Airways Brewing tickles your zwickel, but what’s that mean?

In the last few years, fresh hop beers have gained wild popularity. It is suddenly an extremely popular seasonal offering for this time of year, which is awesome because fresh hop beers are truly seasonal and can only be made during the annual harvest. But at least one brewery creates a different type of beer for the season.

Last week Airways Brewing released its seasonal offering, Tickle Der Zwickel Festbier, which is now pouring at both Airways locations in Kent and is also beginning to find its way out to pubs in the area. (I should note that Airways also brewed a fresh hop beer the other day.)

Airways Brewing describes the beer like this: “Tickel Der Zwickel Festbier is an unfiltered German-style Zwickelbier—fresh from the tank to the glass.”

The release of this zwickelbier made me want to share some beer information. For many of you this is old news and you already know about zwickelbier. I beg your forgiveness. Carry on with your day. Not everyone knows so much about beer as you. If you don’t already know what zwickelbier is, maybe this will help expand your beer vocabulary.

What is zwickelbier?

The shortest answer is that zwickelbier is an unfiltered lager, but short answers are for wimps.

Sampling a beer from a zwickel at Alpine Brewing, circa 2009.
Sampling a beer from a zwickel at Alpine Brewing, circa 2009.

First up, you need to know how to say it: “Tzvickle-beer.”

Next, you need to know about the word zwickel. It’s the German term for that little tap, or spigot, sticking out the side of a conditioning/fermenting tank. Brewers use the zwickel to check on the progress of a beer as it conditions. If you are fortunate, you have toured a brewery and tasted a bit of beer poured straight from the zwickel. If so, perhaps you noticed that the zwickelbier is slightly hazy compared to a typical, sparkling, filtered beer.

In broad terms, zwickelbier refers to a lager-style beer that is unfiltered and unpasteurized. Typically they are a bit cloudy or hazy. The style may also be called kellerbier (“kell-uh-beer”) or zoiglbier. Most people use the three terms synonymously, though purists insist there are differences.

Though zwickelbier is more fun to say, kellerbier is the term that probably makes the most sense because the word keller means cellar – a nod to the place where beer was historically aged and conditioned. Back in the days before we enjoyed the benefits of temperature controlled fermenters, German brewers couldn’t brew beer in the summer because the ambient air temperature was to high to facilitate proper fermentation. Beer was brewed in March (Märzen) and stored in a cool cellar throughout the summer. Go down in the cellar throughout the summer, tap the zwickel to make sure the beer is okay, and eventually serve it at a big Oktoberfest party. That’s why Oktoberfest beers, or fest beers, are usually märzen.

So kellerbier is cellar beer, like a beer poured straight from the zwickel. I don’t know how the term zoigl fits into the equation, at least not exactly.

Is it a märzen or not?

These days many zwickelbiers/kellerbiers are brewed to märzen strength and are probably most closely related to that style, ranging from 5.0 to 5.5 percent ABV and from light to medium amber in color. Purists suggest that zwickelbier is on the lighter side of both of those ranges and provides slightly less pronounced hop flavor than kellerbier and zoiglbier.

ziggy_zoggy_canIn reality, whichever term you favor, it is most commonly used to describe any unfiltered lager. Ziggy Zoggy Lager, the popular summer seasonal beer from Silver City Brewing, is described by the brewery as a zwickelbier, though I personally don’t think it tastes like a märzen at all. It’s too light, dry and crisp. Pretty sure it wasn’t intended to be märzen-like.

A beer to be tasted and not seen

Another interesting note, the Germans are very serious about using appropriate glassware and like their beer to look as good as it tastes. Zwickelbier, kellerbier, and zoiglbier are typically served in earthenware mugs so the beer cannot be seen. That way, finicky German beer drinkers do not get distracted by its less-than-perfect appearance and can just enjoy the flavor.


Zwickelmania is an annual event in Oregon that sees breweries open their doors and invite the public to come inside. I would be surprised if every brewery provides beer straight from the zwickel, but calling the event Zwickelmania certainly brings that notion to mind.

Am I right?

Did I miss something? Leave a comment. I don’t pretend to know everything and have been wrong at least once before.



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One comment

  1. I asked a German friend about “zoigl” some years ago, and he told me that the origin wasn’t clear, but it might be derived from zeigen (to show or demonstrate).

    Related factoid. In at least some German towns, certain households are historically entitled to brew and sell beer. Windisch Eschenbach (a village in the Oberpfalz) is where I ran across this custom, but it might exist elsewhere. They then hold “a zoigl” to dispense the beer. In my case, the zoigl was held in a nicely fitted out basement, along with typical German munchies (the beer was very good, as were the munchies).

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