We’ve been to Munich several times, but rarely for more than a couple of days, and not often together.
This time we went with the specific intention of really being in Munich – not jumping on trains to other nearby towns, or racing from one beer destination to another in pursuit of ticks and trophies.
We began by finding accommodation in the suburbs, partly to save money, but also because the best times we’ve had on recent trips abroad have been beyond the immediate centres of cities.
The neighbourhood we ended up in was one where people live, walk their dogs, drowse on benches, smoke behind school bike sheds, and use ten-foot plastic pluckers to pick plums. The houses were post-war but conservative (Bavaria is not a hotbed of modernism) with concrete lions on their gateposts and plastic elves in their flowerbeds.
Every corner had a political poster or two: BAVARIAN PARTY – CHOOSE FREEDOM! ÖDP – YOUNG, AND FIERCELY ENVIRONMENTALLY CONSCIOUS! The only AFD posters we saw in our part of town had been either torn down or vandalised, the candidates given square black moustaches with swipes of marker pens.
We drank our first beer in Munich at a pub-restaurant above the tube station, on the main road into town, as rain hammered the parasols in the empty beer garden.
Ayinger Helles isn’t from Munich, it’s from Aying, and after a twelve-hour train trip, tasted great.
The pub was somehow both a bit too posh (tablecloths and ornaments) and nothing special – limp salad, service on the SCREW YOU! end of brusque – but the beer was served with all due ceremony. The glass, a simple Willibecher, was so clean it sang at the touch of a finger, and had plenty of room for a crown of foam.
Look at the room through the beer and everything seems clearer than without. It certainly looks warmer.
A touch sweet, a touch of corn, almost watery, and yet… Yes, another, please.
After all, as everyone knows, several thin coats rather than one thick leads to a more even, consistent finish.
A good start.
A theory emerges: you can find lesser known beer gardens in Munich by looking for patches of green on Google Maps and then zooming in.
That’s how we hit upon the Harlachinger Einkehr, among others. It’s small by Munich standards but still has space for several hundred people and, somehow, also for a trampoline, swing and slide.
When we arrived on a warm Wednesday evening we found it heaving for happy hour when a litre of lager goes for 6.60, or about £3.30 a pint. So almost everyone was drinking by the litre, from elderly ladies in lipstick and perm to teenagers out with their parents. The bartender was like a machine, pulling the beers and dishing them out at a rate of about five per minute, while to one side, on a small table under a parasol, an elderly women took payment.
Despite looking to British eyes like the garden of the nearby pub-restaurant, people were tucking into picnics they’d brought from home, unloading Tupperware and supermarket paper bags from rucksacks and baskets. (With typical German clarity, most of the beer gardens we visited had large signs explaining the rules pinned to trees: sure, bring your own food, but buy the drink from us, or be cast out of your community.)
The garden itself also had a barbecue and a pretzel window. The chef tending the former rang a bell every time a rack of ribs was ready and seemed to be selling out, while even those who had brought their own tea were buying giant pretzels to go with it.
That’s an interesting business model, we thought: mostly bring your own, but buy just the odd bit from the pub. It’s easy to imagine a family choosing to go out three times a week instead of once a fortnight on that basis.
We also saw a poster, though, that seemed to plead “Use your local beer garden or lose it” so perhaps not.
Augustiner Helles is the Munich beer we thought we liked best. It’s widely available in the UK and has always tasted good to us from the bottle – dry, lots of noble hop character, and as pale as evening mist.
We certainly did enjoy it but also began to wonder… Is it perhaps a little… harsh? A little unbalanced? It has no soft verges.
Still, it seems popular among Muenchners, on the subway or on the street, at any time of day. From high on a bridge we watched picnickers on an islet in the Isar cooling a tethered crate of the stuff in the water.
Once we started spotting discarded bottles we began to see them everywhere – flashes of green in wheelie bins or on train platforms– though they never lingered long before some industrious scavenger scurried up, tossed them in a sack, and dashed off to claim the deposit.
We had never been to the Weisses Brauhaus together and decided to rectify that on this trip; in fact, we ended up visiting twice.
It is one of Munich’s most famous beer halls, the brewery tap for wheat beer specialists Schneider, which was founded in the city but relocated to nearby Kelheim during World War II. Like the Hofbrahaus, it is a tourist attraction without being a tourist trap, and there are plenty of locals holding the line between tables of bewildered tourists not sure whether to order the veal spleen or the tripe.
One thing that particular struck us was the all-female waiting staff. At first glance, they look like stereotypical dirndl-clad Bavarian maids, but a second look reveals more detail.
First, the dresses are uniform, not costume – catering grade, hard-wearing, modest, practical. Then there is the footwear – black Nike trainers, hiking boots, Dr Martens. Each of these women, gliding from bar to table to kitchen to table to bar for hours on end, knows what tactical wear works for them, and wears it.
Finally, there’s the most obvious 21st century innovation: touchscreen handheld EPOS devices holstered on leather belts and drawn in a flash. Every now and then, though, these gadgets need charging, and so out come keys to perspex lockers where USB cables dangle in front of advertisements for each of Schneider’s beers.
Schneider Hopfenweisse is a beer we disliked on first encounter, then warmed to, and now love.
In a sea of pale lagers with barely a BahnCard’s difference between them, Hopfenweisse feels like a Willie Wonka creation. (The 1972 film was shot in Munich, by the way.)
Not only the yeast character, not only the hop flavour, not only the booze (8.2%), but also the sheer extravagance of the thing… Its creeping aroma contaminates, or perhaps daubs fluorescent highlighter ink, every other beer on the table.
If we lived in Munich, we drink at least a glass a week. But it’s no session beer.
When we wrote Gambrinus Waltz we chuckled at the credulous Victorians who believed that lager was somehow ‘non-intoxicating’, despite having the same alcohol content, give or take, as British ale. And yet, we found the beer in Munich… well, non-intoxicating.
Jess’s limit here at home – the point beyond which next-day vomiting becomes almost inevitable – is a measly two pints these days. In Munich, she managed a four-pint session, including a litre of the powerful Augustiner Edelstoff, with no ill effects beyond a vague sense of ennui.
Is it because we ate more in Munich? We don’t think so. Did we drink more slowly? Again, we don’t think so – the beer gardens we spent most of our time in were self-service and speedy with it.
(Though we did admire the technique of seasoned Mass drinkers we observed, knocking back the first half and then holding back the second for up to an hour, with personalised lids to keep flies and wasps out, and warn waiters off.)
Surely there can’t be anything in that old chestnut about the cleanness and purity of German beer vs. the adulterated filthiness of cask ale?
Scientists, please advise.
The Helles that surprised us, that really delighted us, was from Hofbräu.
We felt it more than tasted it. It gave a pure vibration from the palate to fingertips – pins and needles, a shiver, a sigh, oh yeah, that’s it.
We recognised it blind, too, in a Biergarten which just sold it as HELL, where we had to enquire after the provenance in clumsy German.
It feels daft sometimes to attempt to say much about good old plain old wonderful lager but, sod it, we’re not afraid to be pretentious: this straightforward beer seemed to hold in itself the very essence of yellow fields, blue sky, and wasp-bothered grapes.
It was like biting into the landscape, hearing the crust crack, and then savouring the juice.
Put that on your election poster.
Why go to Munich the week before Oktoberfest? Snobbery, no doubt. Think you’re too good and too clever for it, eh? Eh? Oh, yes, we know your sort. (It was the only week we could both take off work; and have you seen the price of accommodation during Oktoberfest?)
Still, the scent was in the air. The field was under construction, tantalising behind steel fencing, and the local papers were running hype: WE REVEAL THE 100 PRETTIEST OKTOBERFEST MAIDS!
All the shops had window displays of Lederhosen and Dirndl, including C&A, and when Jess tried to buy a particular type of wool at a specialist shop she was told: “Oh, it’s sold out – everyone’s knitting Trachtenjacke for Oktoberfest.”
It felt like a bonus Christmas.
Our local beer garden, the Michaeligarten (of which more in a few lines) had Löwenbräu Wies’n on draught. At 6.1% it seemed a bit strong to be drinking by the near-pint but, as mentioned above, we seem to be immune to the alcohol in Munich beer so got stuck in.
What did it remind us of? Oakham Green Devil, perhaps, though we can’t imagine thinking so if we had them side by side. Or perhaps Duvel? Maybe a blend of the two.
There was a certain similarity to Augustiner Edelstoff except – sorry, everyone – we preferred the Löwenbräu.
It was boozy but balanced, with hops shoved further up front than we’re used to in Oktoberfest beers, and definitely offering some citrus.
A mischievous beer. A beer that tells you to have another, and to start singing, and that brings out a tendency to sway you didn’t know you had.
The Michaeligarten was our local and we visited as many times as logistics allowed.
Our first view of it was on an early morning run through the park, as red-shirted maintenance staff swept up fallen leaves; cleared away the last of the previous night’s glassware and ketchup-smeared crockery; and wiped goose shit from the tabletops.
Because it wasn’t primarily a tourist destination, the atmosphere was different to other gardens we’d known, and being bewildered was half the fun.
“Sprechen Sie Englisch?” we asked, hopefully.
“Nein,” replied the man at the meat counter, before letting a spiky silence hang in the air as he twirled his tongs.
Why was there a man in alpine hat and Lederhosen trimming spring onions on a weird marble table at the back of the garden? Didn’t they object to him leaving a pile of tomatoes on the gravel?
The woman who served us most often (she never seemed to go home) wore her Dirndl low, her hair high, recognised every beer at a glance, and could operate the till one-handed while eating a Cornetto. Anything other than the right change caused her lip to curl in disgust.
Occasionally, swans and geese would emerge from the pond to terrorise drinkers, stretching to their full, terrifying height, snatching pretzels from tables with snapping beaks. Nobody intervened – if you don’t like being attacked by birds, don’t sit by the water, right? There are plenty of other beer gardens.
But when night fell and the lights came on in the trees, while children hunted for conkers under the tables, and the ducks bickered across the water, it seemed pretty well perfect.
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