It’s early summer, and Munich is bracing itself for yet another week where temperatures will rise to well above 30°C.
The air is heavy with the honeyed scent of the blossoms of lime trees that line the city’s alleys. Those who don’t have to work take refuge along the Isarauen – lush wetlands connected by footbridges in the river Isar. Their grassy shores are sprinkled with locals escaping the shimmering heat, who make the occasional stroll into knee-deep water to retrieve chilled beers from crates they’ve parked in the river’s currents to cool.
Hot weather means a strong thirst that – as the local tradition has it – is preferably quenched with a cold, fizzy brew. In fact, if the state of Bavaria, of which Munich is the capital, were a country, its beer consumption of around 130 litres per head each year would rank it second in the entire world, only behind the Czech Republic (143 litres). Indeed, the region is home to the world’s highest density of breweries, with one brewery per 20,000 inhabitants – around 650 in total, or half of all German breweries.
Yet, while this beer landscape is dotted with plenty of smaller players, Munich’s taps mostly serve the beers of a few traditional brands, dubbed the Big Six: Augustiner, Hacker-Pschorr, Hofbräu, Löwenbräu, Paulaner and Spaten. Their heritage dates as far back as the 14th century, a time when beer with a low alcohol content was the primary source of hydration for Munich locals, containing the only clean water available in times of poor hygiene standards. These companies soon came to dominate the market, their early success allowing them to branch out to own inns and restaurants and later control the famous beer gardens.
But their market dominance – reinforced by Bavaria’s still largely followed purity law from 1516, which allows only the use of water, hops and barley to make a beer (yeast was added later) – is no longer as sacrosanct. A young generation of Munich craft brewers is successfully reinventing traditional brews, and thanks to growing support among their loyal fan base, looks set to leave a lasting impact on the local and national beer landscape.
“Beer has become somewhat boring, the differences in flavour are mostly gone due to a very centralised market, but every development creates a countermovement,” says Franz Löning. In early 2018, the 39-year-old former stagehand helped set up Frisches Bier, a craft beer hotspot inhabiting the ground floor of a four-storey apartment block on Thalkirchner Straße.
A live band provides a backdrop of indie and rock staples while, around the big U-shaped bar with its patinated copper pipes, beer aficionados with sampling glasses try out a new India pale ale or double stout. They mingle with locals enjoying a pint of the region’s beloved helles – a local lager that is Munich’s most popular type of beer.
“Our customers are a cross-section of Munich’s society. Craft beer has become mainstream,” says Löning, not without a certain delight over how busy the bar is on a Monday evening. Frisches Bier mostly sells beers brewed by Tilmans Biere, which Löning is involved with. The brewery has won many awards, and the hearts of both the craft beer community and more traditional beer drinkers, since it started in 2015. According to Löning, they achieved this by making a helles lager with a subtle twist.
“Instead of going for a wildly creative and hardly drinkable new variety of beer, we dry-hopped a beautifully crafted helles, giving it an extra load of hops during its ageing process to emphasise the fruity notes,” Löning explains. According to him, this is what sets Tilmans Biere apart from the first wave of local craft brewers that were inspired by the American craft beer trend that reached Germany in the late 2000s. “The early days were all about rebelling against the purity law, adding everything to the kettle from orange peel to basil,” he explains. “Instead, we now try to push the limits of what you can do with only malt, hops and barley.”
A short tube ride away from Thalkirchner Straße, you can find the district of Hadern. In quiet Großhaderner Straße, Munich’s first organic brewery was set up in late 2016. In the style of a startup, former wine sommelier Marta Girg and her husband Thomas run Haderner Bräu from a garage-turned-brewhouse behind their home. Marta holds a glass of her hoppy leichtes helles, a summer lager, against the sunlight. “Both wine and beer have plenty in common,” says Marta, who discovered her love for the craft of brewing thanks to her husband’s hobby and their desire to start a business together. “For me, beer is not about how extreme it is but about how balanced and nuanced it is. Practically, there are no limits to the different flavours you can achieve just by working with the same basic ingredients.”
The pair felt that they owed it to the future of their two boys, ages eight and 10, to exclusively use organic produce from Bavaria. Their growing community of fans has rewarded the effort by not just buying their beer, but also by embracing so-called “participation rights” – a mix of loans and shares whose dividend is mostly paid out in the form of beer. That way, the couple was able to collect the €100,000 they needed to expand their brewhouse’s capacity.
Getting the fanbase involved has become a common theme for small breweries that often want to “grow organically”, as Marta puts it, while remaining free of any influence from investors or banks. Munich craft brewers Giesinger Bräu were able to raise €1.2 million with a crowdfunding campaign last year. Frisches Bier was only possible thanks to the €26,000 raised by its community of fans.
For Ulrich Schindler, senior brewmaster of Paulaner’s brewhouses in Munich, beer is an emotional product. “It needs a lot of persuasion to get someone from Munich to drink a different beer from what he or she is used to,” Schindler says.
The sturdy 46-year-old constantly tweaks the beer he creates for Paulaner am Nockherberg, a popular beer garden set on a green hill on the southern side of the Isar. The likes of German football powerhouse Bayern München have held their championship parties underneath the chestnut trees, whose expansive root system still cools the beer cellars underneath them. The site lies only a stone’s throw away from the monastery in which the long-gone Paulaner monks first brewed the now world-famous beer almost 400 years ago.
Schindler admits that the Big Six might have become a bit complacent in the past, as diversity decreased in favour of economic optimisation. “That is why craft beer is a good thing. It has put beer in the spotlight again, inspiring big breweries [towards]… a more creative use of the basic ingredients,” he says. Schindler himself has a concrete idea of the beer he wants to brew and is currently working on a fuller body for his lager beer. According to him, Paulaner was the first big player to launch numerous new products, and now boasts 27 different beers in their portfolio.
From Nockherberg, it’s a 15-minute cycle along the bank of the Isar to get to the Englischer Garten, a versatile mosaic of green meadows, little streams and wooded areas. It is here that the people of Munich come together to laze in the sun, play frisbee and express the typical gemütlichkeit (cosiness) Bavaria is known for in the rest of Germany.
It is also here where you can get a glimpse of the complex nature of Munich’s beer culture. While you see many a bottle of craft beer accompanying the countless picnics, the park’s enormous beer gardens like Aumeister or Chinesischer Turm exclusively sell Hofbräu beer. That’s a result of Munich’s state-owned brewery having exclusive rights to sell beer on the lands run by the city’s palaces and lakes administration. “Beer is a question of expectation management,” says Thomas König, the current leaseholder of the over-200-year-old Aumeister beer garden at the northern end of the park. “When I want to drink craft beer I go to a special tap room. When I go to a beer garden, I know I will get one particular brand.”
Thirsty cyclists in spandex, locals from the well-to-do areas found in this part of town and tourists looking with a mix of awe and respect at their maß (traditional Bavarian beer glasses with a capacity of one litre) all sit in the shade of the tall chestnut trees. On a sunny day, König sells 4,000 litres of Hofbräu to up to 7,000 guests. For purely economic reasons, he doesn’t see an end to this partnership between brewery and beer garden soon. “Over the centuries, Munich’s breweries came to own a lot of the premises on which their beer gets sold. If those taps secure the turnover of your product, why would you change any of that?”
It seems, then, that the market is big enough for both players, the colossal and the crafty. Craft breweries play in a different league to the likes of Paulaner, one of the global market leaders in weißbier (literally “white beer”). While Schindler and his colleagues brewed around 2.4 million hectolitres of beer in 2018, Tilmans Biere produced around 3,000, and Giesinger Bräu, Munich’s biggest craft brewery, made just 11,000 hectolitres. In Germany, small breweries have a tiny piece of the cake at just 0.5% (compared to around 15–20% in the US and between 5–8% in the UK).
Despite this, the craft beer segment is going strong, shifting national preferences and forcing big players to pay attention. “In Munich, craft and micro brewers seem to finally have found their place, albeit a very small one,” Franz Löning says. Indeed, the influence of craft brewers goes beyond the number of bottles sold – they have brought Munich’s lifeblood back into the limelight, leading the way to the future for a beverage that has shaped the city (and its inhabitants’ taste buds) since its beginnings.
When I want to drink craft beer I go to a special tap room. When I go to a beer garden, I know I will get one particular brand.
Under the permitting eyes of Bavaria, a 20m-high bronze statue of the patron of the state, no less than 6,000,000 visitors come for this annual celebration held in the Theresienwiese in the middle of Munich. The statutes of Oktoberfest allow only beer brewed with water from Munich to be served, and the only breweries with access to the wells and reservoirs underneath the city are the Big Six: Augustiner, Hacker-Pschorr, Hofbräu, Löwenbräu, Paulaner and Spaten.
Originally held in honour of the wedding of Crown Prince Ludwig and Princess Therese in 1810, brews are quaffed from giant glasses called maß, while brass music completes the scene. It’s best enjoyed in the traditional Bavarian clothing – the dirndl for women and lederhosen for men. Today, people from all over the planet come to see the original Oktoberfest that now has countless offshoots worldwide.
Singapore Airlines flies to Munich daily. To book a flight, visit singaporeair.com
This article was originally published in the August 2019 issue of SilverKris magazine. Please check the establishments’ respective websites for opening hours as well as booking and seating requirements before visiting, and remember to adhere to safe-distancing measures while out and about.