Posted by: traveljunkies | July 10, 2010

Munich’s Oktoberfest Is The Biggest – But Is It The Best?

Munich’s Oktoberfest – It Starts in September

July 2nd, 2010  |  Published in General Info | Edit | No Comments »

Liquid luncheon – a great Adventure?

As Munich’s amber-fluid festival gets under way, Sacha Molitorisz samples the city’s best beer gardens.

You may smile. I certainly did. Conforming neatly to stereotype, the waitress is wearing a traditional Bavarian dress, or dirndl, a fetching number of sky blue and white frills carefully engineered to accentuate her bosom. Up higher, she wears an expression of pure determination. No surprise really, for in her arms are eight glasses of beer.

I say glasses but that doesn’t do them justice, as each one contains a litre of beer. In Munich’s beer gardens, this is the standard serve, just as in NSW it’s a “schooner” and in Victoria a “pot”. And I can see her still, carrying eight litres of Bavaria’s finest, four heroic mugs on each arm.

Munich’s annual beer festival kicked off on the weekend with general elections in a week’s time seemingly far from the mind of most participants.

One is for me.

“Danke,” I say as the waitress delivers my “mass” (pronounced “muss”).

She scowls. Ah, German hospitality.

Whenever I visit Munich in spring or summer, my first priority is to explore its beer gardens. Even my grandma, who should be my first priority, understands.

Once the temperature tops 15 degrees, there’s nothing more Munich than sitting under a chestnut tree, taking a hearty sip of the world’s best brew and striking up a conversation with a stranger.

Nowadays, beer gardens are as ubiquitous as Irish pubs but only in Munich will you find the real thing, brimming with the elusive quality of “gemuetlichkeit” – that is, an inviting, friendly cosiness. Why? Because strict rules and traditions underlie the easygoing atmosphere. Above all, there must be chestnut trees, communal wooden tables and punters must be allowed to bring their own food.

A few centuries back, after struggling to keep their beer cool in summer, Munich’s brewers started storing their barrels in cellars and planting chestnut trees to provide shade with their grand canopies. Then, not quite 200 years ago, King Ludwig I granted these brewers the right to sell beer on the spot but not to sell food. These days drinkers are still allowed to bring their own nosh for “brotzeit”, or “bread time”.

Most don’t, however, preferring to buy the local equivalent of pub grub: weisswurst (veal and herb sausages, a Bavarian specialty meant to be eaten before 11am); bratwurst (roast snags); kartoffelsalat (potato salad); radi (radishes with salt); or, my favourite, schweinshaxe (pork knuckle). And, of course, brezen (pretzels).

That said, the most important food of all is beer.

In Munich, the home of Oktoberfest, beer is the prevailing faith. Catholicism runs second. Actually, hereabouts the two are often closely linked. Last summer, a newspaper story told of the struggle of Munich’s St Maximilian Church to attract parishioners and funds. Priest Rainer Schiessler is considering opening a beer garden adjoining his house of God. Asked to comment on the proposal, parishioners were overwhelmingly in favour.

Near Munich airport, the town of Weihenstephan is home to a Benedictine abbey founded in 725. In 1040, thirsty monks established what now ranks as the world’s oldest operational brewery. It has close links with the Munich University of Technology, which runs courses in brewing. But not theology. There is, of course, a beer garden at Weihenstephan.

The world’s oldest food purity law is said to be the Reinheitsgebot of 1516, which prescribed that only three ingredients be used to make beer: water, barley and hops. The law was only recently changed. Still, many brewers proudly declare that they abide by the Reinheitsgebot, thus receiving special treatment for their “traditional” food.

Suffice to say that you’ll struggle to find a bad beer and that Germany’s often additive-free brews are much kinder on the system than some Australian brews. You just need to know whether you want a “helles”, which is actually a clear, full-strength lager, or a “weissbier”, which means “white beer” but is actually a cloudy wheat beer (traditional in Bavaria). Alternatively, order a “radler”, which means “bicyclist” and is a mix of beer and lemonade – that is, a shandy. Then decide whether you want a mass or a “halbes” (half-litre). Generally, helles comes by the litre and weissbier by the half-litre. If the terminology escapes you, you can always just point to what you want at the self-service area, then pay and sit down at a communal wooden table. Just don’t sit at the tables bedecked with tablecloths, crockery and cutlery. That’s the full-service area.

It is in a service area of the Hofbraeukeller that the dirndl-clad waitress drops off my mass before turning abruptly to deliver the other seven. Newcomers to Munich might assess the service as rude and perfunctory. Sure, it’s far from fawning and, yes, Munich’s wait staff are often older than Weihenstephan’s brewery. In most cases, though, beneath the gruff exterior beats a warm heart. Flash a smile and crack a joke and you’ll be looked after.

On a warm afternoon or evening, where else would you want to be? As a pocket-sized volume called Der Biergarten Fuehrer says, “The Augustinerkeller on a warm summer evening is unique in the world, it is unrepeatable, it is untransplantable, it is Munich’s most ancient and personal life feeling and that’s why we’re the envy of the rest of the world.” (The 2009 edition, which I bought for €5 ($7.24) at Munich airport, is handy but available only in German. Blame me for the clunky translation. Still, there are analogous English-language websites.)

As Der Biergarten Fuehrer shows, there are hundreds of beer gardens in Munich and surrounds. Most are worth visiting but I agree entirely: the centrally located Augustinerkeller ( is the pick of the bunch.

Whenever the “cellerman” taps a new keg of Augustiner Edelstoff, a bell is rung. My hearing is not what it once was. Snippets of conversation escape me. My daughter’s voice is a blur. But this heavenly clang I hear from Sydney.

Truth is, it’s not in a scenic part of town. A short walk from the main railway station, it’s surrounded by train tracks and commercial buildings. Step through the gates, however, and you’re surrounded by picturesque conviviality beneath a ceiling of vivid green. Old-fashioned wooden huts serve beer and food, and in one corner is an impressive children’s playground. This is a recurring theme: unlike Aussie pubs, Munich beer gardens are devoutly family friendly, complete with slides, swings and expansive menus for children.

In the beer garden there’s one “stammtisch” (locals’ table) beside another, marked with the names of regulars including actors and politicians. It’s a locals’ local but even so you won’t have trouble finding a spot: there’s room for 5000. (Big? Bavaria’s biggest is the Hirschgarten, which accommodates 7000.) And if, despite the foliage, it gets too hot in the garden you can descend eight metres underground into the former ice cellar, where summer nights are invariably noisy. Layers and layers of joy.

North of town, in the middle of the grand park that is the Englischer Garten, the Chinesischer Turm (Chinese Tower, is best reached by bicycle. Indeed, Munich is a wonderful city for cycling, with few hills and plenty of bike tracks. One of three beer gardens in the Englischer Garten, the Chinese Tower is famous enough to attract swarms of tourists and locals. Foreign students sit with shirts off beside Bavarian suits downing lunchtime libations. Here you must pay a “pfand” for each drink – a deposit that’s paid back when you return the glass – but that’s a minor inconvenience in a glorious spot where there’s usually a brass band playing. And when it’s time, you can take your leave in a horse and cart.

Each July at the Chinese Tower, the Kocherlball, or Cooks’ Ball, is a colourful dance of traditional music and outfits. The twist is that it starts about 5am. In the days of old, this was the only time cooks and waiters could have their knees-up.

In the centre of Munich, the Hofbraeuhaus ( is the most famous of beer halls. This is because it’s a large and inviting old room but also because it was Hitler’s local. It’s the birthplace of Naziism: at a 1920 meeting here, Hitler and his cohorts renamed their German Workers’ Party the National Socialist German Workers’ Party. The Hofbraeuhaus is worth visiting, in part for its beer garden.

Personally, I prefer the Hofbraeukeller (, a 30-minute walk east across the Isar River from the city centre. Set among the parks and old apartments of Haidhausen – Munich’s answer to Paddington or Fitzroy, perhaps – it’s old-fashioned and unpretentious. The building itself, dating from 1892, is stunning inside, with its painted ceilings and wooden furniture. The food is excellent and there are three play areas for children: inside, there’s an enclosed area with a supervisor who has more toys, games and books than your average childcare centre; in the beer garden, there’s a regular playground with a slide and climbing equipment; and for younger kids there’s also an enclosed, supervised play area. As far as I could tell, these child-minding services were never abused by parents on benders.

In recent years, unfortunately, the Hofbraeukeller has opened an outdoor bar named Sausalitos, with sand, beach chairs and tequila shots to attract a hip young crowd. Such “beach beer gardens” work well in Spain. Or even Berlin. At the Hofbraeukeller, however, Sausalitos is like sticking flippers on a jackaroo. No matter. It’s easily ignored.

South of the city centre, Paulaner am Nockherberg ( is a famous boozery on a hill. Billing itself as “an open-air stage of Munich’s art of living”, the beer garden has been here since 1820 but it burnt to the ground in 1999 before reopening in 2003. Luckily, the ancient trees survived the inferno and from the ashes have risen new buildings with spectacular interiors. The atmosphere is returning, too, so much so that in July Nockherberg was named winner of the Abendzeitung newspaper’s annual My Most Beautiful Beer Garden contest, beating the Hofbraeuhaus and the Schloss at Munich’s Olympic Park (where the sand and beach chairs make much more sense than at the Hofbraeukeller).

Paulaner am Nockherberg has a small but useful playground, excellent food and, above all, a great opportunity for jokes about waitresses’ “nockherbergs”. The place used to be known as the Salvatorkeller, in honour of the Salvator strong beer brewed here and stored underground in what is said to be the world’s deepest lager cellar.

Thanks to the Salvator, the saying goes that getting up the hill of the Nockherberg is easy, whereas coming back down is tricky.

Each March, the first keg of Paulaner Salvator is tapped by a celebrity, bringing joy to thousands of lovers of “bockbier” (strong beer). At venues around Munich, the Starkbierfest, or strong beer festival, lasts about a fortnight and is known as Munich’s “fifth season”. If the early spring weather is warm enough, the Starkbierfest can coincide with the tentative beginnings of beer-garden season.

A little further south from Nockherberg, on an island on the Isar, Zum Flaucher ( has a spacious, relaxed, removed feel. Near the zoo, it’s surrounded by green fields where people play frisbee, football or (with your help) cricket. It’s a great place to reach by bike.

So is the Waldwirtschaft, or Wawi ( Ten kilometres south of Munich in the leafy ‘burbs favoured by the film stars and Bayern Munich players, the Wawi is a renowned Sunday favourite with an unwavering commitment to live music, especially jazz.

North of the city centre is the Ungererbad, one of Munich’s eight outdoor swimming pools (there are details at, albeit in German). On a sunny summer’s day, one of the nicest places to be in Munich is at a pool, particularly since they all have cosy beer gardens. With huge grounds, a 57-metre waterslide and a separate water domain for kids, the Ungererbad is the pick. Or maybe it’s the chemical-free Naturbad Maria Einsiedel, where you can swim in a frigid canal of the Isar.

And then, right in the heart of town is the Viktualienmarkt beer garden, set among the sausages stalls, fruit stands and miscellaneous vendors of the food markets. With stockbrokers drinking beside students and farmers, the beer garden here is a terrific melting pot. Some of the city’s best eateries are steps away (don’t miss Beim Sedlmayr on Westenriederstrasse). In a quirk symbolising the Viktualienmarkt’s central location, the city’s “big six” breweries take turns selling their beer here.

The way I see it, Bavaria is to Germany as Ireland is to England. The people talk funny and like a drink. And, much to the relief of visitors, the latter always seems to take care of the former.


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  1. Munich's Oktoberfest ? It Starts in September « Traveljunkies Blog…

    I found your entry interesting do I’ve added a Trackback to it on my weblog :)…

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