Relaxing with a few beers – oh, and maybe a chicken – is part of the Bavarian way of life for men and women, young and old. Andrew Burnyeat reports
Imagine a public park filled with row upon row of tables and benches. Now imagine those benches heaving under the weight of the collective backside of the local populace.
The weather is bright and sunny, everyone has a two-liter jug of beer and is chatting quietly to the people around them. Away from the tables, children are playing happily on the grass. A brass band is playing under a large bandstand.
Sat on the chairs are young women, old men, young men, and old women – everyone seems to be here.
Our dream takes us to the Chinesiche Turm, the beer garden known in Munich as the Englischer Garten. The bandstand is a large pagoda by a tiny, rather a makeshift-looking bar which serves several different types of beer and a range of delicious meals to crowds of up to 7,000. It’s a remarkable feat, reminiscent of a certain story involving loaves and fishes.
The people of Munich are proud of their beer and occasions such as these are commonplace. In the United Kingdom, it would be an annual beer festival; the glasses would be plastic; there would be twice as many men as women and there would be litter everywhere.
And the scene is not restricted to the park. Right in the center of the city, another makeshift bar is selling chicken and beer to rows of local people.
What strikes the British tourist is that everyone is represented – it’s not just football fans or middle-aged men – and the volume of the crowd is strangely muted. People are talking, but not in an animated, drunken way, which seems odd, as everyone is drinking out of two-liter jugs.
And it’s replicated again inside Munich’s bierkellers. The Hofbrauhaus on Am Platzl is extremely handy if you’re staying at the best hotel in Munich, the Vier Jahreszeiten (‘Four Seasons’), which is on Maximilianstrasse. You just can’t beat the service there and the concierge can find you absolutely anything you want. It’s owned by Kempinski, which runs the Bentley and the Courthouse in London.
Hofbrau is a typical Munich beer – there are a certain balance and a softness about it and a sweet, honeyish note which actually makes it the perfect accompaniment to the spicy chicken dishes available at its bierkeller.
There is a large hall of tables, while outside is a cobbled garden area which catches the sun in the afternoon.
All of the leading Munich breweries have their own bar, restaurant or bierkeller. The Lowenbrau version next to the main market is a restaurant, while the Paulaner version is a more modern bar restaurant used by hen nights at weekends and by an older, somewhat quieter, lunchtime crowd on Sundays.
A word about the staff in these places. They are friendly and capable of dealing with a broad range of customers but they brook no-nonsense.
Failure to wait your turn in one of the larger bierkellers can cause you to be being totally ignored, but if you’re polite and make a little effort to brush up your German, the outcome will be the smiles and sunshine.
There is much more to German nightlife than bierkellers, however. Some of the best clubs in Europe are here, including Maxsweet and P1, though the latter is going through something of an image problem at the moment.
Both are extremely difficult to get into unless you arrive early and are stylishly dressed. Oh, and if you’re young, that helps, too.
But between the bierkellers and the trendy nightclubs are a strata of modern bars which serve a good mix of local beers.
One of the best of these bars is Glockenspiel on the Marienplatz. It serves wheat beers, dark beers, and pilsners, and is a great place to begin your introduction to the delights of Munich.
You might think such a place would attract a younger crowd, and you’d be right – but like the beer gardens, you’ll also find older people.
Dress smart in a way many Brits might find slightly stuffy – shirt tucked into belted trousers (for men, anyway). Wear a bandana and the police will most likely stop you and ask for identification, though the attire is not actually illegal.
The sociable Schwabing area of northern Munich is packed full of bars and has a relaxed, suburban feel to it.
Among the bars, there is Gunther Murphy’s Irish Pub on Nikolaistrasse. It serves a very decent pint of Erdinger and you can watch English football or Irish hurling on the big screens. If you’re in Munich during the World Cup and can’t get a ticket, get here two hours before the match.
The people of modern Munich are relaxed and easy-going. Their whole culture is based on enjoying life in a relaxed manner.
The beers of Munich come in various forms – many are light-colored lagers brewed with just four ingredients – water, hops, yeast, and barley. Each of the brewers uses its own strain of yeast, its own water, and specially sourced hops and barley, so they all have distinctive flavors.
Lowenbrau, for example, is an attractive yellow/golden color. The hoppy aroma comes from the special combination of Hallertau hops grown just 30 miles north of Munich.
As it reaches the mouth, there is a noticeable softness in the texture, which comes from the Bavarian well water used in the brewing. And the flavor lives up to the promise of the aroma. It’s refreshing, moreish and the aftertaste is pleasant and enjoyable.
For whatever reason, Lowenbrau tastes much better in Munich than the imported version does elsewhere, even though it’s the same beer. Work that one out!
There are only four ingredients because that’s the law and has been since 1516. No added sugars, no E-numbers – perhaps this is why everyone here seems so relaxed.
But Munich is also known for its dark lagers. Among the best is the lightly hopped, dark amber beer from Lowenbrau. Bavarian beers typically weight in just above the 5% ABV mark, equivalent to, say, Stella Artois or Kronenbourg.
Translated, Lowenbrau means Lion Beer and it takes its name from the lion symbol of Bavaria. Brightly painted lion statues of all hues can be seen on many a street corner and public square in the city and are just the right height for falling over while attempting to read a map.
Belgians criticize the Bavarians for their lack of variety (only four ingredients allowed in the beer) and for using two-liter jugs. The practice, say the Belgians, means that the beer is warm at the bottom of the glass. The Bavarians reply that the thickness of the glass keeps the beer cool, and that beer served too cold has no flavor.
Cologne, a German city between Belgium and Bavaria, seems to have adopted the worst of both worlds. The city’s one beer, Kolsch – great though it is – is served in tiny 20cl glasses. Asked for an explanation, a Cologne barman explained: “It’s so you can’t tell we’re all alcoholics!”
Everyone has their own culture, and the Bavarians are not going to change theirs for anyone.