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Celebrating Munich’s biergartens

 

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A relaxed Sunday at the biergarten at the Andechs monastery

By: Stephen Beaumont

 

Taking my place among the thousands of Munich residents gathered at the Augustiner Keller, a sprawling chestnut-shaded space near Munich’s main train station, capable of accommodating up to five thousand people, I was taking part in a tradition two centuries old: the communal raising of one litre maß steins of lager in an outdoor setting.

 

Or, in other words, the biergarten experience.


It was in 1812 that the biergarten or, in English, beer garden was made official in Bavaria. And although these often massive drinking destinations are now a fact of life in the region’s capital of Munich, the tale of how they came to be is a most interesting one.


Having centuries earlier discovered the benefits of cool aging their beer, a process known as lagering, Bavarian brewers in the eighteenth century built huge cellars, called kellers, and kept them cool by planting large-leafed and fast-growing chestnut trees to shade the ground above. These gravel-covered spaces became popular first with brewery workers and then with area residents, who were ultimately invited to dine and drink in the cool and hospitable gardens, for a price, of course.


This practice naturally irritated nearby innkeepers, traditional custodians of the hospitality trade, and so when biergartens were legally formalized in 1812, the same year the Augustiner Keller opened, it was decreed that they must allow patrons to bring their own picnics, a practice Münchners continue with enthusiasm today, often in quite sophisticated and elaborate form.


On the night prior to my Augustiner experience, at Zum Flaucher, a two thousand seat biergarten on the banks of the Isar River, I had observed a family enjoying what could only be described as a home-spun feast, complete with salads, cured meats, cold roast chicken, home-made obatzda – the addictive Bavarian spread of soft cheese, butter and spices – and crisp white radishes, sliced in spirals with a purpose-built cutter.

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The view across the Kleinhesselohe See to the Seehaus biergarten in the Englischer Garten, one of the largest urban parks in the world


Two days later, at the Andechs monastery on the outskirts of Munich, a friend and I were joined by a large group in their early twenties, tables in any biergarten being by nature communal. Their spread was more basic, and their tablecloth and utensils less stylish, but the idea was much the same: a portable meal to be enjoyed in idyllic conditions alongside steins of beer, which in the case of Andechs ranks among the best brewed in Germany.


In each of these instances, and numerous other experiences at places like the unexpectedly peaceful, seven thousand seat Chinesischer Turm in the Englischer Garten, the expansive, eight thousand person Hirschgarten or the relatively modest Hofbräu Keller, accommodating a mere 1,900 diners and drinkers, the common element beyond the food, beer and outdoor ambiance is their secluded nature. For as much as a visitor might pass a half-dozen beer halls on a central city walk, biergartens, for all their size, still tend to be hidden – to one side or around the back of a main building, in the middle of a park or in a comparatively obscure part of town. Meaning that, for a visitor, a trip to a biergarten is more than a pause for fresh air refreshment; it is a chance to connect to the heart of the city.

 

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