Munich: Highway to Hell

Munich has a lot of beer history. But what was the most important year in that history?

Munich Reinheitsgebot

1487: Reinheitsgebot Year Zero

Was it 1516, the year that Bavaria adopted the beer-purity order that would become known as the Reinheitsgebot?

Was it 1487, the year of Munich’s own beer purity order and the forerunner of the better-known one? Was it 1810, the year of the inaugural Oktoberfest?

Or was it 1841-2, a time of revolutionary brewing experimentation that would change the way the whole world looks at and thinks about beer for decades to come?

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People tend to think of beer as an amber or straw-coloured drink. The world’s most popular lager style is Pilsner and its most popular ale style is IPA, and both are pale beers. And 1841-2 was perhaps the most important period in the history of pale beer.

The Oktoberfest of 1841 saw the Spaten Brewery put out the first brew marketed as “Mӓrzenbier”. A year later at the Martinmas Fair in Pilsen, the Bavarian masterbrewer Josef Groll served up the first golden lager from the state-of-the-art Bürger Brauerei, the beer that would become known as Pilsner Urquell.

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The concept of the Mӓrzenbier, or “March beer”, originated in a food-safety decree issued by Bavaria’s Duke Albrecht V. This forbade brewing between the end of April and the end of September, when hot summer weather was apt to combine with bacteria to spoil wort and waste precious grain. March was therefore a period of furious industry for brewers, as they laboured to create enough beer to be lagered, and drawn upon, throughout the summer months. You can begin to appreciate how useful the Oktoberfest was, in the last two weeks of September, for mopping up the final barrels of this “March beer” to free up lagering space for the autumn and winter output.

Before Spaten’s branding exercise for the 1841 festival, these beers, like most beer at the time, were dark. Spaten was among the first to experiment with more lightly-kilned pale malts, and associate their fragrant, bread-and-biscuit sweetness with the Mӓrzen designation.

In Pilsen, they dialed the colour down still further. It seems likely that the architect of the Bürger Brauerei, Martin Stelzer, was so impressed by the India Pale Ales he had seen in England, produced with malt kilned indirectly over coke rather than directly over wood, that he introduced something similar to the Bohemian scene. The golden lager he and Josef Groll produced was an instant hit at the 1842 Martinmas Fair, and it went on to global domination.

In Munich, the success of Spaten’s aromatic, pale Mӓrzen, and the popular new Pilsner style, reinforced the fashion for “bright” beer. It was at the 1872 Oktoberfest that the Franziskaner-Leist Brauerei hit upon the idea of using this term – “Helles” – to market its new Mӓrzen recipe. But we wouldn’t recognise that as a Hell today. That lighter-bodied, less aromatic, hoppier style arrived when a Bavarian Pilsner clone called Münchner Gold was unveiled in 1893 by Hacker-Brau, forerunner of Hacker-Pschorr.

Finally, another year later, it was Spaten again that married this new golden, hoppy style with the “Helles” designation: with its Helles Lagerbier, and the subsequent trademark awarded by the German Imperial Patent Office, the world’s second most important pale lager style was born.

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Like most births, this one was not painless. By the 1890s, imitation Pilsners had been flooding Europe for half a century, and a few diehards in the Verein Münchener Brauereien were determined not to let them kill off the grand old tradition of dark lager, or “Dunkel”. At the meeting that followed the release of Helles Lagerbier they tabled a resolution that would have made the Verein a Helles-free, Dunkel-only zone.

This was quixotic. Most member breweries simply ignored the controversy and set about making sparkling Helles for the adoring punter. Some held out – Paulaner clove stubbornly to the dark side until the late 1920s – but there was no getting away from the fact that the future was bright.

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My wife and I love everything rum, caramel, chocolate, toffee and coffee in beer and we are therefore glad of this rearguard action in defence of dark lager. It undeniably influenced our selections in Munich this summer, especially on the evening of our arrival.

Hacker-Pschorr Dunkel, Munich

Against the Norm

Tired, hungry and yet to shift into the Bavarian gear, we found ourselves in at a table in Bratwursthertzl, without menus, absentmindedly asking for “beer”. As the waiter started to rattle off the choices we both decided to go against the norm a little and order two Dunkels.

This restaurant serves Hacker-Pschorr beer, and therefore, without recognising it at the time, we were winding the clock back 124 years by asking for an old-style lager from the very brewery that had introduced the upstart Münchner Gold in 1893. (In another strange fold in the fabric of Munich’s beer history, since 1998 the Hacker-Pschorr recipes have been brewed at Paulaner – the last hold-out against the Hell-ish pale-lager onslaught).

In another break with Munich convention, I ordered a plate of Nuremberg sausages. These are probably more like English sausages than any other German style, and their sticky, spicy, caramel sweetness married perfectly with my Dunkel’s toffee, cinnamon and mince-pie opulence.

By the end of the meal, we had found our Bavarian gear.

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The next day we headed up to the English Garden, laid out around the Eisbach Creek in the late 18th century and still one of the world’s largest urban parks. Cool and placid paths lined with oak and chestnut trees open up into broad, green meadows here, far from the rumble of city traffic. The woodland frames the ever-bustling conviviality of the park’s beer gardens.

In the largest and most venerable of these beer gardens we availed ourselves of Hofbrӓu beer and pretzels and sat by the Chinesischer Turm pagoda, an incongruous relic of 18th century Orientalism. My wife took the Dunkel from the tap and I chose the bottled Schwarze Weisse, which delivered notable banana esters on top of its malty, caramel base.

Our long stroll back through the city revealed daring surfers on the wave beneath the Prinzregenstraβe bridge, the imposing Nazi-era Haus der Kunst, the Hofgarten and Residenz, and tourists planning their evenings in Mairenplatz, before we headed west past the railway terminus towards Augustiner Brӓustuben, the beer hall that adjoins the Augustiner brewery.

Augustiner Brauhaus, Munich

“Lord, Make Me Chaste. But Not Yet.”

Founded in 1328, Augustiner is the oldest brewery in Munich and the only independent brewer operating in the city itself. The Brӓustuben in Landsberger Straβe is boisterous, warm, welcoming and, being a little off the beaten track, mainly patronised by locals. There is an air of tradition about this place, whether in the icon of Saint Augustine that looks down upon the rows of contented customers, in the barrel-tapped beer, or in the cut-off top from an old brewing copper that covers the busy kitchen as it churns out plate after plate of steaming Schweinshaxen.

We went dark once again, complementing the Dunkel gravy around our pork and dumplings with a couple of ruby-tinged beers. The brewery’s characterful Dunkles has a touch of the ancient about it: very fruity esters and spicy, almost musty phenolic undertones could fool one into thinking this was a top-fermented ale, the result of a medieval yeast strain living through thousands of generations of unpredictable evolution. I prefer the cleaner, more “modern” profile of the Hacker-Pschorr Dunkel, but the unusual complexity of Augustiner’s is undeniably intriguing.

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We headed out of the city to experience the hilltop splendour of the Benedictine monastery Kloster Andechs.

From the railway station in Herrsching the winding path took us through the woodland of Kiental. The monastery’s belltower appears suddenly through an opening in the trees just as your body begins to tell you that you are ready for Andechs’ storied beer. Before indulging, we climbed the tower to enjoy the views of the forest-dappled countryside, and basked in the cool silence, and baroque extravagance, of the Holy Chapel.

Kloster Andechs, Munich

Stairway to Hell

Is it apt that I turned to Hell for the first time on my Bavarian journey here, surrounded by the devotional? The Andechser Vollbier is light-bodied, grassy and herbal with noble hops, and the perfect refresher for a hot summer day.

My wife stayed on the dark side with Export Dunkel, a complex and rewarding classic. This is one of the few dark lagers from southern Bavaria to deliver a genuine coffee bitterness from its roasted malts. Its phenolic profile adds a medicinal hint of licorice. These elements lift the fig and dark-fruit base note to a new pitch of harmony: a delightful accompaniment to the lengthening afternoon shadows creeping across the surrounding hills and woods.

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Back in Munich, we spent an evening at another drinking venue laden with history. The Hofbrӓuhaus in Platzl bills itself, with some justification, as the world’s most famous tavern – while directing attention away from its supporting role in the rise of the National Socialist movement.  The crowd in attendance were a nicer bunch than the infamous patrons from the 1930s, though not adverse to the occasional outbreak of lairiness. After all, this is where you come to experience the Oktoberfest atmosphere should you find yourself in Munich sometime other than the last two weeks of September.

Hofbrauhaus, Munich

Laden with History, and Occasional Lairiness

As we washed down a Groβe Brezel with the brewery’s banana-stuffed Münchner Weisse and its hoppy, bitter and contrarily-named Original (which is in fact its equivalent of a Hell), the brass band kept the party thumping. In between choruses, we admired the walls and ceilings, painted with a rococo intensity almost the equal of the Holy Chapel at Andechs.

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On our final day in Munich we took our evening meal at the Schneider Brӓuhaus. Georg Schneider is a name held in reverence by devotees of Bavarian Weiβbier. Only a short history of this style can help us understand why. Happily, that history will give us another reason to celebrate the year 1872, the year that “Helles” was born as a beer designation.

Bavarian brewers started to pick up Weiβbier recipes from their Bohemian neighbours during the 12th and 13th centuries, but it was never particularly popular until 1520, when the noble Degenberg family obtained a monopoly on its production from the Wittelsbach ruling dynasty, and promptly turned it into a very profitable business.

Eighty-two years later Hans Sigmund of Degenberg died without a successor and the monopoly patent expired with him. The Wittelsbachs seized their opportunity to claim the Weiβbier market for themselves and expand it throughout their kingdom. It was a tidy trade for a good 200 years, but the style began to fall out of fashion towards the end of the 18th century. When bright Pilsners, Mӓrzenbieren and, finally, Hells started to come onto the market in the latter half of the 19th century, the lighter-coloured Weiβbier lost its last unique selling point and looked to be facing extinction. By 1872, the Wittelsbachs were desperate to sell.

Step forward masterbrewer Georg Schneider. Something told him that Weiβbier had a future. In fact, he was so convinced that he not only acquired the rights to brew it, but also bought the Maderbrӓu brewery in Munich and dedicated it entirely to wheat-beer production. He named his business G. Schneider & Sohn. Today it thrives as Schneider Weisse, still proudly and boldly proclaiming its devotion to the style.

It took a long time for that devotion to pay off.

Consumers drank enough Weiβbier to sustain Schneider’s modest volumes. The family kept interest going with innovations such as the magnificent Doppelbock Weizen, Aventinus, still one of the world’s greatest beers 110 years after its debut. In 1927, Georg Schneider IV was confident enough to buy the Weisses Brӓuhaus in Kelheim, which had been the main centre for the Wittelsbachs’ wheat-beer production. And when the Maderbrӓu was bombed in 1944 the family saw fit to rebuild it as a beerhall – the Schneider Brӓuhaus where we ate dinner – even as they moved all production out to Kelheim.

Nonetheless, they would have to wait until the 1960s for the wheel of fashion to turn and the demand for traditional Weiβbier to recover. Having kept the style alive virtually singlehanded for the better part of a century, Schneider Weisse now brews some 300,000 hectolitres annually, exporting its Original recipe and several other twists on the Weiβbier theme worldwide.

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On our first visit, my wife took the Original, with its wonderful sweet flood of banana esters and unique, fruity-bubblegum top note.

I approached the “Tap 4”, Festweisse, with its heavy-hitting 6.2% ABV and a dash of aromatic New Zealand Cascade hops, with some trepidation. I had not been convincd by another of Schneider’s hop-forward beers, the strong, Hallertauer dry-hopped “Tap 5”, Hopfenweisse, which originated as a 2008 collaboration with The Brooklyn Brewery. The Festweisse, however, seemed to me a much more self-confident and balanced beer, a mouthwatering blend of yeasty banana esters with lemongrass and mango from the hops, backed by just enough alcohol to lend the drink a warm, spicy finish.

Schneider & Sohn, Munich

An Entire Journey for the Senses: Festweisse, Aventinus, Hopfenweisse, Original

The Schneider Brӓuhaus is such an atmospheric place to eat and drink that we paid a second visit a week later, as we passed through Munich on our way home to London. I gave the Hopfenweisse a second chance, and while it was better than I remembered, it was still not to my taste: it has more of a brash New York than a Bavarian accent; its 8.2% ABV feels top-heavy for its foundations; and the aggressive hopping tips the whispery, grassy Hallertau note into a forthright dankness.

Still, the Schweinshaxe was exquisite and, on both occasions, we indulged ourselves by replacing desert with tall glasses of Aventinus. As the beer warmed and figs, rum and chocolate gave way to layers of banana, bread and bubblegum I was reminded, yet again, that this is no ordinary beer: it is an entire journey for the senses.

Perhaps 1872 is the beer year to celebrate when in Munich, after all.

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