For Gustl Jakob the best part of his job at Bayernwerk, Bavaria’s historic electricity supplier, was its location. The company’s workshop, where he oversaw a fleet of cars, was only a few blocks away from Augustiner Keller, one of Munich’s last remaining original beer gardens. So what amounted to just a small step for Gustl, out of the company’s premises, would be one giant leap for any Bavarian: the stroll from an earthly existence to heavenly delight.
Gustl was not alone. His daily after-work ascension is repeated on a daily basis by thousands of Munich residents and is one of the city’s most popular pastimes. The symbolic importance of the beer garden has been most succinctly captured by the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. The broadsheet, with its home among the banking towers of Frankfurt, always looks at Munich’s earthly merrymaking with a hint of mockery and a drop of jealousy too. In 2012, for example, when the Bavarian capital celebrated the bicentennial of the legalisation of beer gardens, the paper noted sarcastically that Munich residents like to think of these establishments as the city’s “Garden of Eden”.
For his part, Gustl (as a good Bavarian) knew his Bible and had learnt from past mistakes. To avoid the fate of Adam and to make sure that no kind of excess could ever lead to his expulsion from the Garden, he decided to take root. So in 1989 he commissioned a carpenter to carve a huge circular table. He took the oak table to Augustiner Keller, installed it under one of the horse chestnut trees and henceforth had his own place to drink.
Today, almost 30 years later, Gustl has passed away but before he did, he bequeathed his so-called Stammtisch – a table for regular drinkers – to his sons Ludwig and Stefan. Gustl Stammtisch, as it is called to this day, is one of about 150 Stammtische at Augustiner Keller. Most of them are handmade with the names of their patrons carved or artfully painted on them. They blend in with the more than 500 other regular tables in a sea of shaded seats, which can host up to 5,000 guests at a time.
For Munich’s masses, beer gardens have long been a place for frolicking. Though Bavarians have a natural inclination towards peaceful enjoyment, the success of these outdoor drinking temples owes as much to gentle genes as to good (and sensibly light-touch) governance. Overly restrictive city authorities around the world today might learn a lesson or two from Bavaria’s historic kings and their hedonistic wisdom going back over centuries.
The state of Bavaria must be one of the few regions in the world that has its own Brauordnungen, or beer regulations. A central order from 1539 decreed that the popular bottom-fermented beers could only be brewed during the colder half of the year from Michaelmas on 29 September to Saint George’s Day on 23 April. There was good reason for the restriction: the beer required temperatures below 10c to mature and hot boilers used for brewing had previously started fires in the summer; their use was thus limited to the colder and wetter months.
But with the fervour of US civil-liberties defenders, the Bavarian brewers dug in. Literally so, when they reacted to the order by excavating huge cellars to store cool beer over the summer while production was prohibited. On top of these cellars they planted horse chestnut trees that had two advantages: their abundant foliage would provide shade during the hotter months and their shallow roots would leave the cellars beneath untouched.
Initially, customers came to the cellars to fetch beer in big glasses, so-called Maß (the German word both for “measure” and “one-litre glass”). Some of these Maß had lids to avoid spillage on the way home. But the lids soon became irrelevant as the beer-loving Bavarians developed a new way of consuming their brews: they went looking for the most inviting cellars where they had their Maß filled up and then they downed their beer right in the shade of the chestnut trees. Thus the beer gardens were born and with it the local tradition of drinking beer from huge one-litre jugs.
However, one man’s triumph was another man’s trial. As the beer-pilgrims started frequenting the cellars, pub-owners got up in arms. They complained to Bavaria’s King Max that brewers should be supplying their beer to them rather than selling it directly and taking away their customers. The king was in a bind. He had enjoyed a reputation as a man of the people, famously walking the streets to chat with his subjects. Now he was torn between his libertarian streak of granting people their hedonistic freedoms and a strategic imperative for any Bavarian ruler: heeding the demands of publicans.
He found a canny solution by effectively splitting the difference: in 1812 he ruled that brewers could continue to sell their beer at the cellars but would not be allowed to serve meals (but guests could bring their own food). Though Max’s order has long since been amended, the tradition of bringing a picnic to beer gardens has survived and has ensured that they continue to be accessible to people of all incomes and age groups.
The scene at the Augustiner Keller on a sunny late-spring afternoon shows how this spirit lives on. Students from a nearby university mix with managers and young parents whose children play on a recently expanded playground. At the same time, politicians including Angela Merkel and John Kerry and actors such as Tom Cruise, have all passed through. “We cherish our traditions and want to keep them alive,” says operations manager Darko Stanic. “Up until 1891 we even had an ox that walked in circles to hoist beer up from the cellar.”
Thus Stanic books Bavarian brass bands for Monday nights. His waiters all wear traditional Tracht – Dirndl for the women and Lederhosen for the men – and are always assigned to their fixed area of the beer garden where they know the regular punters by name. Gustl Stammtisch, for instance, has been served for the past 20 years by waiter Klaus Hain, a cheerful Austrian who spends his winters working as a ski instructor near Kitzbühel.
The members of Gustl Stammtisch are a mixed group of long-time friends, some of whom went to school together. The table comprises IT experts and lawyers as well as opticians and electricians. “Sometimes we also invite our children and they bring their own kids and attach baby chairs to the table,” says Ludwig. “But we don’t serve them beer – just yet.”
Others are less restrained, as a fresh cut over the eye of Ludwig’s friend Wolfgang Thaler testifies. “Last week, on my way home I fell off my bike,” he says. How many beers he had drunk that evening he can’t remember. But after a vociferous debate among his friends they eventually settle on an answer: six litres.
How much beer it all adds up to for the whole Augustiner Keller is a well-kept secret. Operations manager Stanic only reveals that he has about 600,000 guests every season from May till October, with another 400,000 who come to the adjacent beer hall throughout the year. “If each guest drinks a Maß that would amount to a total of one million litres per year,” he calculates, somewhat evasively. “But it might be a bit more.”
Other beer gardens are similarly tight-lipped about their output. One of them is Seehaus, owned by the Kuffler family (who run eight restaurants in Munich, including one of the tents at Oktoberfest). What makes Seehaus exceptional is its scenic location on the shore of Kleinhesseloher See in the heart of English Garden, Munich’s extensive city park. “Our premises go back to wooden huts from the 18th century that were already used to serve beer to workers,” says managing director Sebastian Kuffler. “Later the huts were expanded to become boat houses and eventually a beer garden with an indoor restaurant.”
The location at the lake has several advantages. On particularly hot summer days, guests occasionally even bend the rules in this protected park and carry tables and benches into the shallow water to cool off their feet. The lake also often freezes in winter, attracting figure skaters, which is one reason why the Seehaus beer garden is one of the few to open all year round. “Our guests often place benches on the ice or use them as hockey goals,” says Kuffler. “We have to be careful to get the benches off the lake before the ice melts, otherwise we have to dive after them in the summer.”
However, the lake also brings one liability. It carries music and noise across the park and through the windows of sleep-deprived residents. For many beer gardens this problem causes a conflict of interests that has put Bavaria’s modern leaders in a similar dilemma to that of King Max 200 years ago: residents versus revellers.
In 1995 this simmering squabble came to a head when Bavaria’s top administrative court ruled in favour of residents in the plush suburb of Pullach and ordered the beer garden Waldwirtschaft to stop serving drinks at 21.30. This infringement of basic Bavarian rights aroused rebellious passions in an otherwise placid people. On 12 May 1995 about 25,000 beer fans and other freedom fighters demonstrated against the ruling in Munich. It was one of the largest protests in the city’s recent history, dubbed the Biergarten Revolution. Once again Bavaria’s ruler, in this case Minister President Edmund Stoiber, had his ear to the ground and presented a new amendment: The Bavarian Beer Garden Regulation. It stipulates that beer gardens can serve drinks till 23.00 and assigns looser noise limits to them, akin to those of sporting events.
Ludwig at Augustiner Keller still remembers the revolution’s excitement, though his favourite beer garden within the city limits had not been threatened by the court’s ruling and always stays open till midnight. “Even when the lights here go out, we have no problem,” he whispers conspiratorially, unlocking a private drawer underneath his table. Among other paraphernalia such as salt and pepper and beer-flask lids, he pulls out a candle. “We just light our own little fire and keep drinking.”
The flickering candle now sheds light on a slogan painted on the table. It is the favourite quote of his late father, explains Ludwig. “When he got here from work and had the first sip of beer, he would lean back and pronounce: ‘’s Leb’n is schee’ – Bavarian for ‘Life is beautiful.’”