Sunday, August 05, 2012

Beer gardens and museums: Report from Munich

Grüß Gott! I've recently returned from Munich, the "capital" of Bavaria, and am eager to share my experiences. Any readers who have visited the region will find no surprises in my report, but for those of you who have not been, let me regale you with tales of my voyage. Germany holds an esteemed position in the world of beer-making, both historically and now. The last time I visited, I was too young to appreciate much about this. I was 15 and the fine folks of Germany won me over just by letting me have any beer at all. Moreover, I was overwhelmed when I was handed a bottle whose label read something along the lines of "proudly brewed since 1272". This was my first visit to Bavaria, a region known for it's friendly, easy-going people and as the B in BMW. I was even told that Munich is jokingly referred to as the northernmost Italian city because of the character of it's people. This is a stretch, having been to Italy. Or maybe it's a dig at the northern Germans. Probably both.
Folks wearing lederhosen just 'cause
We visited two beer gardens during our visit: one in the Viktualienmarkt, and the one in the Englischer Garten. The Viktualienmarkt is a giant food market made up of open-air stalls in the center of Munich. Its beer garden is a big expanse of picnic tables in the center of the market with a single stall serving beer. It's a place to relax and nosh on some of the food you've found with a cold one. At first I was turned off by the long line, but they move people through with crazy efficiency, all with a smile.

The Viktualenmarkt beer garden
The line for beverage.
Is it beer you're looking for?
A few things surprised me about the offerings. First was that they only served Paulaner. I found it to be the norm that establishments serving beer offered only one brand (more on this later). Second was the dunkelweiss, a beer style I had never seen or heard about. Of course I had to try it. Lastly, there were ample nonalcoholic options, including two juices and alkoholfrei (alcohol free) beer. Looking around at the gathered people, I noticed that quite a few opted for juice.

A new discovery.

Enjoying a dunkelweiss at the Viktualenmarkt.

"Dunkel" means dark, which is the opposite of "Hell" which means pale. Dunkelweiss is pretty much what you'd expect: a wheat beer with a bit more malt character than a traditional wheat beer. I wonder whether this style will show up stateside in the future. Certainly there has been an increased interest in wheat ales, as highlighted by Trevor in last month's Beer of the Month feature.

The Englischer Garten is an even bigger affair and more of a main attraction. Any visit to Munich in the summer should include this giant park and its vast beer garden. It's like central park but bigger. There's a river that can be surfed and a nude sunbathing area with lots of naked dudes. The beer garden is a huge array of picnic tables flanked by beer and food stalls and a five story Chinese-style pagoda. I spent the entire afternoon there with my wife and father-in-law. Even on a Wednesday afternoon, it was pretty busy. We brought sandwiches and watermelon and bought a whole roasted fish at one of the stalls. Beer comes in 1L and .5L mugs. Once again, only one brand was available: Hofbrau. About an hour after our arrival, a brass band started playing from the pagoda. All sorts of people were there: tourists, locals, old folks, families, etc. Because the picnic tables are separate from the beer vendors, there is no obligation to buy anything. This, along with the plentiful alcohol-free options, gives the whole place a supremely relaxed atmosphere. Unlike a bar, drinking beer is not the focus. You can read a book or chat with friends for as long as you like. You might enjoy a liter of beer while your grandma has an apple juice. And don't worry about bringing a designated driver, the subway system is fantastic and will get you anywhere you need to go.

The Wednesday afternoon crowd.
My wife and father-in-law.

Why not finish with fried cake and plums?
Hours later.

By my observation, Bavarians predominantly drink pale lagers. The standard offering each place we visited was light lager, dark lager, light weissbier and dark weissbier. At restaurants, a pilsner might be on offer (how pilsners differ from other light lagers continues to evade me).

Finally, let me tell you about my visit to Munich's Bier and Oktoberfestmuseum. According to their website, it is "Well worth visiting and culinary pleasures". Unfortunately, I can't recommend this museum, especially if you can't read German. The rooms are disjointed and spare, with not much to look at. There is a lot of text on the walls in German, with maybe 10% of it translated into English. Even so, there is no particular narrative or flow to it. There are three floors: The fist is focused on the history of beer brewing in Munich, the second on Oktoberfest and the third has a constantly looping movie about how beer is made. Although I couldn't understand what was being said in the movie, it seemed to be aimed at people who had never before considered what it takes to brew beer. I'll skip talking further about the Oktoberfest section since I understood very little and the exhibits were minimal. As for beer history, here's the most elaborate exhibit:

Accompanying this full scale diorama was a paragraph in German, presumably remarking on how beer was historically used to combat the pallor associated with living in a room without windows.

This seems interesting and culturally significant - if only I could learn something about it! There's text in neither German nor English. Oy vey!

I'll stop hating to report the bit of information I was able to learn: Before 1800 there were many breweries in Munich, but because of mergers and other reasons known only to German MBA students, only six remain.  Most of these large-scale operations went global in the second half of the 20th century. You have undoubtedly heard of a few of them: Spaten, Paulaner, Hacker-Pschorr, Augustiner, Hofbräu and Löwenbräu. It's pretty easy to find the first three here in Baltimore. They commonly have agreements with restaurants to serve only their brand, which makes it very hard for craft brewers to grab any market share. I would be interested to learn whether there currently are any craft breweries in Germany.

After Munich, my wife and I spent three days in Rome. At the end of my last post I asked whether I would find anything in Italy other than Peroni. Answer: not really. Peroni is dominant. There are a few other unremarkable pale lagers that taste just like it. Still, they get the job done. Italy gets hot and these beers are smooth and refreshing. Nuff' said.


  1. It seems (and I think it was you who noticed this) that we find these unremarkable light lagers in very warm climates (Thailand, Peru, Italy). They certainly were refreshing after being out in the sun sightseeing for hours.

  2. I suppose when you've been sweating under the sun and the evening is not much cooler, a stout is the last thing on your mind!