Ten Beery Things to do in Germany Without Visiting Oktoberfest
Set in the lush valley of the Swabian mountains, Stuttgart advertises itself as “the new heart of Europe,” proudly high tech and industrial. Tourist brochures promote mineral spring spas, the arts and that 500 vineyards cover the nearby hillsides. But look under the hood and, as in much of Germany, beer remains an integral part of everyday life.
For us this day began at an outdoor produce market near the historic city center, but now it’s dark in this “city where work is pleasure” and we’ve stumbled into one heck of a beer-fueled party. A high-energy pop band rolls from one song to another without pause. Even sung in German, many of them, such as “Celebrate” and “YMCA,” are familiar to our American ears. The young Germans (most stop at the door to show an ID) who’ve filled this tent that holds 5,000 partiers know all the words. They are standing on benches lining the long beer tables, hoisting one-liter mugs full of beer, banging them together, singing and boogying big time.
Earlier in the day at the Cannstatter Volksfest we listened to brass bands like those you’d hear at Americanized Oktoberfest celebrations in Cincinnati, Ohio, or Rio Rancho, NM, playing traditional German tunes. After about every fourth song, the afternoon bands stopped to sing “Ein Prosit” and lead thousands of revelers in a toast. Ohlala-Partyband, the group on stage now, follows the same formula, but quickly returns to rockin’. At this Oktoberfest the guidebooks don’t tell you about we found what we expected in Germany but not exactly what we expected.
Our family—my wife, Daria Labinsky, our daughter, Sierra, and I—spent 15 weeks in Europe beginning last September, starting in Germany, returning at the beginning of October and again in December. When we told people our plans they often said something like, “And you’re going to Munich for Oktoberfest, right?” No, we explained, our adventure was not planned around beer. Because I’m working on a book about wheat beers for Brewers Publications, we made time to visit a few breweries, but mostly took the beer experiences as we came across them.
So we didn’t make it to Munich’s Oktoberfest, we didn’t drink Kölsch in Cologne, we didn’t have a beer at the Hofbrauhaus in Munich and we still found so many beer-related experiences that I had to edit this list to keep it to “ten beery things to do in Germany without visiting Oktoberfest.”
Share a table with German beer drinkers
The rules will vary from one spot to the next, but the fact you might be asked to make room for somebody you don’t know at a bierstube table also means you could be lucky enough to squeeze in a place you thought was full. At a restaurant or a modern brewpub in Dresden catering to tourists, you likely won’t end up sharing a table for six with two strangers when you are a party of four. But in an old-fashioned establishment such as Mähr’s Brau in Bamberg, if you are three at one end of a table for eight and four customers occupy the other end, then that eighth spot becomes fair game.
So you might want to brush up on your German. Just before we boarded our plane to fly to Frankfurt, a German making the trip home assured Sierra that she’d have no trouble finding natives who speak English. Not exactly true, but that wasn’t necessarily bad. Some of our best days were those during which we didn’t come across anybody who understood English. That’s when we felt least like tourists. The downside, Sierra will tell you, was apparent the evening she ordered what we thought was a pizza topped with only cheese and she got a pizza without any cheese.
Have a beer on the Romantische Strasse
The “Romantic Road,” which extends from Würzburg near Frankfurt south to Füssen and the Alps, takes its name from the fact the Romans built stretches of it. A trade route during the Middle Ages, the road attracts plenty of tourists, many of them traveling by bus and drawn by its medieval character. If your trust your GPS, opportunities abound to veer off the main roads and away from the crowds, perhaps taking you by an occasional brewery and certainly past pubs serving a beer you never heard of, usually the local beer not available only a few kilometers down the road.
Rothenburg ob der Tauber, granted status as a free town by the Holy Roman Empire in 1274, is one of the most popular destinations. Most of the Gothic structures within the walkable walls that surround the old town were built in the 15th century. We spent our first nights here, staying in a hostel where, after returning from a day wandering through cobblestone streets, we could grab a chilled half-liter bottle of beer brewed nearby. It even came with the proper glassware, all for the handsome price of €1.50 (about $2).
Welcome to Germany.
Discover the Oktoberfest nobody tells you about
Imagine the Wisconsin State Fair without the agricultural displays but a lot more beer. Not exactly the Cannstatter Volksfest, but close enough. It’s billed as the second largest beer festival in the world, smaller than only Munich’s Oktoberfest. As in Munich, just a few local breweries sell beer. Unlike Munich, most are not beers available internationally, or even nationally. And the breweries offer more than a single “festbier” in their respective tents. You can cleanse your palate with a pilsner distinctively more bitter than one in nearby Bavaria or choose a refreshing weisse beer to wash down typical Swabian dishes.
The festival began in 1818, occurs annually at about the same time as the Munich celebration, and attracts four million visitors over the course of two weeks. Three of the beer tents accommodate 5,000, and smaller ones pack in thousands. Outside food and crafts vendors share the midway with rides more impressive than those at the average U.S. state fair or seaside boardwalk. Perhaps this next generation of high-tech fun houses and roller coasters will eventually make it to America.
Bottle your own weisse beer
A collection of old equipment dominates the balcony overlooking the high-tech bottling line at the Private Weissbierbrauerei G. Schneider & Sohn in Kelheim. Some of these contraptions hold one bottle, others dozens. Most don’t work anymore, but an important one is in working order. At the conclusion of a brewery tour each visitor fills a single bottle with flat beer and flips the top closed. They take it home with instructions about how to complete bottle conditioning so that in two weeks they’ve got a fully carbonated Schneider Weisse Original.
“The idea is to illustrate to tourists how this works,” explained Schneider brewmaster Hans-Peter Drexler. “Nobody understood bottle conditioning.” They likely don’t comprehend the chemistry behind refermentation in the bottle, but can easily appreciate the natural process that gives a beer most Americans call hefeweizen its blossoming white head.
Sleep in a brewery gasthaus
The Private Brauereigasthöfe, an association of more than 60 restaurants and hotels linked to breweries, compiles an annual directory that lists nearly three dozen brewery guest houses with accommodations–and it turns out even more breweries have rooms to let. We stayed at two of them, both with lively restaurant-pubs that double as breakfast rooms in the morning, both run by owner-brewmasters fascinating to listen to.
Private Brauereigasthof Schneider, home to the “Kleines Brauhaus in Altmühltal,” sits hard against cliffs topped with a castle ruin that overlooks the village of Essing and the Altmühltal River. Tourists visit this area southwest of Regensburg for its hiking, cycling and boats trips on the river. In a region thick with larger breweries, small (“kleines”) works fine. Josef Schneider brews beer the same time-consuming way his family has since buying the already historic brewery in 1880.
“Bavarian beer must have more malt flavor,” he said. “You must cook long it to make it that way. Otherwise you have Warsteiner . . . or American beer.”
Bernard Kuhn recently purchased the Weissbräu Freilassing from the rest of his family. Freilassing is located not far from Salzburg and Austria, a short ride on a bus you can catch less than two blocks from the brewery. In his book German Wheat Beers author Eric Warner describes the brewery hotel as “romantic,” with likely the only wood-fired kettles in Germany (Brasserie Caracole in Belgium also uses wood to heat its kettles). You might have to be a brewer to appreciate that bit of romance, but Kuhn’s is the oldest weissbier brewery in the region, opening in 1910 long before wheat beers became fashionable. Wood heating is new; the copper kettles installed in the 1950s were coal-fired into the 1970s.
In this antique brewery, Kuhn brews less than half of what even Josef Schneider makes. “Tradition, of course, but the important thing is to keep the quality,” he said. “You cannot always do the same process. You have to brew good beer out of shitty malt. That’s the skill of the brewmaster.”
Hike up the Holy Mountain
The Holy Mountain looms regally over the Upper Bavaria’s Five Lakes Region, topped by the steeples of the Andechs Monastery, visible from miles in any direction. The hike from the parking lot to the top is steep but short, and there’s refreshment waiting because the fifthteenth century church, with its shiny Rococco interior and many holy relics, isn’t the only draw. Visitors annually drink about two million half-liter mugs of the much-revered Andechs beers in the Bräustüberl and the Klostergasthof.
Hilltop views of Lake Ammersee to the west and the Alps to the south are as good as advertised, each a little different from the various indoor and outdoor seating areas. You’ll also see copper kettles behind glass windows, but they are for decoration. Fewer than ten monks remain at Andechs and they leave brewing to secular workers in a modern facility at the base of the hill.
Check the Reinheitsgebot at the door
Brewers in the Lower Saxony town of Goslar first made a beer called gose long before the Reinheitsgebot, Germany’s beer purity law, was invented. When gose matriculated to Leipzig to become all the rage there, the Reinheitgebot still didn’t apply in northern Germany. So it’s silly to worry that this sour wheat beer violates the rules because it is spiced with coriander and salt. Instead, be amazed it is brewed at all.
Gose was the dominant local style in Leipzig at the beginning of the twentieth century, with an estimated 80 gose houses, called Gosenschenke, serving the beer. Yet by the 1960s not a single brewery made gose and, think about it, how many beers come back from the dead?
Today, two breweries in and near Leipzig make gose, another version is sold in Goslar and several brewers in America have taken a stab at making something they call gose. At Ohne Bedenken, a reborn gose house in Leipzig whose owner led the effort in the 1980s to resurrect the style, we conducted primary research, comparing the two different versions of gose available in city. The average German beer drinker would likely call them sour and sourer. Rittenguts Gose, brewed under contract, might be the more assertive of the two but the gose made at the Bayerischer Bahnhof brewpub is nonetheless decidedly tart and spicy.
“We have people in Leipzig who only drink gose in this pub,” said Banhoff brewmaster Matthias Richter. Bahnhof became a beer destination when the historic train station was turned into a brewery complex in 2000, and gose accounts for about 30 percent of sales. “In Germany, most people drink pilsner. People from other towns will come to try it. They try gose, then go back to pils. People in Germany say you like gose or you don’t like gose.”
At Sifonie, a stylish café where we drank the Rittenguts with lunch, when our server delivered our beers she warned us they would be quite sour and added she’d be happy to turn them into one of the many gose cocktails on the menu. These included blends garnished with syrups also used to dose Berliner weisse, as well as others fortified with sweet liquor. Not sure what the keepers of the Reinheitsgebot would have to say about that.
Visit a beer museum
You could easily plan a German vacation that featured a different beer museum every day. One of the best is the Bavarian Brewery Museum, which operates in parallel (separate admission for each) with the Bavarian Bakery Museum in Kulmbach, nicely establishing a grainy link between bread and beer. Neither limits itself to German history nor over romanticizes the business of brewing or baking, and visitors leave with a realistic sense of the often hard life laborer in those two industries led. A quick warning: the informative displays are captioned only in German so if you don’t speak the language, sign up for a tour given by an English-speaking guide.
Get in the Christmas spirit
German Christmas markets feature plenty of drinking, but not beer. The drink of choice is Glühwein, basically a mulled wine, or some other warm drink mixed with spirits. Tourists from around the world travel to shop at these markets, although we found local food specialties as much of an attraction as anything on sale. Berlin alone has 50 different markets, and one of the dozens of markets in Munich is held on the Theresienwiese, home to Oktoberfest.
Dresden, where the Weihnachtsmarkt began in 1628, also features a particularly intriguing medieval-themed market. And in Nürnberg we were reminded that in Germany beer to remember is always close by. A five-minute walk from the Christkindlesmarkt we warmed ourselves at Hütt’n, a restaurant specializing in Franconian dishes and beer brewed in nearby small breweries, many of them brands we never expect to see again.
Squint hard in the Schalander, the traditional break room, in the community brewhouse in Neuhaus and you’d swear you could see the spirits of brewers from hundreds of years ago mingling with the current keepers of Zoigl beer. Such is the dichotomy of Zoigl, steeped in tradition seit 1415 but so fashionable that a schedule of when and where to find the rare unfiltered lagers is posted on the Internet.
Zoigl beers, unique to the Oberflaz region of Bavaria located between Bamberg and the Czech border, come from a community brewhouse. The right to take beer home to complete fermentation and lagering belongs to individuals living in particular houses with brewing rights. They serve those beers in a pub that’s part of the house, most operating one weekend a month. When a pub is open the owner hangs a sign–a Brauerstern (Brewer’s Star)–outside the door, Zoigl meaning sign in the local dialect.
Only five Zoigl community breweries remain–there were as many as 75 in the nineteenth century–in the towns of Windischeschenbach, Neuhaus, Mitterteich, Eslarn and Falkenberg, with most of the pubs in the first two towns. Because the pubs don’t keep regular hours Zoigl beers have long been something of a white buffalo for beer hunters. This changed recently when brewers in Windischeschenbach and Neuhaus began posting their serving schedule on the Internet. They won’t be the only places in the region to find Zoigl beers on any given weekend but this makes it easy to find at least one.
Additionally, beginning in 2007 several pubs decided to open on the same day, October 3, German Reunification Day, the national holiday that commemorates the official unification of East and West Germany in 1990.
“People are always looking for something to do,” Johannes Zange, a university student who works part-time at Schafferhof-Zoigl told us as he filled half-liter glasses decorated with the Zoigl symbol. “We decided to give them something useful.” This was one of the few times all day we heard English, and on every occasion it was to speak with us. By noon the multiple rooms of Schafferhof were full, a combination of older citizens dressed in traditional garb and families with children in hand. Here you don’t feel you are drinking beer in somebody’s house pub. The renovated complex of stone buildings includes a stage where internationally known blues bands sometimes perform.
At Schafferhof we picked up cards to be stamped at each of the seven Neuahus locations serving Zoigl that day (there were more in Windischeschenbach). After visiting all seven you were to turn in your ticket to be entered in a drawing for various prizes, one of which was a pig. We didn’t make the full circuit, but confirmed by the second stop that, intended or not, each of the house breweries adds its own character to the beer.
The community brewhouse itself is located in what looks like a small barn. After mashing, lautering and boiling in a traditional two-vessel system wort is pumped into a shallow open vessel tank on the second floor surprisingly similar to the cool ship at the Cantillon lambic brewery in Brussels. It rests there “for a day or two” before being racked into a small tanker and hauled to the house brewery where it will become beer.
Among our stops was Zum Waldnaabtal, a hotel in the center of the village that regularly serves Zoigl and that had been booked solid for months, indicating growing interest in this celebration. And at Teicher-Zoigl, one of two Zoigl houses run by members of the Punzmann family, I struck up a conversation with a resident of Munich. He and 10 friends had made the journey north by train, planning the trip six months before, not because they are tickers adding to their Beer Life Lists.
They didn’t come only for the beer, he explained, but to enjoy the Oberplaz itself, not the hippest or richest region of the country but one where life moves a little slower and Zoigl fits right in.
“This is what Germany should be, what beer in Germany should be,” he said, looking around a room brimming with beer and conversation.
“This is tradition.”
AABM contributor Stan Hieronymus is editor-on-leave at RealBeer.com. He sometimes blogs about the beer part of this trip at www.appellationbeer.com.