Munich’s storied history of beer drinking can be summed up to most people in one word: Oktoberfest. But that celebration is really just an indication of the strong roots people in this Bavarian city have to their liquid bread. You don’t have to be in Munich long before you see ample evidence of how strongly Muncheners love their beer, from the abundance of beer halls to the signs to the number of people freely enjoying a libation during any given afternoon. There aren’t many variations to the beers they serve (the Holy Trio of Munich is the helles, weisse and radler – more on the last one later), but not many people complain when such a strong consistency in production across all breweries results in excellent brews.
Munich is pretty much controlled by the breweries that exist in the area – Augustiner, Paulaner, Hofbraü and Hacker-Pschorr. For the most part, these breweries run a lot of the big bars, beer halls and gardens, not that the people seem to mind. Muncheners love their beer and are steadfastly loyal to the breweries that made this city famous. A couple of exceptions exist (Ayinger and Schneider have their bars), but this is not a European town that would look favourably on a Belgian bistro.
Our trip luckily coincided with Starkbierzeit, or Strong Beer Festival. This is celebration of the spring that brings strong, malty brews – usually the ones that end in “-ator” (Paulaner Salvator and Ayinger Celebrator being two famous examples). These were mostly available at the brewery-run establishments, though oddly enough most people were sticking to their everyday helles rather than indulging in something a little stronger (and, dare I say, more flavourful). Coming from North America, the lack of selection in such a well-known beer city was surprising. But while choice was an issue, quality was not – every beer was really good, even the house lagers. It probably helped that the beers were insanely fresh, as opposed to being shipped to North America and sitting on the shelf while all nuances slowly fade. And there is also something to be said for sitting in a market or beer garden, enjoying a fine beer in the sun while on vacation. Both factors probably contributed to my assessment of the beers, which was that they were some of the best lagers I’d ever tasted.
Right across from the touristy Hofbraühaus, this is a lovely restaurant operated by Ayinger. This restaurant was quite and sedate when compared to the beer halls, but the food and the heavy presence of wood in the decor let you know that this was still a beer drinkers place. The main incentive to walk through their doors was the prospect of Ayinger Celebrator, the fabled doppelbock that is usually regarded as one of the best German beers. It was on tap for Starkbierzeit, quite a treat for my first sample of this world-class beer. The Celebrator was excellent, but I equally enjoyed their weissbier. Both were fresh, vibrant and had lots of subtleties.
Andechser am Dom
Not a very large place for Munich, but definitely a nice stop if you’re trying to avoid the tourist crowds but stay in the old town. The patio had spilled out onto the street and not a server was in sight, so we fought our way to the one available table inside. The dunkel was very different from the other beers in Munich – it was full of raisin and caramel flavours, like a spiced English pudding. The weiss was a bit sweet and not quite as refreshing, but it just goes to show the variety that can exist within a style.
Our hostel was only a short walk from the Augustiner Braustuben, a beer hall that probably gets passed over by most tourists because it isn’t located near any other sites. No surprise, it came pretty close to how I imagine an authentic German beer hall to look like – waitresses in drindls carrying several giant steins at a time, long communal tables, the din of beer-soaked voices enjoying another night at their local. It also felt pretty authentic because we were seated beside two regulars who kept gawking at our foreignness. I noticed they had a pilsner and suggested Soph try it for a change of pace, which turned out to be an error on my part (and a hilarious one at that, according to the waitress and our German companions). Apparently it was bottled, a big no-no. Soph was made to order the helles (the waitress explicitly said it was for women) and I got the manly Maximator (the strong beer). The Maximator was a great match for my crispy pork knuckles, the food to try in the beer hall.
One interesting note about most restaurants is that their dark sauces are usually made with the house dunkel. Not really surprising when you think about it – the Belgians and British do it all the time – but not something I had expected. If you’re looking for a nice base for your next stew but don’t want to overpower the meat, grab a dunkel.
There are numerous ways to illustrate how beer (and drinking in general) is treated differently in Munich, but the best example is the Chinesischer Turm. This beer garden is located in the heart of Munich’s Englischer Garten, the large public garden near the heart of the city. Can anyone in Toronto imagine a beer garden in High Park or on the Islands? Nope, but they’ve got just that in Munich. The number of children in the beer garden was also really surprising – lots of infants and toddlers out with their parents for an afternoon pint. That just doesn’t happen in North America. Parents would be chastised and Children’s Aid would be called in if that ever happened here. But it just goes to show that Germans don’t really make a big deal out drinking – it is just a natural part of life.
This beer garden is named for the Chinese Tower that it is built around. An oom-pah band was planning sporadically through the afternoon (five minutes of work, ten minutes of drinking, repeat), adding a bit of the Oktoberfest feel to the garden. The Hofbraü beers were available (in half or liter steins, of course) and their Urbock was a pleasant, simple bock with a lot of toasted malt character. It was a pretty casual crowd and we were disappointed there was no singing or other such beer garden antics, though we eventually got serenaded by a large table of German men just as we were leaving.
Drinking in Munich was definitely an experience that I will remember. Lagers are usually not a style I drink a lot of, but the breweries of Munich do them very well. One big surprise, especially compared to the cities of Belgium, is that beer was not widely available outside of bars. Corner stores and tourist shops didn’t have bottles displayed in the windows, perhaps because the true experience of drinking in Munich takes places in the bars, halls and gardens, not in homes. Another reason this is not a city that any beer fan should miss.