The Biergarten aka beer garden has achieved cult status in Bavaria. The reasons and origins for this are explored by Munich-based author Thomas Grasberger. An important piece of the Bavarian way of life
Bavaria's beer gardens
Sometimes, big words are given a casual mention. Sometimes almost too casual. “Let’s go to the Biergarten today,” suggests the well-meaning husband on a warm, summer’s evening, and takes his wife to a place that he considers the epitome of Bavarian Gemütlichkeit.
In among the heat-soaked walls of the city streets, the couple find open-air seating at a round folding table with a red and white check tablecloth and a colourful bunch of flowers. Concrete planters give the illusion of a garden, while a colourful string of outdoor lights creates an almost Mediterranean atmosphere.
You’d think you were in the south, if the sign above the entrance did not state in Gothic script - white on blue - the words: “Bayerischer Biergarten!” Our couple take a seat here…
Biergarten rule no. 1: No exposed concrete
He drinks two halves of Münchner Helles beer, she has a small glass of Franconian Riesling, while the busy but always good-humoured waiting staff bring out hot dishes from the kitchen and balance them on the tables. It’s sure to be a convivial evening, but there will ultimately be one thing missing: the Biergarten!
Still an open-air bar or a genuine Bavarian Biergarten?
If only our good man had checked the Bavarian Biergarten regulations of 20 April 1999. He would soon have realised that he had only taken his wife to an open-air bar and not to a genuine Bavarian Biergarten. The latter has two distinguishing features: firstly, the opportunity to bring your own food and enjoy it on the premises. And secondly, the fact that it really is a garden.
Do a couple of plant pots count? Probably not, according to Bavaria’s Higher Administrative Court in 2019: “The ideal image of the Biergarten makes it possible to sit in the shade of mature trees. Any deficits in this respect may only be compensated for to a limited extent by smaller plantings within the premises.”
Biergarten rule no. 2: Lots of chestnut trees, no tablecloths
Ideally there should be a couple of majestic chestnut trees. And underneath their shady branches, if you please, no colourful tablecloths, bunches of flowers or other fripperies, but instead plain, solid Bavarian Biergarten furniture.
This is essential, as guests need somewhere to lay out all the substantial and wholesome dishes they have brought from home in their picnic basket. However, some guests like to bring their own tablecloth.
Biergarten rule no. 3: Bavarian pretzels and Obatzda cheese
These delicacies are a must, and should be served with well-salted white radishes, cut into an accordion shape, and juicy, bright red radishes too. Black bread and crisp pretzels are the order of the day, alongside a little fresh butter, pickled gherkins, Griebenschmalz (pork fat spread), Emmental cheese and a Wurstsalat (sausage salad) - Bavarian-style, of course.
The crowning glory - usually proffered last with a flourish by the person who made it - is a fluffy, creamy Obatzda cheese dip, mixed together by hand. And there by and large you have it: everything you need for a perfect summer evening in the Bavarian cult institution that is the Biergarten.
And how about the beer?
All that is missing now is that divine fluid, which is lovingly drawn from a barrel. Beer does not just give our epicurean garden its name, but was also crucial in determining its true purpose. After all, the Biergarten is innately a form of rustic, unsophisticated pub.
That’s why any place that earns the name Biergarten is somewhere nobody has to eat anything - and where very few people need to be forced to drink anything. Out of respect for Bavarian history, naturally!
The history of the Biergarten
Biergärten, or beer gardens, first appeared in Munich in the 19th century. In those days, beer was only brewed in the winter months, using yeast that fermented at low temperatures between four and nine degrees. This so-called bottom fermented beer had to be stored in a cool place in the summer, which is why the brewers of Munich dug deep cellars in the terraces along the River Isar, where they laid down their noble product on ice.
These underground vaults were then covered with plenty of gravel and flat-rooted chestnut trees were planted to provide cooling shade. Then it was quick work to set up a couple of wooden tables and some benches: and there you have it - a Bierkeller!
In the beginning there was the beer cellar. Then came gravel and chestnuts
The requisite alcohol license was issued by Bavaria’s first and highly popular King Maximilian I Joseph in 1812. His subjects were extremely grateful to him and were always happy to raise a toast to their king. The new open-air locations made a considerable contribution to the leisure value of what had been a quiet, provincial town on the Isar.
From then on, the people of Munich spent their summers doing what they still like best today: they descended en masse to the large beer cellar gardens, some of which are still in operation.
Inn landlords were less enthusiastic about the new competition. To prevent them from losing out, the Bavarian authorities in their boundless foresight issued the following decree: “They (the large beer cellars) are expressly forbidden from serving food and other drinks.” Anyone wishing to enjoy a beer in the shade of the chestnut trees had to bring their own food with them. From a purely legal point of view, this was the birth of the traditional Biergarten.
However, this official division of labour was not to last - the clever Bavarian landlords soon planted their own gardens with chestnut trees, set up tables and benches under them and sold not only hot food but cold beer too. The lines between the traditional beer cellars owned by the brewers and the garden inns became increasingly blurred.
And nowadays? Almost every concrete-tiled back yard between Duisburg and Dinslaken is adorned with the sign “Biergarten”. Particularly brazen northerners even add the term “Bavarian”. Well, may they be forgiven! Nobody wants to haul anyone up in front of the judge, because legal quibbles have no place at a beer table.
Biergarten Revolution: a popular uprising
One exception to this state of play emerged in the mid-1990s. In the so-called Biergarten Revolution, thousands of Bavarians demonstrated against a judicial decree from Berlin. It demanded drastically reduced opening hours for Bavarian Biergärten on the grounds of “environmental emissions”, in other words, noise! No wonder local public opinion bubbled over like a freshly tapped beer barrel.
The aftermath of the revolution has long since died down and the old order restored. Today, locals are once again enjoying peace and convivial hospitality - always assuming they can find somewhere to sit in the Biergarten. Which is sometimes easier said than done. In some places, thousands of thirsty punters cluster under the chestnut trees. Thank goodness there are enough opportunities to dodge the crowds.
Zen with a litre of beer, or two
Those holy places, where native Bavarians like to find themselves on a mild summer evening and meditate on the meaning of life. The aim of a successful evening in a Biergarten is nothing as profane as a hangover or an all-out rave, but rather the deep realisation of the unity of all beings, all people, animals and plants.
Even differences in status and income fade into the background. In the Biergarten, (almost) all people are equal, at least for the duration of a glass or two of beer. Like the silent loner, who spends hours sitting motionless like a Zen monk looking straight ahead and appearing to have already reached a higher level of consciousness. Others sit in pairs or small groups, utterly calm and cheerfully serene, with no intense discussions or debates.
Garrulous or argumentative types are simply not welcome. People just want to have a bit of peace, toast each other, exchange a few ritual words and sink back into that state of total calm and contentment, which is only inadequately described by the term Gemütlichkeit.
Which is the best Biergarten in the country?
In Bavaria, the question of the best Biergarten is treated like a matter of faith. Which gets closest to the ideal of a magical place with cult status, where a true Bavarian can find cosmic balance on a hot summer’s day?
Opinions vary widely as everyone has their own personal image of heaven on earth. It is, therefore, a real matter of faith, which can occupy a Bavarian for the whole of their lifetime.
And sometimes beyond. “Die Leich´ vom Huaba Schorsch is´ hinten im Salettl” (The corpse of Huber Georg is out back), cried the lusty waitress to new arrivals a few years ago at a Munich Biergarten. Guests from the north looked totally baffled before being put straight by locals.
It was not the actual corpse of Huber Georg that was laid out in the wooden pavilion of the Biergarten. It was just the mourners, who had come there for the wake. Where else would they go? After all, “Schorsch” had been a passionate Biergarten devotee all his life. It would have been hard to find a better place between heaven and earth for his corpse to lie.