As regular readers of this blog will be aware, I visit Germany on a fairly regular basis. In fact I have holidayed there for seven out of the past nine years, and have travelled there on business on three further occasions. The holidays have all been taken in Bavaria, the most southerly and also the largest state in the Federal Republic, whilst the business trips have been to Cologne (Köln), capital of the Rhineland area. Germany, of course, is one of the world’s great beer drinking nations, and a desire to become more familiar with the many and varied beers of this country has been the prime motivator for my visits here. Germany also offers much else besides beer, and lovers of history, architecture, art and spectacular scenery will find much to interest them and keep them occupied throughout their visit.
For first time visitors though, particularly those like me who are primarily interested in beer, German customs and drinking practices can at times seem a little strange, especially as they tend to vary not just from region to region, but also within the various regions themselves. With this in mind I have written this guide to point people in the right direction, and to help them avoid some of the basic mistakes I made on my first visits to the country. For example, there is nothing more frustrating than sitting at an empty table in a beer garden, waiting to be served, and then finding you are in the “self-service” area! Equally, it is often confusing knowing which beers are on sale in a particular bar or pub. You may have a rough idea, particularly if you’ve a guide book with you, but knowing exactly what is on offer, and attempting to find out, can at times be a little taxing..
One of the oddities about drinking in Germany, compared to the UK, is the almost complete absence of point of sale material. The only things of this nature that I have seen are “pub umbrellas”, signs outside pubs and bars and, of course, beer mats. There are normally plenty of the latter, especially as the waitresses will often use them to mark how many beers have been ordered by a particular table, and thus how many need to be paid for at the end of the session. “Table service” is very much the norm in most pubs and bars, i.e. you sit at a table and wait for the waiter or waitress to bring your drinks over to you. There is none of the standing at the bar, waiting to be served, that applies in the UK, so perhaps there is little or no need for items such as pump clips or garishly illuminated founts informing punters which beers are on sale.
The lack of point of sale material can often be a confusing situation for the beer enthusiast, but fortunately the Speisekarte or menu will normally list what variety and type of beer is on sale. Then, even if your German is rudimentary, or even non-existent, you can at least point to the beer of your choice. Most German bars will normally offer a variety of different types of beer even if, as is usually the case, they are all produced by the same brewery. The menu will usually distinguish which are draught (vom Fass) and which are bottled (Flasche), but there will normally be a greater variety of the latter available compared to the draught beers.
The selection will normally include a pale (Helles) lager-style beer, and nearly always a dark, malty (Dunkles) beer as well. This is particularly the case in Bavaria. Pilsner-style beers are almost universal in the north of Germany, but not so common (certainly not on draught), in the south of the country. Depending on the time of year, there will often be a seasonal beer on sale. Varieties include:
Märzen - a rich, full-bodied, reddish-brown, bottom-fermented beer, with an abv of around 5.5%. The name comes from the German word for March., which was when, in pre- refrigeration days, the last batches of beer were brewed before the heat of summer made brewing impossible.
Bock - a strong bottom-fermented malty beer, with an abv of between 6 and 8 percent. Sometimes dark amber in colour, but it can also be quite pale, as with the Maibocks, which are available in springtime (April-May).
Doppelbock - stronger than a Bock, with an abv of anything from 6.5 to 10 percent, or even stronger. In Munich and the surrounding area Doppelbocks are traditionally served during March – the so-called Starkbierzeit (literally,strong beer time).
Weissbier or Weizenbier – top-fermented wheat beers, brewed from a grist of 50% wheat and 50% barely malts. Copper-coloured, and characteristically fruity, wheat beers come as either filtered (Kristall) or cloudy and unfiltered (mit Hefe - "with yeast"). The latter version is by far the most popular. Unfiltered Zwicklbier is also quite common these days, sometimes known as Urtyp. Whilst many of these seasonal beers are available on draught at the appropriate time of year, they may still be found at other times in bottled form.
In addition there are regional specialities such as Kellerbier, and sometimes Rauchbier in Franconia; top-fermented beers such as Kölsch in Cologne, and Alt in Düsseldorf. One thing’s for sure; you won’t run out of different varieties of beer to try.
One point worth bearing in mind though is that many bottled beers are exactly the same brew as their draught counterparts; the only difference being the container which they are stored in and dispensed from. We witnessed this on our recent trip to Franconia where, in a local pub in Forchheim, the cask on the counter ran out towards the end of the evening, so rather than broach a fresh one so close to “time” the barman informed us it would be bottled beer only for the remainder of the session. A sensible approach I think, especially when one considers the logistics of both keeping the beer cool as well as fresh.
Speaking of waitress/waiter service, this is THE one aspect I find most frustrating about drinking in Germany. Even more frustrating than waiting to be served, especially if one has a king-sized thirst on, is that of waiting to pay at the end of a session. This can be a nightmare if one has a train or bus to catch, and then finding the waitress has inexplicably disappeared. I have learnt from experience to always offer to pay the bill once the final drinks are brought over, rather than wait until I am ready to leave, The phrases “Gleich zahlen, bitte”, or “Sofort zahlen, bitte.”, (Please may I pay now?), have come in handy on several occasions, and saved us missing travel connections, hanging around with empty glasses and wanting to leave, etc.
Of course, none of these practices are exclusive to Germany, but apply in equal measure in many other European countries. I have come across similar practices in France, Belgium, Austria and the Czech Republic. Does this make us Brits unique in paying, and often drinking at the bar? Well of course not, the USA and Canada are both similar to the UK, but I don’t know about other former colonies, or places settled by us Anglo Saxons. (Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India etc). I also remember paying at the bar at an Irish-themed pub in Kyoto, Japan recently. (No, I wasn’t drinking Guinness, but opted instead for some of the rather good Japanese craft beers that were on sale there.)
However, not all establishments in Germany are table service. Most beer gardens (Kellers in Franconia), will offer a self-service option (Selbstbenienung). This is true of the large Munich beer gardens as well as some of the smaller, more rural, “tucked-away” Kellers one finds in Franconia. There are normally two separate serving hatches in these establishments; the Ausschank, where you queue up for your beer, and the Küche, or kitchen where a range of both hot and cold food is served. You enter first through a turnstile then, assuming you are eating, as well as drinking, you grab a tray, get your beer first, and then load up you tray with whichever food takes your fancy. In Bavaria, food choices will normally include a roast pork dish of some description, sausages (naturally!), roast chicken, meat loaf (in the form of Leberkaas), or a selection of salads. The larger beer gardens will normally charge a refundable deposit or Pfand, on your glass, but this practice is less common in the smaller, rural Kellers. Once you have selected your comestibles and your beer, you pay for your purchases at a separate turnstile, as you pass out of the serving areas.
The other really good thing about beer gardens is that many allow customers to bring their own food along, so long as they purchase their drinks from the Ausschank. This is an excellent idea, and one often sees whole families, especially at weekends, turn up with a picnic basket of pre-prepared cold food. Some even bring their own tablecloths along!
Finally, a word about drinking vessels and the various measures you may encounter. Half litre (500ml) glass mugs (with a handle), are probably the most common vessels, but even these can vary considerably from tall thin, cylindrical mugs, to short, squat ones. In Franconia, (the northern part of Bavaria), stoneware, ceramic mugs take the place of glass vessels. These have the advantage of keeping the beer cool for longer, but to me they detract from the visual pleasure of drinking as well as not being able to see the colour of the beer, nor indeed how much one has drunk! In Munich, and the southern part of Bavaria, the litre glass or Maß is common, and although these large vessels can be great fun to drink out of, they are both heavy and a little unwieldy. Contrast the Maß with the small, tall, cylindrical, straight-sided glasses, common in the Rhineland (both in Cologne and Dusseldorf), which contain either just 20 or 30cl of beer and you'll get some idea of just what a diverse country Germany is when it comes to beer drinking.
Armed with these facts you won’t go thirsty or hungry when you visit Germany, and like us you will hopefully find the whole drinking experience far more enjoyable when you know a bit more as to what is going on.