Oktoberfest is known the world over, but Munich’s legendary beer scene can be enjoyed throughout the year, says Andrew Eames.
There’s no doubting the refreshment of choice in Munich. Even as you step off the plane, there it is in the terminal – the Airbrau, the only airport brewery in Europe, with its gleaming vats and mash tuns in situ at the back.
Inside, an appreciative public will be settling down to that essential Bavarian pre-flight pick-me-up – white sausages, pretzels and a freshly brewed half-litre of Mayday, Jetstream or Kumulus. Or all three.
The airport’s showcasing of beer culture is no surprise to anyone who knows Munich. This is, after all, the home of the Reinheitsgebot – the purity law that insists German beer should contain only malted grains, hops and water (yeast was added later), a principle that still governs domestic production 501 years after it was first enacted. It is also the city with the most famous beer festival in the world, Oktoberfest, where seven million litres of the stuff are consumed in the course of a very merry fortnight.
But you don’t have to be here in October (actually the festival starts in late September) to get the full, convivial experience. This is a city that takes great pride in its traditions, and to ignore its beer gardens and beer halls is to miss out on an important part of urban life.
Although it has since spread throughout the world, the concept of the biergarten originated in Munich a little over 200 years ago, when King Maximilian I granted permission to the city’s brewers to sell direct from their cellars. Back in those days, there was no refrigeration, so brewers did most of their work in winter, stored their stock underground and then planted trees (usually horse chestnuts) to protect their cellars from the summer sun.
For customers arriving at the cellar door, this combination of leafy shade and “liquid bread” proved too much of a temptation, and rather than lug the beer home, they settled under the trees to get stuck in. Eventually, they also brought their own food and the concept of the beer garden was born.
These days, the best Munich gardens, such as Hirschgarten (hirschgarten.com), beside a deer park, and Seehaus (kuffler.de), set on a lakeside in the English Garden, are open year round, but are busiest between spring and autumn.
Of the two, Seehaus tends to appeal more to the schickimicki (trendy) crowd. Hirschgarten is much more informal, and reached through typical inner-city allotments. This is the biggest beer garden in town, with 8,000 seats, and you can still bring your own food, but mainstays such as spare ribs, sausages, smoked fish and Backhendl (chicken) are available from stalls throughout.
While generally beer gardens tend to be seasonal, the downtown beer halls remain popular all year round. The most famous by far is the Hofbrauhaus (hofbraeuhaus.de), and with its 3,000 seats and a brass band from 11am, it is no place for shrinking violets.
Most of the drinkers here will be visitors, but there are still tables lined with watery-eyed, lederhosen-wearing gentlemen who’ll willingly pose for selfies with tourists. The food served – traditional meat, bread and potatoes – is remarkably good value, but the challenge is finding a seat and hearing yourself think.
The Hofbrauhaus certainly has its place, but if you’ve only got time for one beer hall visit, locals would point you towards anything Augustiner, a privately owned Munich brewery with several stunning old halls and a high-quality beer that is largely unknown internationally – the brewery is kept busy enough with local demand.
One of the most central Augustiner venues is at Grossgaststaetten (augustiner-restaurant.com) on Neuhauser Strasse, with its art nouveau interiors, polished tabletops and walls covered in antlers. This is a far more relaxed ambience than at the Hofbrauhaus, although you’ll probably be sharing a table and your neighbours will likely want to clink glasses in a toast. Here, as in the rest of Germany, you must look them in the eye as you do so.
Traditions aside, there are changes afoot in the Munich beer scene, particularly with the introduction of unfiltered, cloudy beer that retains the friendly bacteria. A new microbrewery such as Giesinger (giesinger-braeu.de), south of the Isar, with a bar-restaurant above the brewhouse, is an example of the newer, fresher approach. The airport’s Airbrau produces unfiltered, too.
Then there are the craft brewers, such as the hipster-friendly Hopfenhacker (hopfenhacker.de), based in Haidhausen, where they hand-make deliciously fragrant beers. Unlike Berlin, where the craft beer scene is well developed, there are only three or four such brewers in Munich, says Hopfenhacker, but then this is a more conservative society and change comes slowly.
Beer culture doesn’t begin and end in Munich, and it can be a great excuse for wider exploration of the surrounding area. For example, 40km south-west of the city and stunningly located on a little hilltop above Ammersee, the Benedictine monks of the Andechs monastery still brew the “liquid bread” they started to produce for pilgrims several hundred years ago. Today, the number of holy pilgrims may have dwindled, but the beer garden nevertheless attracts a million visitors a year.
Over in the north-east of Bavaria near the Czech border, the Zoigl (zoiglbier.de) tradition continues at a pace. Families in villages in the Oberpfalz region, around the town of Windischeschenbach, take it in turns to use the community brewhouse to make their own beer, cart it home and then throw open their front doors to invite the beer pilgrims in.
Even if you don’t particularly like the taste of the brewed stuff, there’s no denying that its discovery is a cultural experience.