With Oktoberfest in full swing, there’s no better time to head over to Germany for a rowdy snapshot into Bavarian life.
But don’t worry if you haven’t had the chance to book tickets to the famous beer festival this year; you can don your lederhosen and delve into some of the region’s more authentic watering holes.
David Hewitt rounds up some of Bavaria’s best beer tours, beer halls and brewhouses – prost!
Wolfgang Steppes pauses, sets his glass down, twiddles his moustache and looks me in the eye.
“Never, ever, venture north of the white sausage equator,” he finally says.
As travel tips go, they probably don’t come any stranger than this. And yet, for most Bavarians, this is sage advice indeed. For them, nowhere north of the River Main do they know how to make their favourite meaty snack.
And, more importantly, this arbitrary line divides Germany into two zones: one with the best beer in the world, the other with inferior offerings.
In their defence, when it comes to beer, the Bavarians know what they’re talking about. In 1516, Duke Wilhelm IV issued the Beer Purity Law (the Reinheitsgebot), ruling that beer could only be made from four natural ingredients: water, hops, malt and yeast.
While other laws may have come and gone, this remains the benchmark right across Germany and producers still proudly advertise their adherence to the legislation.
Now, 500 years on, Bavaria is raising a glass to celebrate the law credited with making their beers the toast of the world.
For Wolfgang, a portly, jolly, born-and-bred Bavarian who, for more than 20 years now, has proudly preserved the tradition of crafting wooden barrels by hand, there’s only one place to join the natives in marking this momentous year, and that’s the historic heart of Munich.
A short stroll from the main marieplatz lie two of Munich’s oldest brewhouses: rivals, but nevertheless united in shunning modernity and, horror of horrors, flavoured beers.
Most famous of all is the huge Hoftbrauhaus (Platzl 9, Munich 80331; +49 89 290136100). Dating to 1589, it’s everything you could want from a German drinking den. Open the massive doors and you’re greeted with raucous crowds sitting at long tables, a lederhosen-clad band blasting out traditional oompah music while serving ladies rush around, hands full of overflowing jugs.
In summer, the venue is also home to one of Munich’s biggest and best beer gardens. Sure, the Hoftbrauhaus may be packed to the rafters with tourists, but it’s still the real deal and much-loved by many locals to this day. In fact, 120 tables are reserved for regulars, with post-church Sunday sessions particularly colourful. Join them in ordering the house special, whole roasted pig’s knuckle, and washing it down with a mass (litre jug) of Hoftbrau dark beer.
Hop across the street and you’ll find the Augustiner beer hall (Neuhauser Strasse 27, Munich 80331 +49 89 23183257), which serves a monastic brew allegedly unchanged since 1328. Here, things are more laid-back, though the traditional beer culture is still very much present. City workers drop in for a catch-up over a helles lighter beer, and Wolfgang himself often props up the bar, happy to talk to anyone about the history and, as he sees it, the superiority of Bavarian booze, as well as his love for his beloved city.
“Munich may be a huge city, but it can feel like a village,” he says. “You can always find a quiet beer garden and, unlike the cliché of grumpy Germans, the beer halls are very welcoming, especially this year when we’ll be making an extra big effort to celebrate our heritage.”
By only permitting four ingredients, the law has always encouraged brewers to get creative, meaning that there’s a huge variety of beers to sample. Luckily for the enthusiastic – and thirsty – visitor, the Bavarian Tourism Board is working with towns and cities outside of Munich to highlight this incredible diversity.
Less than a 90-minute train ride from Munich, hugging the River Danube, is picturesque Regensburg. While its claim to be home to the densest population of bars in all of Germany may be debatable, it’s certainly home to one of the oldest breweries. Located right by a 14th century bridge spanning Europe’s most famous river, the Spital Brauhaus (Am Brückenfuss 1, Regensburg 93059 +49 941 830060) was originally founded by religious orders who also ran a hospital here (hence the name).
These days, Thorben Loesch, Bavaria’s youngest brewmeister at 28, is producing 12,000 litres of beer a day and, along with many other breweries in the region, this year he has started offering special behind-the-scenes tours.
In the spring and summer, the beer garden of the Spital Brewery is arguably one of the finest spots to drink in the whole of the country, right next to the oldest bridge across the Danube and offering views across to the Unesco World Heritage-listed Regensburg old town. It’s easy to see why the nursing home still housed here is so popular with geriatric Germans.
But, of course, even in the smaller cities, rivalries are as fierce as they are in Munich. Across the river, the Kneitinger beer house (Arnulfsplatz, 3, Regensburg 93047 Regensburg +49 9415 930211) is also among Bavaria’s best. After work, city residents of all ages stop by to enjoy litres of the in-house dark beer (dating back to 1530) and huge plates of hearty dumplings. The local institution also offers tasting tours – and the chance to get a ‘beer diploma’ – and, for 2016, their mascot, a white billy goat, has been extra busy pulling carts of the celebrated brew through the city’s streets.
If Munich’s bustling beer palaces and picturesque Regensburg’s historic bars whet your appetite, then stay longer in Bavaria and check out what else is brewing. Also an easy train ride from Munich, Augsburg is home to the Riegele brewery (Frölichstrasse 26, Augsburg 86152 +49 821 32090), headed up by Sebastian Priller Riegele, a former world-champion beer sommelier and a true expert on picking the right pint for a certain meaty dish.
Elsewhere, Bamberg is the historic home of smoked beer, so head there, and to the Schlenkerla brewery (Dominikanerstrasse 6, Bamberg 96049 +49 951 56060) if you want to sample a recipe unchanged since 1405. Alternatively, for a day trip that won’t leave you with a hangover, jump on the train to Aldersbach in the deep south, home to the official Bavarian state exhibition on the beer purity law.
But, whatever you do, be sure to stay on the right side of that white sausage equator.