Thursday, 5 July 2012

The Beer Garden Revealed

Summer has hit Bavaria in full swing. Like almost all of the buildings here my apartment isn't airconditioned. It's not normally a problem but some evenings the heat and humidity can be oppressive. My small balcony isn't quite usable due to the continuing rennovation to the building exterior. So what is a Canadian temporary resident to do on a hot summer evening? Time to explore the delightful German tradition of the beer garden ("Biergarten").

Not a Biergarten!
I can hear all of you Canadians and Americans already: "What is Tom on about now? We have beer gardens here! We've been going to them for years!".  Please allow me to elaborate.

You can have a restaurant with outdoor seating. You can define an area with a few pot plants and some plastic chain. You can serve Molson Canadian or Alexander Keith's on draft or in the bottle. But it's not a beer garden. Now with full disclosure and to be totally fair, what I just described certainly exists in Germany (well apart from the Molson's and the Keith's). Restaurants here will go so far as to call their outdoor seating area a Biergarten. But by now even I have figured out that those aren't the real deal.

My Local Biergarten

First of all the beer garden can't really be on a sidewalk in St James or on Sherbrooke Street. It has to be in a parklike setting, preferably with large old growth trees for shade (umbrellas will do in a pinch) and protection from the occasional bout of inclement weather. There has to be a play area for the kids. Seating is invariably long rows of communal tables and benches. No reservations, no "Please Wait to be Seated". Look for a likely looking empty spot, summon up your best German and ask your new neighbours if the space is free (I've never been told otherwise).

My preference is for Kartoffelsalaat
The food and drinks are self service. I'm still learning my way around the menus. For this reason it's very helpful to have a local to guide you the first time or two. I don't curently have that luxury but I'm doing the best I can. Last night I had the very aptly named "Grillfleisch" which translates as "Grill Meat". It was a kind of mystery cut of grilled pork. The preferred accompaniment appeared to be "Pommes" (french fries) but I'm a huge fan of the potato salad here and that's what I went with. Germans, much like Hungarians, don't appear to be huge fans of vegetables.

The feature attraction
So here's a key feature of a true Biergarten. They have to allow you to bring your own food. It's the law. Apparently the management of the best known beer garden in Germany, the Chinese Tower at the Englischer Garten in Munich tried to get that law changed. They were resoundingly denied. Germans, and Bavarians in particular, really appear to cherish this tradition. The flip side of that law is that you have to buy your drinks, exclusively beer, soft drinks or a popular combination of the two ("ein Radler") from the Biergarten. No one seems to have a problem with this. Now I have been told that beer is also available in half liters. It seems like an interesting concept but I personally can neither confirm nor deny that this is in fact the case. I will leave this research to someone else.

So once you're there, you're seated, you have your food and drink you just do whatever you feel like doing. Engage in a conversation, read the newspaper, do a crossword, check your Twitter or just enjoy the people watching. A word of warning: There will be tobacco smoke. I am continually amazed just how many smokers there are in this country. I frankly find it a bit disappointing. Consider it the price to pay for immersing yourself in another culture. At least you're outdoors.
The Chinese Tower Beer Garden in Munich. With 7000 seats
 it is the second largest beer garden in Germany

Just make sure you hang around the beer garden long enough for your apartment to cool off by the time you get home.

Thanks for reading,

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