Visiting Munich for the beer? First you need to learn how to behave properly in a biergarten – and find out where the best ones are. Then pick up your 'mass' and 'trink, trink, trink'
Munich is famed for its beer halls and beer gardens. There's a marvellous choice of beers, from the regular 'helles' (light), to wheat beers (weizen) and even dark (dunkel), and in Lent you can drink the starkbiers – extra strong beers with names like Salvator, Maximator and Unimator.
But you can't just arrive and start drinking. Munich beer culture has an involved etiquette and you'd better know your Ps and Qs before you set out to enjoy yourself.
For a start, don't think you'll get a table to yourself in a beer hall. Shared tables are the norm (with the limited exception of corporate hospitality events during the Oktoberfest). But that also means that as long as there's a spare space on one of the long tables, you're welcome to sit down and make yourself at home. Watch out for little brass plates on the wall above a table, though. These tell you that it's a stammtisch – a table that is reserved at particular times, whether just for a group of friends, or a regular club.
Unlike an English pub, it's waiter or waitress service in the beer hall or beer garden. And beer doesn't come in pints; it comes in a 'mass' – a one-litre jug. That's two pints, more or less. If you can't handle that much alcohol, you don't drink halves – you mix your beer with a soft drink. For instance, you might have a 'Radler', beer and lemonade. The name, literally 'biker', comes from the fact that this shandy was invented for cyclists touring the nearby lakes, who needed a refreshing but less alcoholic drink. Some drinkers mix wheat beer and coke, too.
The original beer gardens were all attached to breweries – many still are. In summer, beer was stored in the cellar beneath to keep it cool; gravel beds were laid on top, and chestnut or linden trees planted to shade the ground. Naturally, a brewery-linked beer garden only serves that brewery's beer – so don't ask for another brewer's beer; you won't get it.
Originally, beer gardens were forbidden to serve food. Instead, customers brought their own. Nowadays, many beer gardens do sell food as well, but still provide some tables for customers who want to bring their own. The tables with a tablecloth are those where you're expected to order food from the waitress, and those without are bring-your-own.
In some beer gardens, you'll see self-service shacks providing basic grub - obatzda cheese spread (piquant and pink with paprika), sausages, and the delicious wafer-thin slices of horseradish to which Bavarians seem to be addicted. If you want something more filling, the traditional dish is a haxen – a huge pork joint. Last time I ordered one it came with the knife and fork stuck vertically into it – it's robust food so make sure you are properly hungry before you order one.
Munich has a huge choice of beer halls and beer gardens, some in the centre and others further out. The Hofbrauhaus is where the coach parties usually head. It was a Nazi haunt in the 1930s so unless you enjoy heaps of kitsch and historical irony to wash it down – an intriguing mixture for some - you might want to try elsewhere.
The Lowenbraukeller, next to the brewery on Nymphenburgerstrasse, was built as a state-of-the-art beerhall in the 1880s. It's a massive mock-Gothic building – typical of the Munich beer hall, with its huge vaulted spaces. Another late 19th-century fake-Gothic beer hall is the Paulaner Brauhaus on Kapuzinerplatz, where the gleaming copper brewing vessels are proudly on display. Unusually, the Paulaner beer hall serves two different brewers' beers, Paulaner and Thomasbrau. But don't think that this represents the triumph of competition and free enterprise – the two breweries merged back in 1928.
In summer, the Chinesischer Turm in the Englischer Garten is a favourite beer garden, dominated by the 18t-century wooden pagoda. It has room for 7,000 drinkers, so you should be able to find a seat somewhere, even on the busiest day. Despite its old-world feel, it's a surprisingly up-to-date beer garden in one regard, with wireless internet access on tap as well as beer.
The best of all beer gardens on a warm summer's day, though, is outside the city at Kloster Andechs monastery. It's a fine day trip that can be combined with hiking along the Ammersee or up in the hills. But if you want the strong beer, don't go at a weekend; owing to the misbehaviour of some drinkers who didn't know their own limits, the monks have decided to serve only the regular strength beers then.