Why A German Beer Tour Should Be on Your Bucket List
April 23, 2018
My husband and I recently went to Europe to celebrate our one-year wedding anniversary. Since he is such an avid beer drinker, I knew that we absolutely had to visit Munich, the beer capital of the world. And while we were there? We had to do a German beer tour of course! And I have to say that it was one of the best parts of our European trip that we both rave about constantly. In addition to the tour we booked, we did some extra exploring on our own to get the most of our short stint in Munich. In two days we learned two very important lessons – German beer is great and German food is even better!
I did my research before our trip and read great reviews about the Radius Tour company – specifically about tour guide Dani. Luckily enough that’s who we had on our tour! I couldn’t have been happier. She was a fantastic guide.Even better, besides sharing a name, throughout the night we discovered that we were both American, both had degrees in Math Education, and we shared a love for board games! I really couldn’t have asked for a better guide. She was super informative and just a ton of fun to spend the evening with. (Dani, if you’re reading this, thank you!!)
One of the first lessons we learned about drinking in Germany is that you have to cheers properly. How? Make eye contact with the other person, clink the bottoms of your glasses together, and shout “Prost!”. Legend has it that if you don’t make eye contact, you’ll be cursed with bad sex for seven years… let’s not risk that! Also, don’t be afraid to clarify how to pronounce “prost” properly. Otherwise you can be like our tour guide and be shouting “boobs” every time you cheers. Oops!
Reinheitsgebot – German Beer Purity Law
In case you haven’t noticed, German beer has a very distinct style. Why? Because of the Reinheitsgebot of course! For us English speakers, that’s the German Beer Purity Law. Back in the 1500s, there were a few major concerns regarding beer production – increasing costs, lack of resources, and the obscurity of some of the ingredients. Brewers were including all sorts of herbs and spices in their beers back then. But at some point they started including more dangerous substances. Once nightshade and other poisons started being part of the recipes and people were dying, the government decided to step in.
Duke Wilhelm issued the regulation in Ingolstadt in 1516, stating that only three ingredients: barley, hops, and water, could be used to produce beer. Wheat beers were only allowed to be brewed in Bavaria. Over time they realized the importance of yeast and whatnot, so the law now includes malted grains, hops, water, and yeast. Of course, there are several modern-day brewers (and drinkers!) who argue that the law is antiquated and should be abolished to allow more creativity in the beer. As far as I’m concerned, German beer is delicious and it’s nice to know that there is something unifying all the beer in the country. Prost!
More about that Wheat Beer
If you paid attention, the original Reinheitsgebot did NOT allow wheat in the production of beer. But, there were some royal families who got a special exception. At some point in the history of German beer, a duke kidnapped a popular brewer and kept him in the basement to brew beer for his people. When the brewer was finally set free, he had invented wheat beer, similar to what we know today as witbiers and hefeweizens (my favorites!)
Strange German Beer Laws & Traditions
When you order a liter at a brewery, you should drink enough beer on your first ‘sip’ so that you can tilt the beer on its handle. Without the beer spilling! Check out the photo below. If you can’t, you have to buy the next round!
Originally certain beers were marketed as beauty supplements to entice women to buy them. So inclined to do so, they had to restrict the amount of beer that people drank per day! Women were allowed 7 liters per day, men and pregnant women were allowed 5 liters, and CHILDREN were allowed 3.5. That is, until they were 12 years old and were allowed as much as an adult. Crazy!!
In modern times, they still have some laws or customs that may seem strange to outsiders. For example, our beer tour started at the train station (where the tour company is located). Right away, our guide handed us each a bottle to pop open and drink – right there in public. Yep, drinking in public is perfectly okay! The next day I even had a beer on while riding the train. And while not illegal, it is against custom to serve beer in Bavaria without a hefty amount of foam. Bavarians associate foam with freshness. If they get a beer without much foam, they consider it not to be fresh and refuse it.
German Beer in Munich
There are 6 main breweries in Munich, all of whom are certified to brew for Oktoberfest and have longstanding histories in Bavaria. Also, most (if not all) of them have menus available in English because they know they get a lot of tourists visiting! Also – take a note of the chairs in the breweries. A lot of them are carved with the brewery’s name and/or logo. I found this to be fascinating!
Originally brewed by monks, this beer is not sold legally outside of Germany. But of course you’ll find people trying to find their ways around the system. Rumor has it that Augustiner beer can be found in Salzburg, Austria. And cans that are sold in Germany for about 89 cents are brought back to Australia and sold for 39 DOLLARS. That’s one heck of a mark-up!
Hackerhaus is another old brewery with several locations around Munich. We visited the one on Hackenstraße – if you have time, you should spend a day strolling the avenue. It’s so colorful and beautiful! Also, the restaurant is dog-friendly!
Probably the most famous brewery in Munich, Hofbrauhaus began as a brewery for the royal family (hence the crown in their logo). In the original beer hall (which is amazingly old), you’ll find the Bavarian flag painted in abstract patterns on the ceiling. Why? Well, Hofbrauhaus was a favorite meeting place for Hitler and his propaganda parties, so there were swastikas painted on the ceilings. After the fall of Hitler and rebuilding after WWII, the swastikas were covered with Bavarian flags. Fun fact! Another fun fact? The Hofbrauhaus beer hall originally only allowed men on the premises. Personally, I’m very pleased they changed that rule!
Speaking of Nazis, Lowenbrau (translated as “lion’s brew”) was originally marketed as “Jews beer” because of its ties with a Jewish family. At one point the brewery was destroyed, but the reputation was forever tarnished. The brewery retains a bad reputation in Germany to this day and approximately 85% of their beer is now exported to other countries.
Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough time to visit all of the ‘big 6’ in Munich. From what we heard from other travelers, Paulaner was a bit more expensive and not as easy to get to as some of the others. It’s also one readily available back home, so it was an easy choice to leave out on this trip.
Frankiskaner is hands-down my husband’s favorite beer. And it’s become a favorite of mine as well. So I knew that we had to have some Franz in Munich! One of my favorite things about their brewery? The big beautiful copper kettles that you can see from outside their windows. Awesome!
Almost Craft Beer…
Before we left for our trip, the owner of one of our favorite local breweries (IBU; read more about it here!) told us that we had to visit Schneider Weisse as well. While not one of the “big 6” of Munich breweries, Schneider Weisse is known for its attempt to create craft German beer. They still follow the rules of Reinheitsgebot, but are more creative with their brewing processes to get different flavors in their beers. They are definitely worth a visit! And if you have room in your luggage, for about eight US dollars you can get a variety 4-pack with a signature glass and coasters to take home!
Eat All the German Food
In addition to having great beer, Germany has some fantastic food and even better desserts! When you’re at one of the biergartens, make sure you grab a bite to eat as well! Part of our tour included a visit to Hofbrauhaus Keller to share a platter of delicious traditional German food. So yummy! One of my favorite dishes was pancake soup; it sounded weird, but tasted delicious!
Don’t Forget Dessert!
I even made a point to order dessert at as many of the breweries I could. (It was on my bucket list to have apple strudel in Germany.) The winner? Augustiner Keller’s Ofenfrische Dampfnudel – a honey dumpling topped with vanilla custard. IT IS ONE OF THE BEST DESSERTS I’VE EVER HAD IN MY LIFE! No, I’m not kidding. It was amazing. At first I was astounded at the size, but it was light and airy… perfectly sweet and not overbearing. Go there. Go now. And order this dessert. Enjoy every moment.
German Beer Loyalty
Munich is home to some of the oldest breweries in the world, and with that history comes a lot of loyalty. While it is as easy as paying a yearly fee to join a mug club at an American brewery, it’s not so easy in Germany. Your family has to regularly attend a beer hall for 200 years in order to establish their “stamtischt”. Some beer halls recognize this by placing wooden signs with the family name over the tables. That becomes the family’s table; so if you see someone sitting there, you know their family has been doing so for centuries. And to join the mug club? Hundreds of years. And only then will you get a mug, which is locked in a cage in between your visits. Crazy!
The first actual stop on our tour was to the Bier & Oktoberfest Museum. The building was built in 1328 and is just astounding to look at. In the bar area, you can see the thumbprints in the bricks from the original masons who built the place. And even with such an ancient history, the upper floors of the building were lived in until 1999!
After enjoying our three Augustiner samples and a fresh Bavarian pretzel, we were invited to the top floor to visit the exhibits of the Oktoberfest Museum. I don’t want to ruin it too much here, but I will tell you that it was fascinating to learn about. In Germany, they don’t refer to the festival as Oktoberfest though, they say they are “going to the meadow” (‘weisn’ in German). The original Oktoberfest was held on October 12, 1810 as a celebration for King Ludwig’s wedding. It consisted of horse racing, archery, and free wine. Because the German people had such a great time, they decided to continue the festival yearly, becoming the Oktoberfest we know and love today.
A few fun facts about Oktoberfest:
The longest festival permissible by law is 18 days.
Beer is sold exclusively in liters, but referred to as “masses”.
At any given time, the fest could have up to 600,000 people, with approximately 6 million visitors annually.
Each tent holds a small village – anywhere from 2,500 to 12,000 people. In a tent!
There is a tryout for waitstaff every year. Competitors, who are 80% women, have to prove that they can carry FOURTEEN liters of beer a given distance without spilling.
If you are chosen to be a waiter/waitress, you take orders, then go pay for the beer up front – with your own money. Then you bring the beers back to the customers and mark it up 20-40 cents per liter. If you spill, that’s on you! You’ll need to go back and buy a new liter.
But it’s worth it! Waitstaff each make 60,000 to 80,000 euro per event. Can you imagine? In only 2.5 weeks making that much money? Makes me want to work on my muscles!
The stakes are high. The festival employs ‘secret shoppers’ to make sure the tents are serving the proper portions, and not trying to skimp on their pours. If caught, the tent faces a fine. Two fines in a day means the tent is shut down the next day of the festival. Get shut down twice and they won’t be invited back.
The festival draws people from all over the world. Aussies are such avid travelers – and beer drinkers – that thousands of them come every year. But not alone! They also bring a few embassy representatives. Why? Because so many Australians lose their passports amidst their celebrations and they need new passports to be created for them to travel back home!