When it comes to imagining that an arc of monastic history links the various brewing cultures of Europe, I am as guilty as the next beer Romantic.
Sitting with a Spezial Hell in the beer garden at the Andechs monastery, or with an image of the saintly, eponymous Bishop of Hippo looking down upon me as I enjoy a drink in the Augustiner Bräustuben in Munich, it is even more tempting to muse upon this entanglement between the beers of Bavaria and, let’s say, Belgium.
The reality, however, is that the monastic element is an important distinction, rather than a link, between these two cultures.
Andechs is a Benedictine monastery. The brewing abbeys in Belgium are Trappist. Trappists, with their more “Strict Observance” of the rules of Saint Benedict, began to set themselves apart from fellow Cistercians in the late 17th century. The Cistercian order itself grew out of a reforming zeal against Benedictine observance 500 hundred years earlier.
Trappists rarely leave their communities, eat no meat, speak only when absolutely necessary, and must offer up “the work of their hands” as a form of prayer equal in status to liturgical prayer. Benedictines work outside their communities, talk and eat freely, and put more emphasis on the liturgy.
The two distinct monastic cultures suit – and have perhaps informed – the two distinct beer cultures.
In Belgium, beer is a contemplative pleasure. Its higher alcohol content requires considered sipping. The huge range of styles and flavours invites drinkers to select beers carefully for each mood.
In Bavaria, beer is for the gregarious. The large, sturdy, porcelain or glass Maβkrug is built to withstand many a vigorous “Prosit!” It is not for drinkers who crave variety and subtlety, but conviviality. It reduces, as far as humanly possible, the number of times one has to leave the conversation to fetch more beer.
In the beer garden at Andechs, there is no shortage of meat on the plate or animated talk at the table.
As I sat with a Hell at Andechs a week ago, a group of five sat beside me at “my” table.
The communal beer-garden or beerhall table is part of Bavaria’s gregarious beer culture. But it stretches further than one might expect. After ordering beer, this group laid out a tablecloth with a pattern of Bavarian blue-and-white lozenges and unpacked an entire picnic of bread, meat and cheese. In most beer gardens and beerhalls it is perfectly acceptable to do this, even when, as is the case at Andechs, the owner of the venue is in the business of selling food.
Beer gardens and beerhalls tend to be large. The fact that Bavarians have no qualms about sharing tables with strangers means that it takes longer to “fill” a beer garden or beerhall than it would a similar venue in a culture that puts a higher value on individual space and privacy.
Still, they are not an infinite resource. When all the tables are full, what claim has the marginal consumer, ready to pay good money for both beer and food, over the seats occupied by the group of five with its blue-lozenged tablecloth? Does their prior occupancy, or those true-blue Bavarian lozenges, have more currency than deracinated cash? Ought they to have more currency? And how should the tradition of the Stammtischen – the tables set aside for the exclusive use of regular customers – fit into our answers to these difficult political and economic questions?
There is a line somewhere between Gemütlichkeit and Volksgemeinschaft, a border that is porous. Or perhaps an unbreakable bond.
A few days after enjoying my beer and Schweinshaxe at Andechs, I marveled at the crowd of revellers spilling out of the historic Brauerei Heller-Trum into Dominikanerstraße, in Bamberg.
This is where the beechwood-smoked Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier is brewed and sold – a world-famous taste, but also an acquired one. I had not expected this place to resemble a bar overflowing with Peroni-gulping partygoers on a Saturday night in Soho – particularly as it was still only Monday. I was even more surprised when they began to let off fireworks.
This unlikely demand for dark smoked lager and explosives came about because this would have been the weekend of the 67th Sandkerwa, Bamberg’s annual Volksfest. In recent years, the Monday-night climax of the festival has been marked by a fireworks display.
I write “would have been” because, in 2017, after 66 uninterrupted years, the Sandkerwa was abandoned.
The cause was a dispute between Sandkerwa Veranstaltungs-GmbH, the company that organises the event, and Bamberg’s Bürgerverein, the civic association that represents the citizens of the town, over who should bear the financial and legal risks associated with 300,000 visitors descending on a town of 70,000 people and a surfeit of breweries.
Some members of the Bürgerverein made unpolitic references to mobs of drunken undesirables marauding through Bamberg’s picturesque streets, causing damage and threatening public safety. Sandkerwa Veranstaltungs-GmbH, for its part, expressed dark concerns about “the current security situation” (“die aktuelle Sicherheitslage”).
Locals appear torn. Posters declared the festival “Entfält!” – it was not clear to me whether this was in sorrow or celebration. A survey found that 58% worried that suspending the festival would harm the economy, but two-thirds felt the event had become too big for the town and 56% complained about the level of drunken behaviour and “Wildpinkeln” (or urinating in the street).
Pity poor Munich. In a week or so, its population will also swell fourfold, to seven million, as it hosts the Oktoberfest.
With its origins in the celebrations for the wedding of Crown Prince Ludwig and Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen in 1810, it’s hard to believe that the first participants could have envisaged its appropriation, over the decades, as the entire world’s late-summer piss-up.
In contrast, the grandson of the Crown Prince, King Ludwig II, would have fully expected his epic folly, Schloss Neuschwanstein, to become the universal image of the medieval castle. He might not have been so pleased about Walt Disney’s role in its fame, however, and, like the 60-percenters of Bamberg, he would be dismayed that so many people now want to get a close-up look at its ludicrously opulent interiors. Conceived as an idyll of splendid isolation, today thousands of tourists troop through Neuschwanstein in strictly-regimented cohorts.
Ludwig had Neuschwanstein built as Bavaria was subsumed into the German Reich, following military defeat against Prussia. During this period he became reclusive, abdicating affairs of state in favour of ever more extravagant artistic and architectural projects, including Neuschwanstein and patronage of Richard Wagner.
The absurdity of failing at and withdrawing from his kingly responsibilities in order to live out a chivalric fantasy of idealised medieval rule appears to have been lost on him.
Scenes from Wagner’s music dramas are depicted in the murals that sprawl over Neuschwanstein’s interior. Like the exterior, these images are crude and lifeless. At best they resemble stage sets; at worst, the clumsy illustrations in vintage children’s history books. The truth is that Neuschwanstein was Disney long before Walt ever set eyes on it.
Moreover, despite the overwhelming focus on Wagnerian themes, Ludwig’s obsession with fey-faux medievalist nostalgia obscures the radicalism of Wagner’s politics: the mix of socialist economics, enraptured religious fervour and blood-and-soil nationalism that both reflected, and did so much to define, the heady political culture of the late German Reich.
At two kilometres long and 40 metres wide, the Große Straße of the Nazi Party Rallying Grounds on the outskirts of Nuremberg was built to carry tens of thousands of marching Wehrmacht. Its architect, Albert Speer, also designed it to point directly to the formidable medieval castle sitting at the heart of the historical city itself.
The Große Straße is a physical embodiment of the idea that the mass gatherings of the annual Party Congress (“Reichsparteitage”) should echo the meetings of the Imperial States in the Middle Ages, when Nuremberg was the proud capital of the Holy Roman Empire.
In reality, the Reichsparteitagen were a curious melange of innocent Volksfest, political party conference, military parade, propaganda spectacle, quasi-religious ceremonial and Wagnerian drama.
And beer played a big role. Makeshift beerhalls were constructed to accommodate attendees. Indeed, the Congress schedule of eating, drinking, communal singing, political speeches and celebration of the Volksgemeinschaft resembles a vastly amplified version of an average evening in Munich’s beerhalls in the 1920s and 30s.
This is not wholly surprising. The National Socialists held their first meeting in the Festsaal of the Hofbräuhaus in 1920. The 1923 “Beerhall Putsch”, in which Adolf Hitler and his acolytes attempted to overthrow the democratic constitution of the Weimar Republic, was so named because the putschists set out from the Bürgerbräukeller. This beerhall had become a kind of unofficial headquarters for the nascent party, and sixteen years later it sustained great damage when Georg Elser attempted to bomb the leadership there.
Elser ended up in Dachau, just northwest of Munich itself, the first of the forced-labour, concentration and death camps that would spread cancerously across Europe over the next decade.
Dachau represents the attempt to banish those elements unworthy of a seat in the beerhalls of Munich, the “Capital City of the National Socialist Movement”, to a liminal space – the margins of civic and national life and its laws. With supreme irony, at the same time the Nazis built their own liminal space, the Rallying Grounds outside Nuremberg, the “Temple City of the Movement”.
They appeared to tap into deep wells of the Bavarian, German and Holy Roman Imperial spirit with their “Third Reich”. However, their destruction of institutions, laws and society, to make way for a “people’s community” driven by emotional fervour and hateful propaganda, had always put them literally beyond the pale.
If you go looking for beer and breweries in Bavaria, you will get used to seeing the Brauerstern – the six-pointed star that symbolises the brewer’s art.
According to alchemy, the star represents the harmonious balance between the three elements involved in brewing (fire, water and air) and its three ingredients (water, malt and hops). It can be seen on the walls of historic town breweries, on the ornate lamppost signs of the brew pubs of Bamberg, on beer barrels, and, in the case of the Schenkerla Brauerei, at least, in the old stained-glass windows of Brauhaus lavatories.
When I dropped in on the Hofbrauhaus for a beer and a pretzel two weeks ago the tables were full and the hall echoed with conversation and a brass band playing the old songs, punctuated with regular renditions of “Am Prosit!”
Between the songs, the trumpeter occasionally took the opportunity to show off his jazz chops, knocking out two bars of be-bop style improvisation while his colleagues quaffed from their Maβkrugs.
Beyond the pale of Munich, Oktoberfest will play out similar scenes on an epic scale. The city will buzz with Bavarians dressed (entirely without irony) in their Dirndl and Trachten, welcoming the world’s thousands dressed (entirely with irony) in their Dirndl and Trachten. In the immense beerhalls of the Theresienwiese, as the evenings wax, the bands will set aside their brass instruments and “Am Prosits” for guitars and drums and choruses of “We Are the Champions”.
Meanwhile, in tiny Bamberg, the latest reports suggest that the various parties are close to an agreement that will enable the Sandkerwa to proceed again in 2018.
In the name of conviviality and Gemütlichkeit, a way will be found to bring the interests of economy, society, community, individual, regular and visitor into balance, just as the elements and ingredients for beer are brought into balance by the six-pointed Brauerstern.
As someone once put it: “Wir schaffen das.”