Ale fresco in Munich’s beer gardens

Travelling Well | Don Fuchs | Posted on 16 August 2017

Having a beer beneath the trees is a must when visiting Bavaria’s capital.

It is one of those spectacular days when Munich sparkles and live-life-to-the-fullest becomes the motto. And in this city, that means a visit to a beer garden.

And not just any beer garden. The Hirschgarten is a large public park in the west of the city, once a private hunting domain for the gentry. Deep in this green space resides the largest beer garden in Bavaria and quite possibly in the world. If full, 8000 patrons will sit in the shade of mature trees and enjoy life.

I can hear and even smell the beer garden before I see it. There is an animated murmur in the air. The aroma of barbecued chicken and fish wafts towards me.

For Bavarians, visiting a beer garden is a way of life.

Once inside it’s no surprise to see the food outlets doing a roaring trade, plus long queues at the self-serve station where you get your beer. It takes a few minutes to find a small gap on one of the benches, and I sit next to Heinrich Bauregger, a 64-year-old publisher for whom this is his favourite beer garden.

The mood is joyful and relaxed, with no signs of people working hard to get senselessly drunk. That’s not what beer gardens are for. “It is all about socialising, eating Bavarian food, having a great time,” explains Heinrich. “For Bavarians, visiting a beer garden is a way of life.” And they owe their pleasure gardens to a native deciduous tree. And Napoleon.

The Bavarian beer decree of 1593 stipulated that brewing could only be done between 29 September (St Michael) and 23 April (St George). During the other, warmer months, breweries were shut because of fire danger so the brewers had to stockpile their products.

But how do you keep the beer from going bad without refrigeration or artificial ice? The solution was to build underground cellars, but the brewers weren’t well versed in geology. Munich sits on a large gravel plain and the groundwater level is so high that they couldn’t go deep enough. Then they had another brainwave: plant the native tree with the largest leaves on top of the underground storages for additional shade. That tree was the humble horse chestnut. 

In summer, the beer garden becomes our living room.

A few leafy trees, however, don’t make a beer garden. This is where Napoleon came in. As a temporary ally of the Bavarians, the French emperor convinced the ruling Wittelsbacher dynasty to introduce more liberal economic policies.

One was that brewers could sell their product directly to the public, and it only needed a few benches and tables under the chestnut trees and the first beer gardens were established. But to appease the owners of local pubs worried about the new competition, selling food was not allowed, although the beer gardens circumvented this by allowing patrons to bring their own food, a rule that is still valid in most beer gardens today.

Sisters Nastasja and Isabel Wagner, students in their early 20s, live in Karlsfeld, a suburb in Munich’s north. I meet them in the English Garden, at the Chinese Tower where one of Munich’s most popular beer gardens is situated. Nastasja, dressed in a modern version of a traditional dirndl top and jeans, is enjoying an obazda – camembert with butter and quark, seasoned with onion and paprika, processed to a spread.

Her sister prefers white radish, salted and sliced thinly. Both share a large brezl, which is a doughy salted pretzel. This is typical beer garden fare, piquant and savoury, and it goes perfectly with cool Bavarian beer. Other delicacies on offer are steckerlfisch (skewered mackerel grilled over hot coals), hendl (barbecued chicken), würstl (grilled sausages), schweinshaxn (pork knuckle), sauerkraut and various salads. 

“You know,” Nastasja says between bites, “in summer, the beer garden becomes our living room.”

man wearing emerald green bavarian attire and matching hat
woman behind a shop counter selling bavarian heart-shaped cookies holding one to display to the camera
man at a table with a beer stein in a traditional bavararian Lederhosen and hat

If you bring your own food, aim for the tables without a cloth. On set tables, however, you have to order a meal and will be served by a waiter. This distinction between BYO/self-service and full service is especially apparent at the Seehaus, a small beer garden with an adjoining restaurant.

The Seehaus is also in the English Garden, at a lake called Kleinhesselloher See. While the garden at the Chinese Tower attracts an eclectic mix of tourists, students from the nearby university and locals from Munich and surrounds, the Seehaus, with its more refined atmosphere, a setting to die for and higher prices, attracts Munich’s well-to-do crowd. Yet you shouldn’t feel intimidated, because beer gardens are the great social equalisers, a bit like the Australian beach. Under the shade of the chestnut trees, neither your social standing nor your wallet plays a role.

Certain beer garden patrons do enjoy special status, and you usually find some at the Viktualienmarkt, Munich’s central market. They wear the traditional ‘tracht’ with lederhosen and hats adorned with gamsbart, a bundle of neck hair from a male chamois. Their table is marked with a sign saying “Stammtisch”, the regulars’ table, and they will always have a seat – not a bad thing on this Saturday afternoon where otherwise it’s standing room only.

Patrons sit under the dense canopy of a riparian forest on the banks of the River Würm.

Yet five minutes’ walk will get you to another Munich beer institution that has a totally different mood. The Hofbräuhaus is in a large atrium surrounded by historic buildings, and all the tables are set and serviced by waiters. For purists, this is not a real beer garden because you can’t bring your own food. But it is an enclave of peace within the muted din of the city outside.

For more of a rural feel, try the Inselmühle, perhaps Munich’s most beautiful beer garden. Patrons sit under the dense canopy of a riparian forest on the banks of the River Würm, with suburbia close but well hidden. Perfectly situated along a 30-kilometre bike track that follows the river, the beer garden is famous for its grilled chicken and steckerlfisch.

The citizens of Munich love their beer gardens so much that when an early closing time of 9pm threatened to become law, it triggered what is now called the First Bavarian Beer Garden Revolution in 1995. More than 25,000 concerned citizens crowded Munich’s central square to make their voices heard. The Bavarian government heard the voice of the people and the fun can now linger on until 11pm.

Na dann Prost! (Well then cheers!)

Two ladies clinking beeers at a Munich beergarden. One is wearing bavarian garb

Nastasja and Isabel Wagner.

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Photos: Don Fuchs