The beer scene in the US is stellar. It’s the trendsetter (Hello hazy IPA). The country dwarfs all others when it comes to the sheer number of craft breweries its borders contain. Within twenty minutes walking distance from my house I can get to six independent breweries.
But, when it comes to a history with beer, the States have almost none. Sierra Nevada considers itself to be the first craft brewery in the country and it was founded less than 40 years ago. Sure, plenty of adjunct lagers from macrobreweries like Budweiser, Coors and Miller — the survivors of prohibition — but the US is a baby when it comes to good beer.
Germany, however, has been doing this for centuries. It’s turned out the Helles, Märzen, Pilsner, Hefeweizen, Gose, Dunkeles, Rauchbier, Berliner Weisse, Altbier, Kellerbier and so on and so forth. Regardless of the restaurant or bar you’re in, each time you look at the beer list you’ll catch a few German submissions. When it comes to countries with the richest beer brewing history, there’s Belgium. There’s England. And right up there at the top is Germany.
When it comes to enjoying beer, there’s nothing quite like going to a German beer garden on a sunny day. My husband Carl and I spent three weeks in Germany focusing that time in Berlin and Bavaria, spending many afternoons and evenings sipping a masßwhile reading or playing a hand of cards.
One thing I truly believe is that there are no “bad” beer gardens. There are dive bars that are sticky and completely devoid of charm. There are restaurants whose food lacks all soul. But a beer garden is hard to miss on. It’s kind of like pizza — The components are so simple that when put together, it becomes extremely hard to mess up. All that’s needed is some space that’s hit by the sun for a few hours a day, a few picnic tables and beer. Heck, we’ve been to spots that are located in someone’s backyard, and they’re still magical.
When I set out to catalogue my favorite spots, whittling the list down to five was harder than expected. Some places that were floating towards the top were located elsewhere in Bavaria and because I’ve only been to a few Bavarian towns it would be downright rude to rank all of Bavaria’s breweries if I’d only been to a fraction of them. Other spots blurred the lines between beer garden and restaurant, so it became imperative to create some ground rules. In order to be considered a beer garden there must be no table service, no host and sit-yourself communal seating. Food and drink must be served separately, with your beer being provided as soon as its ordered while food is provided later. These rules helped to weed out restaurants which just happened to have amazing gardens. And with all this in mind, I present the rankings of one little lady, in one of the greatest beer countries in the world.
Prinzessinnengärten. In one word: Hippie.
Princessengarden is a fairy tale scene come to life steps away from a metro station in Berlin. You wouldn’t even know you’re located in the trendy neighborhood of Kreuzberg once you enter. All you see are the locust trees that shade the picnic tables or the pizza oven that fires up a mean margherita that’s piping hot and doused liberally in olive oil and basil leaves. All the beers are sold from the bottle, but who cares. They’re damn good beers. As you sip your brew a light breeze will send tiny flowers onto your table. Nearby are bee colonies and tomato plants and I swear the trees blur out all sounds from the busy streets. Started in 2008 with the intention of becoming the ideal urban environment, I’d say it lives up to its mission statement. In Germany there are tons of places where it feels like you’ve just stepped foot into a fairytale. I just never thought the middle of Berlin would be one of them.
Republik. In one word: Hipster
There’s a two-decker London bus parked in the gravel and a silver haired black man cooking up Jamaican jerked chicken and plantains next to beer window. Seating varies from plastic lawn furniture to umbrellaed picnic tables and you can even camp out on the second story of the bus, swigging beer surrounded by LEDs that line the aisle. The bathroom doors are graffitied with images of James Dean, Satan, and a Pulp Fictionified Uma Thurman. Only a handful of beers are on draft, but they’re craft breweries instead of Munich megaliths. Each patron has a bag of loose tobacco and rolling papers next to them, which they slowly yet methodically roll out into perfect cigarettes as they drink and chat. The atmosphere is relaxed, the clientele are casually dressed and the Jamaican food is so good we come back several times in two short weeks. Within walking distance from our Berlin Airbnb no transit is needed to get here; no lipstick required to feel welcome. Republik always felt casual and cozy and even homey, a thousand miles from my front door.
Hirschgarten. In one word: Traditional.
This is the beer garden that folks will tell you is a must in Munich. They’re not lying. To eat you can (and must) order a Steckfisch — fish on a stick that’s charred and served with a half of a lemon. With your bare hands you’ll rip the fish apart and eat it plain. There will be no tartar and no cocktail sauce. You will not miss it. You’ll do this while a pretzel is resting gently on your lap. The pretzel will be larger than your head and covered in small pebbles of salt. Reading this may make you thirsty. Fear not friends, all beer is served on draft so you’ll wash the sodium down with a liter of Augustiner Helles. Or perhaps Märzen or a Dunkel. In front of us is a Bavarian band, and yes, the images that spring to mind of accordionists in lederhosen and feathered hats accurately describe the scene. Behind the band is a meadow filled with deer grazing on grass. At Hirschgarten there is no-one, man nor animal, dissatisfied.
Andechs. In one word. Bavarian.
Ok, so it’s not actually in Munich but it’s on the metro line. From Munich Central Station we take the S8 Train into the town of Andechs, a sleepy town nestled in the Bavarian countryside, to begin our pilgrimage to Klosterbrauerei Andechs, as monks have done for centuries. Dating back to 1455 when seven Benedictine monks moved into the area to begin a monastery and started brewing some tasty malted beverages, the brewery has remained operated ever since by monks of the Andechs Abbey and now churns out 85,00 barrels of beer annually.
Deposited in the town center we had a choice — Wait for a bus to take us towards the brewery and monastery, or, trek through the forest for a mile until we wound up at its entrance. We chose the latter, and never in my life did I feel more like Gretel, journeying through a thick wood with Hansel by my side (but a less brother-y and more romantic-y Hansel). As we hiked our proximity to the brewery became apparent by the number of bottle caps stomped into the dirt pathway. To tame my hunger we played the game “Bottle cap or snail?” and began to tally up the number of bottle caps we passed along the path vs the number of snails dotting trees. Bottle caps put up a good fight, but snails won 21-18.
When finally we ordered a beer at the brewery and sat down, the view of the countryside was everything I imagined Bavaria to be. The puffiest of white clouds above and the greenest of hills below, all enjoyed with a bock that’s been brewed on this hill since before the Moulin Rouge was bustling, the Sagrada Familia was conceived of, and the Declaration of Independence was signed. The pilgrims who journey here reach a holy land.
Klunkerkranich. In one word: Contemporary.
It’s so cool it oozes trend. In Berlin on a working vacation, Friday evenings are a time of excitement. We get to celebrate the weekend with the rest of the city. At 5:05 we begin our walk to Klunkerkranich and at 5:20 we arrive… at a shopping mall. We double check the address. We read the signs posted along the entry-ways for a clue to the garden’s entrance (well, Carl reads them as he speaks German. I just read the fire exit signs. In the event of an emergency, I know where to go). We quickly locate others in the same position, they’re not hard to find. In their mid to late twenties, most are dressed in black and white and have that whole “I can make cropped halter tops look cool post-2000” vibe going for them. Together we locate an elevator and go up to the top floor which dumps us off in a parking garage. In a confused mass we wander through the garage until we reach the garden entrance.
Immediately we’re met with a city view that’s unparalleled, a Jeff Koonz wannabe dog blow up and an adult sandbox equipped with toys. There are rooms bedecked with so many blankets it’s almost harem-ish. To order a beer you have to pay a €5 cup fee. They’ve had so many issues with folks leaving with glasses in hands that the plastic cup rental costs more than the beer itself. We people watch while playing a few hands of cards and sipping hefeweizen, then decide to make our way out for dinner. As I leave I wonder if we’ve made a mistake and should stay for another beer. After all, it’s still early. But when I step foot back into the garage I see youthful swarms walking towards Klunkerkranich. It’s 7:00pm and I’m sure this place will be entirely full by 9:00pm. When the elevator arrives its contents empty out and the scene replays itself with different cast members.
A Beer Hall Bonus: Hofbräuhaus München. In one word: Granddaddy.
Beer halls run on a different speed than beer gardens — Things slow down in a beer garden where the sun dictates the time and no servers pressure you into ordering another drink. Halls are different. Windows are few and the space is cavernous, always the perfect size for ricocheting sounds off walls and into a drunken white noise. Glasses are constantly being clanged, often with strangers. Servers are somehow capable of carrying five mases in each hand without spilling or their arms giving way to the weight. Halls smell of sweat and pork fat and malt and Hofbräuhaus München is no exception.
Founded in the 16th century by an actual Duke, the Hofbräuhaus now has one of the largest tents during Oktoberfest, 20 locations worldwide, and even saved Munich from sacking in the 17th century during a siege from Sweden when the Swedish king agreed to leave Munich in peace so long as the city surrendered a few hostages and 600,000 barrels of the breweries famed beer.
While the Hofbräuhaus may be incredibly touristly (look to your left, look to your right, someone in view is taking a selfie of themselves with a pretzel) it’s still a local favorite and you’ll find Munich residents hob-nobbbing with Japanese travellers. Munich is a city of 1.5 million and the Hofbräuhaus is such a staple that if you could scurry around the corner for a drink at one of the countries most recognizable landmarks, well, wouldn’t you?