We’re presenting our list of 12 great beers for the season. We’ve tasted well over 200 Christmas beers over the years. Some have been bad elves, others have been nothing short of gifts. Some of the ones on this year’s list are relatively easy to find, others are from our archives and beer vault. We hope even the ones from the archives will have stories that will help you find you own path to great beers. Follow these links to find earlier posts in the series: first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth,
Augustiner Bräustuben: Munich’s Best Bargain is a Refuge Away From Tourists
The Augustinian Monastery founded the Augustiner Brewery in Munich in 1328. Napoleon’s sweep across Germany forced its secularization in 1803 and the brewery found its way into the hands of the Wagner family buy the middle of the 19th century.
The last of the Wagners, Edith Haberland Wagner left her majority share of the brewery to a charitable foundation whose mission is to provide good beer at fair prices to the people of Munich, and to use “profits” to better the city.
Happily tourists are included in the beneficiaries of the foundation’s efforts. The Hirschgarden is the biggest in the world, and the Keller and Biergarten is the best center city beer garden anywhere. Brewery restaurants in downtown Munich provide decent beer and Munich’s best beer. Most serve from wooden barrels; Augustiner is the last of Munich’s breweries to use them extensively.
While the prices of all the places you’re likely to run into are fair, the best bargain in the city for Augustiner beer is in the Bräustuben, the brewery restaurant at the current site of the brewery at Arnulfstrasse 52 a short tram ride from the main station. Only 5.5 Euros buys you a liter of the glorious Original Helles, which is one of the best lager beers in the world. The dunkel goes for the same rate and the Edelstoff, slightly stronger and sweeter, is only .20 Euros more. A daily menu features specials that go beyond schnitzels and roasts but those German standards are tasty and affordable. A schnitzel or perch fillet is less than 12 Euros and some filling choices drop below 10 Euros.
It doesn’t hurt to get a reservation, but we’ve never had a serious time being seated. The main hall used to be the brewery stables – it’s big and noisy and exciting. These days, we prefer that relative serenity of the Bräustuben, with its rich dark woods and comfortable table seating.
Less of a bargain, but more of an adventure is the Keller on the opposite side of the tracks from the brewery. The garden is hard to miss; we’ll take you downstairs in the Keller in our next post.
We’ve taken a winter hiatus to work on our next book. The book is a guide to beer travel in the Mid Atlantic. It features breweries where you can walk back to a comfortable room to spend the night after visiting the brewery. We feature B&Bs, Inns, and iconic Hotels along with some of the most interesting beer destinations in the region.
Watch this space for some of the gems we’ve found in researching this project. And look for a new Beer of the Day starting the second week of June.
OKTOBERFEST — AT LEAST ONCE
The 2017 Oktoberfest has wrapped up, and you’ll have to wait until next September 27 to enter the next tent. This year 6.2 million visitors guzzled 7.5 million liters of beer. Every serious beer drinker we know wishes she could have been in Munich recently for Oktoberfest. Except for those who have, in fact, attended the event. I don’t know anyone who centers his life around making a yearly pilgrimage. It is in many ways the biggest, baddest, most spectacular beer event in the world, but it’s also a touristy, loud, pricy extravagance.
There’s a parallel in the world of baseball. Ellie and I usually attend a few Washington Nationals game every year and we’ve been to several playoff games. On our last visit, a nearly hour long wait for a slice of pizza and a craft beer reminded me why we only made it to one game this year and we will be watching the postseason on HDTV. We go to quite a few minor league games, however; shorter lines and closer seats give us a fine baseball experience with few hassles and less expense.
The “minor league” experience in the world of Oktoberfest are the myriad of local festivals throughout Bavaria during spring, summer, and most of the fall. A bit of digging on line can produce a wealth of options. These fests are smaller, though the biggest provide more food, drink, rides and entertainment than a person can consume in a day. The largest, in Stuttgart, is substantially larger in area than the Munich fest that ends a few days earlier.
This season, however, belongs to Oktoberfest. If it’s still on your bucket list, keep it there. It is something to experience once. But do your homework. Even in the 90s, walking into a tent was a pretty easy thing to do. We visited every major tent in 1989. Today some planning and realistic expectations can still make it a once-in-a-lifetime treat. Here are a few tips to enjoying it:
- Plan on more than one day. There are 14 distinctive massive tents – the smallest holds 5,000 people. Visiting only one is like seeing one movie and thinking you’re a film critic. There are 21 smaller tents, some with exceptional food choices, that are quieter and sometimes easier to get into. Even the smallest have some sort of music.
2. Get reservations for the tents if you can. You would think the 100,000 seats, give or take, would provide plenty of room, but remember there are up to six million visitors vying for them. But there’s a catch: reservations are only given to groups of ten. The reservation is free, but you have to pay for 20 liters of beer and 10 chickens in advance. Reserve by contacting the individual tents by fax or letter in the late winter or spring. You can show up with lest than 10 people; the tent owner has already gotten your money for food and drink. Waiters will usually ask to seat people at any vacancies you provide, so you’re usually not buying extra elbow room. Often, left-over vouchers can be used at the tent owner’s restaurant in town for a while even after the fest is over. Next time we go, the plan is to reserve a table and find six or eight “new best friends” at our hotel to join us. Of course these people wouldn’t allow us to shoulder all the expense — they’re our best friends, after all. We’re pretty sure that this would avoid the prohibition on “resale” of reservations: they have metal detectors, not lie detectors at the gate.
3. If you go early enough, especially on a weekday, you have a chance of getting seats without a reservation. Each tent is required to keep some seats reservation-free, but they don’t keep many and they go very early. A group of two has a much better chance than a larger group. Singles, especially single women, can sometimes get into tents that are “full.” On weekends tents sometimes close as early as 11:00AM when they reach capacity and most tents are sold out most of the day. If it rains, the tents fill quickly and stay filled.
4. If your hotel has a concierge – and all the big ones do—he might have secured a table or two for hotel guests. You’ll still have to may the minimum consumption fee, but you’ll have a seat.
5. If you hit a heat wave, stop grousing and be thankful that you’ll be able to find seats much more easily. The beer will still be cold and fresh. The sunnier the weather the more people will use the gardens outside the tents and the greater likelihood that you’ll be able to snag seats inside. The gardens, by the way, are never reserved, often have room, and the music inside is piped outside.
6. Make room reservations early. Airbnb saves you from having to book a hotel in a city 100 km away or pay $400 to $600 or more for an ordinary hotel room. Especially towards the end, spaces open up both inside and outside the festival. We found dozens of rooms on Airb&b’s website for about $100 a night for the last two days of the fest. If you really want a hotel, Nuremburg is barely over an hour away by train and Augsburg is even closer. Both cities have lots of hotels. Suburban villages 30 to 40 minutes outside of town have guest houses and the area around the airport is awash with hotels. The Freising Marriott, for example had rooms open for the last two days at about $250 a night – not much more than you’d pay during other times of the year. The fest is easily accessible by UBahn from the main station.
7. The 10:30 last call in the beer tents can be shocking for residents of anywhere but Bavaria. The wine tent serves beer until just after midnight, but…it’s a wine tent. But rejoice – the after party rocks the Park Café, a beer garden that’s a ten minute walk from the main station (or one stop on bus 100.) The Park is in the old botanical garden and is worth a visit on its own. Alternatively, Lowenbrau turns the entire top floor of their massive beer hall into a “Wiesnzelt“ am Stiglmaierplatz” designed to authentically replicate the experience of being in their tent in the wiesn. The party also spills over into many of the city’s late night drinking spots.
8. Want to dress for the occasion? Stalls in the fest will sell you almost any kind of clothing but you can save a bucket of Euros with a visit to Resale – a used trachten store just off the Marianplatz in the direction of St. Peter’s cathedral.
9. You don’t need much German, but here’s the minimum:
- Bitte (or often better, Bitte Schoen) = Please (the “Schoen” intensifies the politeness. Remember “pretty please” when you were 8?)
- Danke (or better Danke Schoen) = thank you (very much)
- Grüß Gott = literally God’s Greeting or Blessing, but in Bavaria, it’s “Hello”. Convenient because it’s OK at any time of the day or night.
- Noch Ein Bier = One more beer.
10. A few other random things to know:
- Most backpacks are banned. Expect security to be very tight, but security lines have been tolerable.
- It’s fine to bring the kids – there are more rides than in Disneyland—but the little ones have to clear the beer tents by 8PM when things can start to get rowdy.
- The beer taps flow no later than 10:30, though a couple of wine tents stay open later.
- Smoking is now banned inside the tents (a mercy, believe us).
- If you’re in a men’s room and see a chest-high urinal with handles on the sides, it’s not for basketball players. The fair used to have walls with porthole-like cutouts to use as a vomitorium. Hooray for the progress of man.
- Next year’s dates (2018) are September 22 to October 7.
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(*These Oktoberfest photos courtesy of Steffi Spendler, Löwenbräuzelt; Other photos © Robert Tupper, CulturAlePress, or public domain)
AMAZING ATHENS: SO MUCH TO SEE, SO MANY TO DRINK… SUCH A SHORT WEEK.
It’s easy to get into a rut when chasing great beers in Europe. England, Belgium, Germany, Scandinavia and, increasingly Italy and Iberia beckon with bountiful brews from skillful and dedicated brewers. Greece, we thought, might be a stretch. The last time we were in Greece–long before the European Union changed so much—the law forbid imported beers. Under the circumstances the Greek-brewed Amstel tasted pretty good – an ordinary Fix was the only easily available alternative.
Oh how the world has changed since then. It’s still not Italy, which is pushing a thousand breweries, but we count over 60 breweries and the number continues to grow.
The impressive range of local beers mingles with a healthy range of imports. The EU busted open the floodgates and it’s easy to find German and Belgian classic beers in bars that treat them well.
We’ll have a few posts on Athens during the year as we sort through material for our next book dealing with great beer near great sights in Europe. Today’s post is just a start.
First: Some travel tips that not all the guides include:
Staying: Airbnb has some great Athens options, including a slew of attractive places smack in the center of almost everything. We booked really late – the only hotel options were either way out of town or way out of our price range ($400 to $600 a night). Airbnb set us up with an apartment that overlooked the Temple of Olympian Zeus for about $75 a night. Four different markets were within a ten minute walk, including one virtually at the apartment door, to provide superb breakfasts at a bargain price.
Arriving: The cab ride from the airport is a flat fee, 35 Euros this summer. To take Metro, you have to buy a special ticket that’s pricier than a regular fare. Trains leave every half hour. If you have a rail pass you can save a few Euros but taking the train toward the city and transferring to the metro at Holandri. You’ll pay regular in-city rates from there. There’s also a bus that takes you to Syntagma, Parliament square.
Orientation. Athens is one of the most walkable of the European capitals, but you’ll save yourself blisters by buying a multi-day metro pass. The passes are good for 24 hours, so it’s worth considering a series of single passes since you’re not paying for the time between the expiration of the first and the validation of the other.
Plaka is at the base of the Parthenon. It’s touristy and crowded, but old and fun, and if you choose even moderately wisely, you can eat and drink well here. Syntagma is an uphill hike, Monastiraki is a bit farther out, but still within easy view of the Acropolis. Some of the best beer is much farther out – in Halandri. It’s worth the adventure to go there if you there for more than a couple of days, but otherwise you’ll be drinking downtown and still drinking well.
Must see sights near the Plaka:
The Acropolis and the Acropolis museum. Get a good guide to tell you more than we do here, but just to whet your appetite:
The Acropolis is only a part of what it once was, due primarily to Turkish cannons and British Thieves (they called themselves archeologists). What’s left is still simply stunning. There are two routes in. We recommend entering by the gate closest to the Acropolis museum, taking the long hike up and then descending on the other side close to the old Greek and more “modern” Roman agoras.
The current Acropolis museum sits below the hill. Opened in 2009 it’s a history course in a box. You can spend forever looking at the details or get a perfectly good overview in a couple of hours. There’s a dedicated part to hold the famous “Elgin Marbles” that still reside in the British museum.
Oh yeah—there’s beer there. Check out our “Beer of the Day” for a few of our favorites, but Athens Beer, 20 Nikis, is a great starting place.
Just a few minutes from the heart of the Plaka, choose from street-side tables or duck sort-of inside for sort-of cooler temperatures when it’s hot. A wall of beer bottles lets you know from the start you’re not in an ordinary bar.
A very nice range of local-centered drafts gives you more than enough to accompany a memorable dinner. Return to sample the extensive bottle list; there’s plenty more on a menu that is clearly Greek, yet avoids or reinterprets stereotypical options. [Post 0036 20170920]