Only here for the beer
G0 BAVARIA:The Bavarian beer garden’s 200th birthday is as good a reason as any to visit, writes DEREK SCALLY
NECESSITY IS NOT just the mother of invention, but also of the Bavarian beer garden, which is 200 years old this year.
Germans are among the world’s most enthusiastic lovers of Irish pubs, but in the warm summer months their love belongs to another. And anyone who has had the pleasure of visiting the real thing in Bavaria will know why: as in a good pub, the biergarten is as much about the atmosphere and the people as the drink.
In Bavaria in the Middle Ages beer was classified not as a beverage but ranked alongside bread and potatoes as a basic foodstuff. Bavaria’s extra-stringent beer-purity law, in place since then, ensures nothing but barley, hops and water is used to make this golden elixir.
Most German beers are fermented at between seven and eight degrees, about 10 degrees below Irish beers. How, then, in the pre-refrigeration era could beer be stored cool enough to be potable in the warm summer months? To solve the problem, brewers dug their own beer cellars outside the walls of Bavarian cities. They built warehouses above the cellars and, to keep the summer sun from heating the ground, planted trees. Chestnut trees were favoured, combining maximum shade with narrow roots that would cause minimum damage to the cellars below.
One of the first mentions of a Bavarian beer garden was in 1783, describing brewers enjoying their beer in their yards outside the city limits. Soon they were selling a few sneaky pints to passers-by. Over the next decades, a casual sideline became a full-blown business for the brewers, to the annoyance of pub owners in Munich city centre. They were convinced the breweries were trying to put them out of business and complained to Bavarian King Max I Joseph.
Anxious to keep the peace – beer had caused wars in Bavaria – he passed a law legalising beer gardens, but under strict conditions.
The beer could only be sold in beer gardens from June to September, and it was to be dispensed in open containers and drunk in minuto (on the spot) not sold for later consumption. The law also guaranteed a pub monopoly on food; beer garden operators were forbidden from selling customers anything but beer and bread.
Instead customers were allowed to bring their own food to the beer garden. One of the great pleasures of the season is watching visitors open baskets and spread tablecloths on the bench for a feast of bread and pretzels, sausage, salad, radishes and cheese. Allowing such freedom is a bold leap of faith, yet the far-sighted food rule is one of the reasons Bavaria’s beer gardens have been so successful, sustainable and inclusive through the centuries.