Enjoying summer Bavarian-style – in the beer garden
Perhaps it’s our archaic liquor licensing laws. Or maybe it’s our fondness for privacy and the isolation of the restaurant booth. But for some reason, we haven’t been able to approximate the simple pleasures afforded by the traditional Bavarian Biergarten.
Every evening, and most of the day on weekends, tens of thousands of Germans, picnic baskets in hand and children in tow, congregate around common tables under chestnut trees to quaff the liquid bread that defines Bavarian leisure.
Could it be our weather? Could it be we can’t remember our roots? It’s hard to believe. Yet, in the Upper Midwest, where a lot of people can claim German lineage, our beer gardens resemble zoos where children watch adults mull around in cages with cans in their hands.
By contrast, the largest beer garden in Munich, the Hirschgarten, seats 8,000 people. The much more intimate Viktualienmarkt downtown seats 600. The 5,000-seat Augustiner Keller packed in a thousand more during the USA-Germany World Cup soccer match, while dozens of nationalities and languages shared benches and beer to cheer on their teams.
It’s like a Fourth of July picnic almost every day of the summer. Most have playgrounds, and all have a selection of traditional Bavarian delicacies. Or you can bring a tablecloth, your own food and buy a liter of the local clear helles beer, a mixture of half helles and half lemonade, called a “radler,” or a half liter of wheat or dark beer.
If you can’t find a table, but you’ve spied an empty space where people are clinking glasses and telling stories, ask, and chances are, in half an hour, you’ll find yourself with new friends. You’ll wonder why a booth in the corner at the restaurant at home always seemed preferable.
But for your first evening at a beer garden in Munich you’ll want to sample the heart-stopping schweinshaxe, a slow-roasted pork hock that comes with a crackling crust covering a tender, even lean (if you dig deep enough), bit of meat to accompany the enormous brezen and obaszda cheese spread.
A wurst salad rounds out a meal that will make your vegan friends blush, but puts you in the center of what, for Germans, is really a social experience and a cultural statement.
The Bavarian Pretzel recently applied for, and was granted, European Union Protected Geographical Indication status, putting it up there with French Gruyère and Italian Prosciutto Toscano as statements of culinary culture.
And if it’s a reminder of the romance of the wild that you are looking for, Steckerlfisch, salted trout or mackerel skewered on a stick and roasted over open coals, is sold whole and ready to share.
What separates the beer garden from other cuisines is that it requires very little culinary sophistication. Italians may bristle if the olive oil in your ribollita tastes a little too much of grass and not enough of forest. The French can tell you straight off if the saffron in your soupe de poisson à la rouille isn’t French.
But a beer garden is stupidly simple. Afraid of choosing from among 50 beers on tap? You won’t find the option even available in a Bavarian beer garden. Pick up a glass off the shelf, give it a rinse in cold water, put in on the counter with a few Euros, and it comes back full of everything you need to enjoy the rest of your stay.
The Bavarians are truly puzzled by our demand for variety and our insistence on proper pairing. The sun is shining. The children are playing with new friends. The Germans are soon to be Weltmeisters. An elderly couple in alpine hats share a pretzel and smile at one another like they have every summer Saturday for decades. And there’s another brew waiting if you rinse out your mass and bring it back to the guy with the barrels and the big hammer.