The German Beer Garden Tradition Experiences A Resurgence
Just out of the subway and trudging through freshly fallen snow, my sights were set on Radegast Hall and Biergarten in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood. Fighting against a bracing wind, I focused on what I thought lay ahead of me: liters of lager brought to tables in bunches by—perhaps—a kind woman in a dirndl, in the corner an oompah band occasionally leading the crowd in song. Smiling as I opened the door with these thoughts, I was met with the sound of jazz.
The band was playing a version of Cole Porter’s “Night and Day” and while quite good, it certainly wasn’t what I was expecting. A few moments later I settled into a stein of Weihenstephaner Dunkel Weiss and surveyed the scene. It was decidedly hipster, 30-somethings wearing T-shirts with ironic sayings or vague movie references. One was alone and reading with a glass of wine—yes, wine—in front of him. Two others were engrossed in the contents on the screen of a digital camera.
Clearly this was not Bavaria.
No, this was just one of many “beer gardens” that has sprang up in recent years around the country, making it seem that bar owners are embracing a new decorating theme much in the same way that “Irish pubs” were in fashion a decade ago.
And why not? Bavaria is the fertile crescent of beer. Hundreds of thousands of people make pilgrimages to Munich each year to drink deep from the kegs of some of the world’s best-known and beloved breweries. The styles developed over the centuries by master brewers have been enjoyed and imbibed by millions and copied and analyzed by fellow brewers around the globe. In short, so much of what people enjoy about beer found its beginnings in Germany.
Then consider how the United States is in the midst of a beer renaissance. Sure, sugary vodka-based drinks that masquerade as martinis are still popular at lounges and wine lists still rein supreme at high-end restaurants. But beer brings people together for a good time and rather than just another neighborhood dive, restaurateurs are capitalizing on the current beer trend and are offering up a place with an “authentic feel.”
In the United States, the term beer garden has been muddled a bit so here is a quick guide: beer garden equals outdoor space, a beer hall equals indoor space, a beer keller (cellar) equals underground space. Beer garden is by far the most popular phrase in this new Yankee renaissance even if no outdoor space is available.
Historically, while it was not uncommon for patrons to enjoy beer while sitting in an outdoor area of a tavern, the phenomena and drinking experience that we today refer to as beer gardens began life as nothing more than a refrigeration method. In the early 1800s, Bavarian breweries began to improve the technical aspects of their operation and found new ways to keep their precious bocks, lagers and wheat beers cold for the summer months.
Ice was hacked out of the lakes during the winter months and taken to dug-out cellars next to the brewery,” said Horst Dornbusch a brewery consultant and beer writer who frequently travels to Germany. On the land above the cellars the breweries often planted chestnut trees that helped keep the ground at a lower temperature. “It doesn’t take much imagination to put chairs and tables under the trees. Plus, you have a ready supply of beer, right below the tables in casks. Hence, beer gardens.”
This new style of outdoors drinking also gave birth to another quintessential German drinking tradition—the lidded stein. Salt-glazed earthenware of various sizes but perfectly suitable for beer were of course nothing new. They had been used indoors for generations.
If you are sitting under a linden tree with a helles in the garden, with birds above, little insects and maybe dirt and squirrels, you need to keep your beer clean,” said Dornbusch. “This is the reason why beer steins have lids. To keep the dirt out, to keep out the bird shit.”
The beer gardens grew in popularity throughout the 1830s and 1840s, with people often coming with picnic baskets to the breweries to socialize outdoors. Breweries like Augustiner and Löwenbräu would later add indoor spaces (beer halls and cellars) to accommodate more people and to serve food from their own kitchens.
Dornbusch says it is impossible to know which brewery was the first to open an official beer garden as the concept evolved over time, but that it was likely one of the big six (Löwenbräu, Hofbräuhaus, Augustinerbräu, Paulaner, Hacker-Pschorr and Spaten).
It is also impossible to think of beer gardens without also thinking of the annual celebration of Oktoberfest. Each year millions pour into Munich to celebrate the anniversary of the wedding of Crown Prince Ludwig and Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen in 1810. What is interesting, however is that the wedding took place a good 20 years before the rise of the beer garden as we know it.
And while the first to operate in the fashion we know today could only accommodate a few hundred people at a time, the largest one in operation today, the Hirschgarten in Munich, can comfortably seat 8,000 thirsty patrons at a time.
When German immigrants first came to the Unites States in the 1800s to open their breweries in cities like Milwaukee, they also brought along the idea of beer gardens. In construction fitting the land of opportunity, places like Schlitz Park that opened in 1880 gave patrons a place to not only drink lager in beautifully sculpted outdoor spaces, but also the chance to bowl and dance to a live orchestra. Other brewers followed suit and the beer halls and beer gardens became grand affairs on sweeping pieces of property. Throughout the country beer gardens sprang up in places like New York City’s Bowery and San Antonio, TX.
The term ‘garden’ was intended to be loose,” says historian Maureen Ogle, author of Ambitious Brew: The History of American Beer. “The grand ones were lush and pleasant places. You went with the family, spent the night playing cards and chess, getting up to dance or just break out in song.”
In fact, says Ogle, one of the last things people would focus on was the beer itself. The gardens had multiple purposes; they were entertainment centers and beer was just one part. “This was clearly, rooted in a very real experience that still lived in people’s memories,” she said. “Today, people sit at communal tables and hammer down beers.”
Carl Miller of beerhistory.com said the beer gardens were a place of refuge for many in the 1800s, as it gave them a chance to stroll through parks, relax under trees, catch up on a nap, or sit with family and friends in a setting designed to promote both social activities and calm. It appears at least one activity has not translated from either the first German beer gardens or the early American ones: the shooting gallery. Miller says marksmanship activities were quite common at beer gardens, where contestants would line up to take their best shot at targets. “Today we think of it as hilarious,” he said, “back then it was part of the deal.”
Imitation as Flattery?
It is not the largest in Munich, but likely the best known globally. Thanks in part to its worldwide availability, reputation as a must-visit spot for tourists and its wonderfully catchy and classic beer drinking song, Hofbräuhaus is nothing short of sacred.
Nicholas Ellison is keenly aware of that reputation and made sure that the two Hofbräuhaus franchises his company operates in the United States are continually striving to match the original.
We’ve learned a lot in seven years,” he said in telephone interview. “But we have done some modifications to the whole thing because we’re in a different country.”
Here it is important to make the distinction between a beer hall and a beer garden. The original Hofbräuhaus has both. The large main hall seats up to 1,300 thirsty revilers at once and there is a smaller outdoor seating area (only 400 guests) that is opened in warmer months and gives people a chance to enjoy lager alfresco. There is also a formal dining room that can accommodate up to 900 guests. So, while it is easy to slip and say that Hofbräuhaus is a beer garden, clearly it is much more. That is not unlike the U.S. variations.
The beer is not one of the things that was modified. When Ellison and his partners opened their first location in Newport, KY, considered a suburb of Cincinnati, OH, in 2002, they had brewers coming from Munich to make sure their lagers were not just acceptable, but perfect. Today, they have a classically trained German brewer, Eckhard Kurbjuhn, who oversees operations at both locations (the other is in Pittsburgh and opened in 2009). Their state-of-the-art equipment is wired to the Hofbräuhaus headquarters in Munich where brew masters there can keep an eye on things.
Ellison said some differences between his Hofbräuhaus locations and the one in Munich would are never even noticed by most of the patrons who visit. “We’re in America so we have a bar,” he said. While the location in Germany rotates among four beers, his locations offer four year-round as well as monthly specials. The floor of their beer garden is crushed limestone, not tile or concrete.
They offer different food than their Munich counterpart, including vegetarian options and nachos, but also traditional dishes. Ellison said they recently learned that they have been plating their food wrong. Acceptable by American standards, but wrong if they are striving to honor their European roots, so Ellison said they are working to change that.
Plating issues and nachos aside, the concept is popular. There is a third Hofbräuhaus operating in Las Vegas and another being talked about for New York City. The two run by Ellison and his partners are continually busy. He said that mid-February the Newport location had sold 3 million liters of beer. That same month Pittsburgh passed the 1 million liter mark.
Germans come in and look at both places and the comment we hear the most is ‘I’ve never seen a beer garden quite like this in Germany, but if I did I wouldn’t be surprised,’ he says. “We take that as a big compliment.”
Missing the Point
Germans would likely be less complimentary when it came to other places in the United States that call themselves beer gardens.
Take the Zeppelin Hall Restaurant & Biergarten in New Jersey for example. First off, the mugs—both half and full liters—are made of plastic. Plastic! Owners complained that people were either walking off with the glass mugs or patrons, unaccustomed to the effects that 33 oz of Leffe Blonde can have on a person, would drop the mugs and watch through bleary eyes as they shattered on the floor. So the owners now serve beer in a material appropriate for children, or a college party—same goes for the mixed drinks they serve.
Some bartenders—there is no waitstaff—have little knowledge about the lagers and ales served. Questions about styles, tastes or history have often been met with a shrug. This is problematic as they boast more than 140 taps serving everything from Abita’s Purple Haze to Spaten Oktoberfest. Overall it lacks the gemütlichkeit, one would expect from a more traditional beer garden.
That said, for being in a city, it offers a great space: three large indoor rooms with vaulted ceilings, polished wood picnic tables, a fireplace, a stage. An outdoor area with its own bar has even more long tables. In that respect it has the elements of what has made the German beer gardens so revered and popular. The similarities however end there. Owners have made halfhearted attempts to give it that “authentic” Bavarian feeling (weekly performances by oompah bands that combine traditional drinking songs with more contemporary hits), but the large projection televisions constantly broadcasting sports kill the “authentic” vibe.
Of course the flaws outlined above are from the perspective of someone who seeks out and appreciates authenticity and substance over slapdash. The fact is that while many of the places that have popped up across the country in cities like New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and Los Angeles are loose representations of the German molds, they are quite fun and offer great nights out. There are even some breweries that offer German beer garden experiences like Stoudt’s Brewing Company and the Weeping Radish in North Carolina.
However, should an unaccustomed American traveler visit Munich for the first time and expect a scene similar to the beer gardens they have come to embrace here, they would likely be disappointed.
They can be surprised that strangers sit with each other,” says Rich Ireland who writes about beer for the Charleston Gazette in West Virginia and frequently travels to Munich. “Americans are just not used to it, we’ve never been challenged in that direction.”
While the normal American bar experience is either solitary, a chance for couples to catch up, or a group of friends gathering, striking up conversation with strangers is rare. A rise in the beer garden concept could change that. In situations where people are encouraged to share long tables, perhaps they can also find common conversation ground. If nothing else, perhaps they will be polite enough to at least say hello and raise a glass in recognition of new people in their approximate area. It could lead to the whole pub experience becoming more enjoyable.
It beats having four people who sit glumly by themselves,” said Dornbusch who noted there could be other tangible benefits to copying German style.
They respect as almost a religious place,” he said. “You wouldn’t litter in a church and you don’t at beer gardens. It’s a cultural icon, revered and respected.” Rarely is the same said in American bars, especially ones with a party-like atmosphere. In the end, the mere act of taking a tried and true culture out of its native land and trying to recreate it elsewhere, something is going to get lost in translation.
It’s like, if you were to try bringing authentic sumo wrestling to Kentucky or a Paris café to Wichita.”
It’s not just the beer lovers that should visit the great beer gardens in Munich, but every person looking for a little extra culture and romance. However, in the absence of traveling to the real thing, places like Philadelphia’s Brauhaus Schmitz or the Bohemian Hall and Beer Garden are good places to start.
The New Style
Back at Radegast Hall I asked my bartender Tom about the lack of certain German elements in a place that calls itself a Bavarian beer garden.
Lederhosen would just get in the way,” he explained.
My friends arrived and we moved from the bar to a back room where long tables were set up. There I saw patrons were imbibing, conversing, laughing and—like in Germany—not afraid to sit at a table with strangers.
We settled at one such table, raised a glass in acknowledgement and got down to the business of unwinding. As the night stretched on I saw people happily munching on schnitzel and tearing pieces from large soft pretzels while washing them down with cool swallows of lager. More people came in and plunked themselves down at a table with strangers and ordered beer.
The jazz band played on and people sang along.
While it certainly wasn’t “authentic,” it sure was fun, just like afternoons in the Bavarian institutions. It was about the beer, the conversation and the shared camaraderie. Imitation is nice, but the only way to get the real experience of a German beer garden is to visit Munich. In the absence of such a trip, if you can find a beer garden that offers a good time, that’s what matters.
Having my fill of lager, I exited back into the cold. Still a little disappointed in not getting the full-on German experience at the beer garden, I decided to serenade the streets on my walk to the subway.
“In München steht ein Hofbräuhaus, oans, zwoa, g’suffa!”
A journalist since 1996, John Holl writes about beer and the culture of drinking. His first book, Indiana Breweries, is available in stores and online. He lives in New Jersey and blogs at his website beerbriefing.com.