively low, experiencing the relationship Germans have with beer can come as a bit of a shock. When I moved to Germany it took me a little while to understand why Germans are the third pro capita consumers of beer in the world (after the Czech and the Irish). Your average German supermarket doesn't really seem to carry much more beer than an Italian one. This only until you discover the existence of the so called Getraenkemarkt many larger shops have: an extra shop dedicated only to drinks, where beer plays the lion's share. The first time I saw the rows of beer cases on sale, and the amounts people seemed to be buying, I was a bit off my foot. Are Germans constantly drunk, I thought? They are not, although there's no denying a drinking problem does exist. Beer is simply a part of the German culture, something that belongs to everyday life as much as wine and pasta do in Italy or tea in the UK.
With such a large market one would be justified to think Germany is the beer lover's paradise. Sadly not everything that shines is gold. The German brewing industry takes big pride at the Reinheitsgebot, the beer purity law, which regulates how beer can be made in Germany. It is certainly a law that has many positive sides, but it also incredibly reduces the kinds of beer that can be brewed in Germany. Most of the beer you'll find inevitably will fall into the pils, and to a lesser extent bock or weiss categories. Local beer styles, like Koelsch or Berliner Weisse exist but make up really small percentage of the market. The other big problem with German beer is the almost-monopoly position of the big brewing concerns. Many of the beers produced mainly for supermarket customers are quite, unimpressive if not downright bland. Plus it makes it quite hard to find smaller, local producers on sale, effectively pushing them off the market. Having a small local brewery, Jenaer Bier nearby, I prefer supporting them and I try, when I find myself longing for beer, to buy theirs.
Someone might argue that only because something is locally produced doesn't mean it is better. That's absolutely true. But local products carry a piece of history and cultural identity (since food IS culture) that deserve to be supported. Jenaer Beir may not be my no.1 favourite brew, although it is a quite nice drink, but it is the continuation of a long brewing history which should not disappear. The history starts in 1332, the year in which Jena received the right to brew beer. From that point on beer was brewed by the city's population (legally only by those who paid taxes), monks and nuns and by the University. It's amusing to see how often the city and the university argued on brewing rights. Price increases (of 1 pfennig!) started student protests. The excessive amounts brewed by the university's professors, in theory only for personal consumption, caused rage from the city officials. I could go on. The modern city brewery was built in 1855 and continued production until shortly after the re-unification of Germany. The building has sadly been demolished: I quite liked it as a nice piece of industrial archaeology. Beer production still goes on though: since 1996 the Braugasthof Muehlenbraeu produces Jenear Bier again.
There are five kinds of beer produced, three Pils and two Bock beers. The Pils, two light (one unfiltered), Mhlenbru Pils and Burschenpils, and one dark, Muehlenbraeu Premium, are quite pleasant and great to drink in the brewery's Biergarten on a sunny day, but I prefer the more complex bocks. The Alt Jenaer is a mild amber coloured bockbier with a mild taste with a noticeable caramel aftertaste. Schellenbier, my favourite, is a very dark bock with a nice body and pleasant malt aroma. They're either sold on the premises on tap or can be bought in special 1 or 2 litre bottles. If you want to have a full Braugasthof experience you should also try the quite pleasant restaurant. The food quality, after a disappointing experience two years ago, has definitely improved. They serve large portions of both cold plates and hearty local food (very nice meat dishes) which go great with the beers.
Note: If you find the topic of German beer interesting take a look at this article from the very informative and well researched European pub and beers guide. IMO one of the best independent web sources for European beer info.