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.
Not only did we pass on Munich’s Oktoberfest, we didn’t drink Kölsch in Cologne, we didn’t have a beer at the Hofbrauhaus in Munich and we didn’t get to many beer-related destinations in the guidebooks.
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.