by Stephen Beaumont
Tell someone that you're headed to Munich in the fall, and they'll automatically assume you're headed to Oktoberfest. In fact, when you're in my line of work, if you mention Germany at virtually any time of year, most people will assume that you're either planning for or coming off a trip tied to Oktoberfest. This is because most people assume that the annual Bavarian blast is more or less a sort of beer festival.
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It is not. It is a beer-drinking festival, and no, they aren't the same thing.
So arrives the first lesson of Bavarian beer: If you want to drink lots of German beer, visit Munich during Oktoberfest. But if you're looking for variety, know that during the celebration Bavarians know as Wies'n, the available beers are limited by the rules to those of the six Munich breweries: Hofbräuhaus, Paulaner, Spaten, Löwenbräu, Augustiner and Hacker-Pschorr. If you want to sample a wider variety, you'd do best to plan your visit for virtually any other time of the year.
More to the point, if you're an economy-minded soul like me, you should aim for the months when the Bavarian weather is at its least hospitable. Personally, as a traveler who has never met a shoulder season he didn't like, I enjoy November. Sure, you miss the massive biergartens, some of which boast seating capacities numbering in the thousands, but you do save considerable money on hotels, and the crowds of tourists aren't nearly what they are in the summer. You may even get as lucky as I was a few years back and happen on to an unseasonable heat wave.
Or you may get snowed on. Like the man says, "You pays your money, you takes your chances."
Lesson number two of Bavarian beer is to cast aside all your illusions of Munich as a haven for such complex and compelling beer styles as doppelbock, märzen and dunkelweizen. The beer Bavarians drink is helles, a mildly hoppy, moderately malty blonde lager designed for ease of consumption. It can be very good, as it is at the Andechs monastery just outside of Munich, but it can also be rather mundane, as at that tourist magnet, the Hofbräuhaus. Seldom is it entirely without merit, if only because it's usually served deliciously fresh, but it soars to glory just about as often.
If it's your first visit to Munich, someone is probably going to suggest that you start at the Hofbräuhaus, and indeed you should. Sure, the atmosphere has been "Disney-fied" for the masses, the rather mediocre helles and dunkel are served only by the mas (one-litre stein), and the servers can range in attitude from indifferent to downright surly, but this is still one of the city's oldest, grandest and largest beer halls. As commercialized as it is -- there's even a souvenir stand for buying all sorts of branded paraphernalia -- the Hofbräuhaus still speaks to the camaraderie and fun that is, or should be, at the core of any decent beer hall.
Beyond the Hofbräuhaus, there exists a plethora of great beer halls to visit within an easy walk of Munich's pedestrian-friendly city centre, from the Schneider brewery's Weisses Bräuhaus, where the great, spicy Schneider Weisse is perhaps served at its very best, to the almost hidden Augustiner-Keller, near the train station, which beams its welcome through the trees with an oddly haunting neon sign, to the restaurant-like Altes Hackerhaus, where fine Bavarian cuisine meets a variety of lagers from both the Hacker-Pschorr and Paulaner lines. (The Hacker and Paulaner breweries merged long ago, and now both labels are brewed at the nearby Paulaner brewery.)
Personally, though, I prefer to find my Munich diversions either in small or out-of-the-way places, such as the Löwenbräu-owned Unionsbräu brewpub, where I enjoyed a yeasty, spicy Kellerbier, or outside of town. In my experience, the latter is where the best in Munich-area beer may be found.
There is a wonderful part of the Munich transit system called the S-Bahn, which transports riders to the farthest reaches of the city suburbs. As I drove about last November, dodging Münchners who were testing the limits of the BMW and Audi sports coupes, I was astonished to pass S-Bahn stops in even the most outlying areas. Herein lies lesson number three of Bavarian beer: The train is your friend.
The S-Bahn will, for example, take you within a short taxi or bus ride of the Andechs monastery, where Benedictine monks oversee the brewing of some of the region's most spectacular beers, including an outstanding dry Spezial Hell and a Doppelbock Dunkel so rich and complex that it truly is, as the monks maintain, "a delight for the body and soul." When you go, bring a basket of food with you for picnicking, or buy a hamper of the monastery's own cheese and sumptuous brown beer bread.
Alternately, you can make your S-Bahn excursion last a couple of days by booking into the Brauereigasthof Hotel Aying, a charming hostelry run by the Inselkammer family of Brauerei Aying. The rooms aren't what you would call luxurious, but they are exceedingly comfortable and have the added bonus of coming with a welcoming bottle of Ayinger beer and a sumptuous breakfast buffet the following morning. Just down the road, the very modern Ayinger brewery uses natural source water similar in profile to that of the Czech town of Pilsen to brew a variety of flavourful lagers and wheat beers, including the mocha-ish Celebrator Doppelbock and the clovey dunkelweizen, Ur-Weisse.
Then again, you could always opt for a taste of Bavarian royalty by taking the train in the direction of the castle brewery of Kaltenberg. This is where Prinz Luitpold supervises the brewing of one of Germany's best dark lagers, the dryish König Ludwig Dunkel, and where, in a genuine clash of cultures, a French chef creates genuine cuisine ą la bière featuring the Kaltenberg beers. It is also one of the very few places where you can enjoy the Ritterbock, an intense, anise-accented doppelbock of 9.2% alcohol.
In between all of these beer destinations, and well beyond, there exists a multitude of breweries and brewpubs and privatbrauerei-gasthofs like the Schlossgut Odelhausen, which I happened upon en route from Kaltenberg back to Munich. True, their softly malty Naturtrub Hell and chocolaty Naturtrub Dunkel were not necessarily lagers worth planning a trip around, but they could have been. And so we arrive at lesson number four of Bavarian beer, which is to not place all of your faith in the cities. In a region of close to a thousand breweries, rural areas can be the source of many great surprises. And nothing should be taken for granted.
Munich Area Beer Destinations
Am Platzl 9
Tel: 089/221 676
Tal Strasse 7
Tel: 089/299 875
Arnulf Strasse 52
Tel: 089/594 393
Sendlinger Strasse 14
Tel: 0049/89 260 5026
Fax: 0049/89 260 5027
Tel: 089/477 677
Fax: 089/470 5848
Brauereigasthof Hotel Aying
Zornedinger Strasse 2
Am Schlossberg 1
CBN Associate Editor Stephen Beaumont brings his passionate and unapologetic opinions to the Internet each and every month at www.WorldofBeer.com. His most recent book is The Great Canadian Beer Guide, Second Edition (McArthur & Company, 2001).
Copyright 2003, Celebrator No material herein may be reprinted without permission of the Celebrator Distributed On the W3 For personal, non-commercial enjoyment and use only. Cheers!
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