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In January 2012, Biergartens will celebrate their 200th anniversary. But what exactly is a Biergarten?

Biergarten, © Dieter Schütz / PIXELIO

In Germany, as the weather gets warmer, it is pretty common to see people sitting around wooden tables, enjoying a beer under huge chestnut trees, some of them having even brought something to eat while drinking. These places where everyone can stop to relax and order a fresh beer are called Biergartens, literally “beer gardens”. Their story goes back a few centuries in Bavaria.

It all started in 1539 when a Bavarian law banned beer brewing between St. George’s day on 23rd April and St. Michael’s day on 29th September. The boiling process used in brewing was indeed frequently the cause for fires. Brewers thus started to try to find a way to store the beer so as to have supplies all year long. They began making a beer with a higher alcohol rate, which allowed it to be stored longer: the Marzen (March beer). This beer would later be served during the Oktoberfest in Munich. In order to keep the beer at cool temperatures, cellars were dug underground. Barrels were stored in it with blocks of ice. However, the presence of a high water table prevented cellars to be built very deep. As a result, in summer, the beer was impacted by the heat from the sunbeams beating on the ground. So, to protect the cellars from the sun, trees were planted above them. With their great height, large leaves and thick roots, chestnut trees quickly appeared as the perfect trees for this purpose.

To buy their beer, Bavarians would come to a booth set up not far from the cellars with a big stein that brewers would fill up, before heading back home. Eventually, people took up the habit to drink their beer just after buying it. As centuries went by, brewers came up with the idea of allowing their customers to have a beer on the spot. In a decree issued on 4th January 1812, King Ludwig I of Bavaria – himself a beer lover – allowed brewers to create building facilities on top of cellars. Tables and benches were gathered under the chestnut trees where people could settle and enjoy a beer as well as something to eat. The traditional Biergarten was born! Yet, not everyone was happy with its appearance. Innkeepers and restaurant owners feared the competition and complained about it to Ludwig I. To prevent rebellion, the king made a compromise: Biergarten could keep serving beer but were no longer allowed to sell food. Patrons now had to bring their own food.

 

Very popular among Germans, the Biergarten lived on, anchoring itself into tradition, and went far beyond Bavaria’s borders. Biergarten can now be found in Cologne, Stuttgart or Berlin. And many drinking establishments around the world like to call themselves “Biergarten”. But a few tables on a terrace under a sign on which is written “Biergarten” or its English equivalent “beer garden” don’t make a proper Biergarten. An authentic Biergarten should indeed match some key criteria. First of all, beer must be served in one-liter steins (except for Weissbier, served in half-liters). Biergarten cannot go without wooden tables.  Furthermore, patrons should help themselves with beer – even though some places also provide the possibility to be served by a waiter. On top of that, while the ban on food offering was lifted, prompting many Biergarten to provide traditional specialties like Obaztda cheese spread, Knödels (potato or bread dumplings) and pretzels, it is still better for people to bring their own picnic baskets. Last but not least, a Biergarten would not be a Biergarten without the chestnut trees. Those now provide shadow to the customers.

 

If Germans like Biergarten so much, it is above all because of their conviviality and accessibility. Young and old people, locals and tourists, people of all nationalities, of all social backgrounds, families, friends, lone persons: everyone gather around the wooden tables to clink glasses with the person next seat, whoever it is. It is even common to end up having a long discussion with a perfect stranger! The Bavarian Biergarten Decree even praises the social function of Biergartens, which help reducing isolation and have contributed to the unity of Germans as a people. Biergarten also appear as pleasant green areas in strongly urbanized places.

 

With over 100 Biergartens and seating for 180 000 people, Munich and the neighboring area remain the best place to enjoy a beer in the shade of chestnut trees. It does not matter whether you chose to go to the Hirschgarten or to the Chinese Tower, the two most famous Biergartens, or whether you prefer a simpler one: if you happen to go to Munich between late April and late September, don’t forget to try the Biergarten experience!

Viktualienmarkt, © Jürgen Heimerl / PIXELIO

 

Links: 

Article 1 about Biergartens

Article 2 about Biergartens

German website about Biergartens

Bavarian Biergarten Decree (German)

Pictures: PIXELIO

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