For the 134th edition of The Session, in which beer bloggers around the world write on the same topic, Tom Cizauskas has asked us to think about beer gardens.
A good beer garden is a kind of fairy tale that allows you to wallow in summer, and to imagine yourself above or outside the modern world.
We first became aware of how magical a German beer garden could be after Jessica went to the World Cup in 2006 and came back in love with the Englischer Garten in Munich where she saw thousands of football fans served litre after litre of Helles with unruffled efficiency.
When we think of Germany, we think of beer gardens: the high altitude majesty of the garden at the top of the Staffelberg; the backup garden of Würzburger Hofbräu we found by accident, which feels as if it’s deep in a forest despite the ring road on the other side of the hedge; or the riverside idyll of the Spitalbrauerei in Regensburg where this blog was born.
German beer gardens work because they are given space to breathe even in big cities, because of at-seat service, and because the weather is fairly reliable from spring through to autumn which means you can set them up and pack them away to some sort of schedule. (The last few times we’ve been to Germany we missed beer garden season, catching them as dead leaves began to blow around the table legs and the benches commenced their padlocked-and-chained winter hibernation.)
In Britain, beer gardens don’t work quite so well. Here it can be warm and bright on Christmas Day, but rain from May to September. Few pubs have the space for a real garden – you’re lucky to find a yard in most cases – and when they do, rarely find it worthwhile keeping them maintained. You’ll often find mildewed picnic tables, plastic patio furniture, or concrete tables designed to stay put during gales, but rarely any trees or birdsong.
Smokers, with nowhere else to go, own British pub gardens and the infrastructure of bolt-on ashtrays and lean-to shelters reflects that. Or, alternatively, they are the domain of children, so you’ll find yourself drinking next to a bouncy castles or fibreglass tree slides.
Country and coastal pubs sometimes pull it off, taking advantage of the landscape to make a small garden feel endless, placing tables on cliffsides, woodsides and riversides. Urban pubs can sometimes do it, too, with enough potted palms and fairy lights, as our old London local, The Nags Head in Walthamstow.
British beer gardens rarely achieve the laid-back mellowness of the Continental variety because we don’t get to practice using them enough. They’re either desolate, or overcrowded and chaotic, with seagulls smashing stacks of wasp-filled glasses as they swoop on half-eaten burgers, watched by rapidly reddening drinkers squinting into the sun.
Still, that first outside pint of the year is a wonderful thing – a celebration of having survived the winter, a toast to the summer yet to come. We’ll be out there on the bare lawn next to the wheelie bins the first chance we get.