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Bavaria, and Munich in particular, is perhaps most famous for beer. The Oktoberfest, the biggest party in the world, has been held here every year since 1833, but the brewing goes back much further than that. Most breweries were founded by monks or royalty as a way to find a replacement for food during Lent, to make money or to kill time. There are over 700 breweries in Bavaria, making up 30 percent of breweries worldwide and they produce around 40 different kinds of beer. Another interesting statistic: Bavaria serves about 2.7 billion litres of beer annually, 500 million of which are consumed in the two-week long Oktoberfest. Find an overview of Munich brew houses in our restaurant section. One... two.. three... down the hatch!
The Reinheitsgebot purity law, decreed by Duke Wilhelm IV in 1516, states that only four ingredients are allowed in the beer brewing process: water, hops, yeast and barley (malt). German beers brewed abroad, like Löwenbräu, have added preservatives, which double the hangover effect.
All of Bavaria’s 40 types of beer belong to two main types of beer; lager and ale.
Ale is the oldest type of beer and involves the top fermentation process where yeast floats in the brew and is used to transform sugars into alcohol. It contains barley, hops, and water. This method was popular in the early days due to the fact that it isn’t temperature sensitive, and therefore can be brewed at any time of year. In Germany it is known as Altbier (old beer), although it is virtually non-existent in Bavaria. Most English beers and American micro brews belong to this type.
Lager beer was invented in the 19th century in Plzen, Czech Republic, hence the name Pilsener. It involves a different method of fermentation where yeast settles at bottom. Unlike ale, lager (which means storage) is brewed in temperature-controlled conditions and then stored.
Popular Munich beers
Helles is the most popular Munich beer although it’s not very old (it was introduced in 1895) and is a lager. This crowd-pleaser is a translucent gold colour and comes in at least a 0.5 litre glass and for special festivals and in beergardens in a Maß litre stein. This beer contains about 5 percent alcohol, has a light taste, and is really ideal in warm weather. It must be served with 1-2cm of foam or it is considered flat. In other parts of Germany, beer is served in a tiny 0.2-0.3l glass, much to the consternation of the Bavarians.
Pilsener is known in Germany as Pils and is considered by most Bavarians to be a yuppie beer. It comes in a 0.3l-fluted glass complete with a lacy doily. This lager is the same colour as Helles, but has a slightly bitter taste due to its having more hops. It’s also smaller, but despite that fact, takes longer to pour.
Dunkel dark beer is a deep rich, brown lager beer, which gets its dark colour from burnt malt. Not as black and heavy as a stout (like Guinness), dunkels has a sweet flavour, and only 4.3 percent alcohol.
Weizen (wheat beer) or or Hefeweizen (yeast wheat beer) came to be called Weissbier in Bavaria. A proper Weissbier is honey-coloured and is so opaque that you can’t read a book through it. Yeast adds to the sweet, almost banana-like flavour. It also comes in a delicious dark version, Dunkles Weissbier. It should always come in an elegant tall bell shape glass. It cannot be drunk from the bottle as it is necessary to stir up the yeast to activate the flavour, so it should be partly poured into a glass at a steep angle. Then the yeast is shaken up and poured on as a delicious four-centimetre foam head. A true Bavarian would not be caught dead with a lemon slice in their beer, but many oddball variations have come about: Weissbier with cola (Neger), with 7up (Russian) or with (gag!) banana juice. There is also a Leichtes Weissbier (light wheatbeer); not lower calorie, but lower alcohol. Kristallweizen, which is crystal clear Weissbier with the hefe (yeast) filtered out is only popular in Northern Germany. It is lower calorie, but the filtering takes out some flavour.
Starkbierzeit & Salvator - the Terminator beer
Starkbier Bock and Doppelbock are the strongest Munich beers, containing 6-7 percent and 9 percent alcohol respectively. They are dark amber and have a heavy malty taste. Kulmbach is said to be the strongest bock lager worldwide at 9.2 percent. These lagers originate from Paulaner monks who brewed it in 1634 and are most popular during the Lenten Starkbierzeit ‘strong beer time’, which begins on or before St. Joseph’s Day (March 19).
Märzen is a type of Bock named after the month of March because Monks consumed it during Lent. The most famous Starkbeer is Salvator, produced by Paulaner and when served by the Maβ (litre) quite dangerous. Other breweries have come up with copycat Starkbiers using the –ator suffix: Augustiner's Maximator; Löwenbräu's Triumphator; Unions-Bräu's Unimator. But only the original, Paulaner Salvator serves Starkbier all year round. Other silly names include: Animator, Optimator, Delicator, Aviator, Celebrator, Operator, Prädikator and Jubilator.
The drinking song
In order to get the most out of your beer drinking experience it’s a good idea to learn the Bavarian drinking song: Ein Prosit ein Prosit gemüdlichkeit, Ein Prosit ein Prosit gemütlichkeit... einz, zwei, drei, suffa!
In English that's: A toast, a toast, that cosy feeling… A toast, a toast, good vibes…one, two, three chug it down!). Now you can sing along instead of just mouthing the words while you bounce up and down on the bench with the others.
If you’re in Munich anytime between the first sunny spring day and the last fading light of a Bavarian-style autumn, head for one of the city’s most sacrosanct institutions – the Biergarten.
The tradition of beer gardens dates back to a medieval law banning the brewing of beer in summer due to the high risk involved. But that is when Bavarians are thirstier than ever and so, for lack of anything electrical-fridge-like, they started hamstering the winter brew in cellars. When chestnut trees were planted to keep the ground above cool, Münchners seized on the idea of consuming the frothy Bier on the spot. They were soon gathering in the shade of the large-leaved trees, bringing their picnic baskets along too. All thanks to King Ludwig I, who first allowed brewers to sell beer – but not food – outdoors.
The law seems long forgotten as most beer gardens now also sell food, but both the chestnut trees and the B-Y-O concession are still going strong. Beer gardens are Munich’s outdoor living rooms. They’re places where people relax, soak up the sun, and enjoy what the Germans call Gemütlichkeit. Loosely translated, it means getting cosy and convivial with each other, got the idea? Watch out where you sit though.
At covered tables a waitress will pop up and expect you to buy the restaurant’s food (and leave a decent tip). Whatever you do, never ever sit at the Stammtisch, a table reserved for regulars. They’ve paid for this privilege and can get a little stroppy if they turn up and find you there. Look instead for a table without a cloth. This tradition also goes back to King Ludwig. When brewers asked him to ban the impromptu picnic parties the monarch offered a compromise: customers could bring food along but eat only at tables without a cloth. So slide onto one of the long communal benches and don’t be afraid to sit with a group of total strangers – that’s tradition too.
What, you may wonder, do Münchners manage to pack into those bulging hampers? Favourites include black bread, cheese and sausage, gigantic radish spirals (known locally as Radi), cucumbers, tubes of sweet mustard, and giant pretzels. Paper plates and plastic forks won’t do; conservation-minded Münchners bring their household china and silver. A chequered Bavarian blue-and-white tablecloth, is also a must. So too are candles for the after-dark nibble and swig. The bill of food-to-go available from self-service shacks in the gardens, is invariably Bavarian: roasted pork knuckles; the famous Radi (watch out for armies of locals seated peeling them with a special tool), Steckerlfisch (smoked mackerel on a stick) and Obatzer, a mixture of butter, camembert, onion, and paprika. Do as Münchner – take a pizza-sized pretzel (Brez’n) and dunk it right in there!
Beer is served in Maβkrug, giant, dimpled beer steins, just like in the beer halls. Best-seller beers are the light-lager Helles and the dark-coloured Dunkel, beer many Germans associate with Munich. Münchners order their one-litre Maβ without batting an eyelid. It’s only the creamy-headed Weizen, brewed from wheat, that you buy in half-litre glasses. If you feel like taking it easy, order a Radler – a great beer-and-lemonade mix. Steady on though, there’s still about a pint of suds in there.
In Munich, you’re never far from a beer garden. There are more than 180 in town, with room for well over 100,000 punters. The most central are, not surprisingly, awash with tourists getting noisily sloshed, but they also attract equally large numbers of Münchner including babes-in-arms grans and granddads, office workers and an increasing number of sun-tanned yuppies waffling into their handys. Check out In Your Pocket’s choice of venues for clanking glasses and prosting the joys of biergarten life here, in our Restaurants section.