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What I’ve learned about Bavaria in beer gardens

The entrance to Löwenbräukeller in Stiglmaierplatz. The beer garden opened in 1883, when Munich was the “City of Beer and Art,” and later hosted Nazi meetings during World War II. (Photos by Will Hawkes for The Washington Post)

The young man at the beer garden in Munich has his hands full. In one, he holds a liter-size stoneware mug, foam spilling untidily over its rim; with the other, he’s carefully transferring a small, not entirely compliant child from a stroller to a long wooden bench.

It’s just after 5 p.m., and this beer garden, Paulaner Am Nockherberg, is filling up. Chestnut trees cast shade over dozens of long, slim tables. Six middle-aged friends settle in a sun-dappled spot; a pensioner in a fedora and sports jacket browses the local newspaper, a glass of pale lager close at hand; and a couple, fresh from a jog, clutch plastic trays as they wait at the food hatch, behind a man with a huge pretzel hanging from one wrist.

When the warmer months arrive, Bavarians head for beer gardens. This is true across the state — including Franconia in the north and the Alps in the south — but there are local differences, too.

Biergarten culture is fascinating and rich: There’s nowhere better to get a handle on local customs and conventions, what is changing and what is not. These are places where a distinctive Bavarian blend of permissiveness and prohibition is on display, where Bavaria comes to let it all hang out — up to a point.

I’ve been in dozens over the past decade-plus, enjoying not only the world’s best long drink but also my favorite pastime: people-watching. If you want to know Bavaria — its culture, history and people — I recommend that you start in a beer garden. Here’s what I’ve learned.

Napoleon’s decision

Is Franconia part of Bavaria? The map says so, and it has been, officially speaking, since Napoleon gave it to Bavaria in the early 19th century. But plenty of Franconians would demur, and a visit to a Franconian keller (a reference to the cellars underneath where lager was once aged) suggests they have a point.

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The most obvious difference is the beer, which — not always, but often — is a touch opaque, varies in color from pale amber to dark brown, and comes in half-liter steinkrugs. (A seidla, locals call them.) This is Kellerbier, an unfiltered, unpasteurized lager served softly carbonated. It’s rustic, rich and full-flavored, a world away from the manicured pale beers of Munich.

Franconia’s kellers operate on a homier scale, too: They’re smaller, the beer portions are half-liters, prices are lower. Upper Franconia (Lower Franconia is wine country) has about 200 mostly small breweries, an echo of its hyper-fragmented geography (kleinstaaterei, or small-state-ery) during the Holy Roman Empire, when the region was divided along religious and aristocratic lines.

The exception that proves the rule is the Kellerwald, a forested hillside north of the town of Forchheim, which boasts 23 kellers. But although it’s large, it has a cozy feel. The last time I visited, I chatted with a local family over a mug of kellerbier made by Neder, one of the town’s four breweries. When we’d finished, the mother turned to her family and said, her head shaking in slight disbelief, “Ein Englander in Forchheim!” You’d have thought I’d come from the moon, not a $40 flight from London.

Backyards can be beer gardens

If you think Franconia is quaint, you should visit the Oberpfalz. (It’s the region’s German name, more elegant than its English counterpart, the “Upper Palatinate.”) This is a sparsely populated region of forests and lakes, a place of dreamy landscapes and laid-back people, where, on a sunny day, you can imagine yourself in 1900.

That’s partly because, for much of its postwar history, this was a border region, and, although the Cold War barrier to neighboring Bohemia fell more than 30 years ago, it still has a feel of having been slightly forgotten.

The brewing tradition, meanwhile, dates to the Middle Ages. Five towns have active communal brewhouses, available to those who own homes with brewing rights. (Invariably the old ones close to the town center.) This is Zoigl, which also entails the serving of beer in people’s homes — or, when the sun shines, their backyards. These are the most rustic beer gardens of all, open for a few days every month or so, patronized by locals.

The beer is of variable quality, but the welcome is warm. At Zoiglstube Lugert in Mitterteich, I was invited into the cellar, where co-owner Hans was fermenting a fresh batch of lager; at Fiedlschneider in Windischeschenbach, Jürgen Köllner laughed when I said I had come to try his beer. (I’m not sure why. It was delicious, bitter and spritzy.)

There was a male choir singing at Fiedlschneider the night I was there, their voices soaring and swooping in the still summer air. I asked Köllner whether this was normal. “Oh, no,” he told me. “They’re from the north of Germany. They’ve been traveling around, and this is their final stop.”

Always time for a few more gulps

Munich’s beer gardens have a checkered history. The Löwenbräukeller in Stiglmaierplatz, for example, hosted Nazi meetings in the early years of the Second World War, until a Royal Air Force bombing raid severely damaged half the building in 1944. Other beer halls and gardens, such as the Hofbräukeller in Wiener Platz, can tell similar stories.

This is not, though, the Löwenbräukeller’s only history of note. It opened in 1883, when Munich was the “City of Beer and Art,” a glorious moment of growth and cultural richness. Its appearance reflects that, even if its iconic stone lion, gazing moodily into the middle distance from its perch above the entrance, was added in 1911.

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It is the place to come for Munich’s cherished biergarten traditions. Dunkel, a delicious, toasty-licorice reminder of Munich’s largely forgotten passion for dark lagers, is listed alongside its paler, more popular cousin Helles; you can bring your own food; staff are dressed in full Bavarian garb; and a good meal finishes with a Schnitt.

This is a small pour of beer — perhaps two or three gulps — served as the last glass before heading off. Earlier this year, I saw a group of pensioners finish a long lunch at Löwenbräukeller — pork knuckle and bratwurst — with a round of Schnitts. The perfect option for when you’re not quite ready for the fun to be over.

What’s old is new — and fashionable

You couldn’t call Augustiner a cult brewery, given it typically pumps out more than 39 million gallons a year, and its flagship pale lager, Lagerbier Hell, is cherished not only in Munich, but also in Berlin and London. But if the crowd at the Augustiner-Keller on a warm May evening is anything to go by, it’s definitely got something.

Is it the taste? The Edelstoff (a stronger “export” pale lager, 5.6 percent alcohol compared with Lagerbier Hell’s 5.2) is very nice, but the beers made at Hofbräu are equally good. Is it the history? Augustiner is Munich’s oldest brewery, founded in 1328, which can’t hurt. Perhaps it’s Augustiner’s reputation for eschewing marketing, although given that the brewery’s logo is plastered all over Munich — on beer halls, pubs, restaurants and the brown bottles that are the overwhelming street beer of choice here — I’m not sure.

I suspect it has much to do with the brewery’s independence; of Munich’s six major producers, it’s the last not to be owned by a multinational company or, as in Hofbräu’s case, the state government.

At the Augustiner-Keller, the young woman pouring Edelstoff from a wooden barrel into glass after glass is a frenzy of calm effort; of the 5,000 seats available, only a handful are unfilled. Glasses crash together; laughter fills the air. It’s alive with youthful vim, but there are limits. “No stag or hen nights allowed in the Augustiner-Keller,” a sign close to the northern entrance reads, in German and English.

Salzburg is Bavarian, beer-wise

Compared with Franconia, Salzburg would seem to be a clear-cut case: It’s definitely in Austria. But in terms of beer, it’s as Bavarian as they come. The city has a huge and historic brewery, Stiegl, pumping out superb Helles; a wheat-beer brewery, Die Weisse; and delicious Pils brewed by the nearby Trumer.

The jewel in the crown, though, is Augustiner (which is unrelated to its Munich namesake). This may be the best beer garden of them all. Here, the chestnut canopy seems thicker and more verdant, while circular green tables make an elegant change from the norm. The food stalls have offerings such as radishes and huge hunks of roast pork. On a summer afternoon before the crowds arrive, it’s utterly serene, a reflection of Salzburg’s wedding-cake grace.

The beer itself is a masterpiece of toasty balance, with a pouring ritual to match. First you pick a stoneware mug from a shelf — liter or half-liter — before rinsing it for cleanliness and temperature. You then pay for your beer and get a ticket, which you take to a server, who fills the mug. It sounds like a hassle, but it’s actually quite fun — uniquely Bavarian fun, albeit not quite in Bavaria.

Hawkes is a writer based in London. His website is willhawkes.contently.com. Find him on Twitter: @will_hawkes.

If You Go

Where to stay

Brauerei Spezial

Obere Königstrasse 10, Bamberg, Germany

011-49-951-243-04

brauerei-spezial.de

Brauerei Spezial, a brewery, inn and 15-room hotel rolled into one, is a great base to explore Franconia’s beer culture. Walk about 25 minutes to Spezial’s own bierkeller, perhaps Bamberg’s best. The Bamberg train station offers regular services to Forchheim, home to the Kellerwald. Closed Aug. 20 through Sept. 8. Double rooms with bathrooms and breakfast about $97 per night.

Zum Waldnaabtal

Marktplatz 1 (Neuhaus), Windischeschenbach, Germany

011-49-968-137-11

waldnaabtal-hotel.de

A good-value, cozy hotel in the heart of Neuhaus, part of Windischeschenbach, the center of Zoigl culture. Double rooms from about $94 per night, including breakfast.

Ibis Muenchen City

Dachauer Strasse 21, Munich

011-49-895-519-30

bit.ly/ibis-munich

Unpretentious hotel located close to the center of the city. Both Löwenbräukeller and Augustiner-Keller are a short walk away. Double rooms from about $109 per night, breakfast not included.

Hotel Auersperg

Auerspergstrasse 61, Salzburg, Austria

011-43-662-889-440

auersperg.at/en

Set on a quiet side street close to the center of Salzburg, this is an elegant but affordable option, with access to an on-site spa and an organic breakfast. Augustiner Brau is about a 20-minute walk through the center of Salzburg. Double rooms from about $111 per night, including breakfast.

Where to eat

Kellerwald

Auf den Kellern, Forchheim, Germany

bit.ly/kellerwald-germany

Twenty-three kellers, countless chestnut trees, dozens of beers: The Kellerwald is the apotheosis of Franconian beer culture. The only time all the kellers are open at once is during Annafest, typically an 11-day festival in late July when beer is served only in one-liter glasses. Try a different time during keller season (April to October) for calmer kellers and great value. One warning: Opening hours can be unreliable, so prepare to be flexible. Beer pours about $4 per half-liter.

Löwenbräukeller

Nymphenburger Strasse 2, Munich

011-49-895-260-21

loewenbraeukeller.com/en

The biergarten runs alongside the main building, with most tables shaded by chestnut trees. A half-liter of Helles or Dunkel costs about $5. There are two sections to the biergarten: You can choose self-service and bring your own food, or you can be served at table. Open daily, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Mains from about $9.

Augustiner-Keller

Arnulfstrasse 52, Munich

011-49-89-594-393

augustinerkeller.de

With 5,000 seats, the Augustiner-Keller is one of Munich’s largest beer halls — and is widely cited as perhaps the oldest there, too, dating back to 1812. The beer served here is the brewery’s export lager, Edelstoff, in one-liter pours. There’s a section for those who prefer to be served at the table; expect to pay a little more for beer. Beer garden open daily, 11 a.m. until midnight. Mains from about $9. Edelstoff pours about $8.

Augustiner Bräu Salzburg

Lindhofstrasse 7, Salzburg, Austria

011-43-662-431-246

augustinerbier.at

A short walk northwest of Salzburg’s Old Town, Augustiner offers an Austrian twist on a classically Bavarian experience. Open Monday through Friday, 3 to 11 p.m., and Saturday, Sunday and public holidays, 2:30 to 11 p.m. Half-liter pours about $3.50.

Information

bavaria.travel

salzburg.info/en


PLEASE NOTE

Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC’s travel health notice webpage.

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