Munich in English - selected by independent Locals for Cosmopolitans, Newcomers and Residents - since 1989

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July 2001

Gardening Tools

Munich's Biergärten - what to do when you get there

The concept is so simple. Stake off a plot of land, throw down some gravel, sow a small lawn, plant a few chestnut trees, arrange metal tables and chairs in rows and serve the public cool beer and crispy rotisserie chicken in mass quantities. And they will come. In fact, millions partake of this Munich offering every summer, every rain-free day, at the more than 180 beer gardens in and around the city. German tourists come from the north, leaving their bitter Pilsener brew behind, to sip Bavaria’s sweet barley nectar in the company of yuppies, hipsters and white-bearded locals in sweat-patinated lederhosen and jaunty Tirolean hats. International tour groups and American couples in matching sneakers clink heavy Mass mugs with total strangers as the sun sets and the beer’s six percent alcohol takes effect.

Munich’s breweries of old stored beer in cellars and planted chestnut trees above them to keep the brew cool during summer months. Thus, the beer garden was born. It’s an interesting story, but you may prefer to have more useful information at hand. Whether you live in Munich or are just visiting, beer garden etiquette can be intimidating. Each beer garden seems to adhere to a slightly different set of rules. Upon arrival, you may see nothing more than thousands of bobbing heads and long wooden stands and have no idea how this particular establishment works. Where do I get a drink? Why are some tables brightly painted? Why did the cashier hand me a plastic chip? Social discomfort sets in when you realize you have waited in line ten minutes for a liter of beer but, in this beer garden, you should have brought the unforgiving beer tapper an empty mug from a rack around the corner before approaching the service window. The following information is intended to help you avoid uncertainty and embarrassment during—what should be most enjoyable—beer-garden visits.

Lay of the Land
Most beer gardens include seating for self-service customers, tables for those who wish to be served—these are often marked by tablecloths or sun umbrellas—and Stammtische, tables that are rented annually by locals who frequent a particular beer garden. Under no circumstances should you sit at one of these custom-decorated tables. Some of them have “been in the family” for decades, and Münchner do not take kindly to finding tourists dining at them.
Surrounding the seating area is a series of long, wooden “shacks.” These food and drink stands are individually manned according to what is sold at them. If you are thirsty for Munich’s number one beverage, follow the signs to Ausschank. Here, you will certainly find lager beer (Helles) and, in most cases, Weissbier (wheat beer) and a lemon soda/lager mix known as a Radler (or, lemon soda and wheat beer, which is known as a Russ’n). All of these drinks are commonly sold in a one-liter Masskrug, though a few places may serve you a’ Halbes (a half liter). Soft drink stands are usually separate from beer stands, in some cases they can be found wedged between seating areas, far from the beer line. Apfelschorle (apple juice and sparkling mineral water), Cola, Fanta (orange soda), Sprite and Spezi (orange soda and cola mixed) are served in half-liter glasses. Food booths feature basic Bavarian cuisine. The order of ein halbes Hendl will yield half of a crispy rotisserie chicken, with which a choice of Kartoffelsalat (potato salad) or Pommes (pronounced “Pawmess”—french fries), at extra cost, is to be recommended. Indicate to your server whether or not you would like ketchup (pronounced as in English) with your fries. A small selection of Wurst is offered at beer gardens. In addition to grilled pork bratwurst, you may find: Currywurst, one large beef bratwurst covered in ketchup and curry powder; Nürnberger, similar to American and British breakfast links, most often served with sauerkraut or with Senf (mustard) on a Semmel (hard roll); and Weisswurst, a Bavarian breakfast/brunch specialty—traditionally served before noon—comprising two veal sausages served in a warm-water-filled, covered porcelain tureen. Warning: the traditional way of eating Weisswurst often escapes tourists and may be considered a bit crass. Links should either be sliced lengthwise, rolled from the skin and dipped in Süsser Senf (sweet mustard), or bitten at one end, and sucked out of the casing. Other food-stand highlights include: Obatzda, a Camembert, cream and caraway cheese spread served with raw onion slices and slathered, by the diner, onto pieces of extra-large beer garden Brez’n (soft pretzels); Wurstsalat, a cold salad of sliced, bologna-like luncheon meat, raw onions and sweet gherkins soaked in a tangy vinaigrette; Leberkäs, a thick slab of bologna-like meat grilled on both sides; and barbecue spare ribs.

After you’ve collected both beer and food—which are placed on trays, cafeteria style—proceed to the nearest wooden booth, where cashiers await payment. Forks, knives, spoons, napkins, salt, pepper and other condiments are usually found in this vicinity. Though, in self-serve areas, tips are not obligatory, it is always nice to throw a few coins into the cashier’s cup. Be a conscientious patron upon leaving: place any dirty dishes or garbage into provided receptacles.

Full Service
Unfortunately, full-service seating is often not nearly as pleasant as it should be. During busy summer months, much of Munich’s beer-garden wait staff can be most unfriendly, impatient and, in some cases, downright rude—especially to tourists. But, now that you have been given a guide on how to get along in the city’s Biergärten, you should be confident enough to enjoy hassle-free self-service.

Most beer gardens do not require deposits to be paid for the use of mugs and tableware. However, some in high-tourist-traffic locations charge a few marks to ensure Masskrüge don’t wind up in customers’ luggage. Make sure your cashier hands you a plastic chip in return for your investment. Once you have finished your beer, head for the window marked Pfandrückgabe. Hand over your chip and your mug and you will receive your deposit. Beware: some beer-garden employees have been known to charge unsuspecting customers deposits and withhold the chips, which they later exchange for cash.

Rest Rooms
As unbelievable as it may sound, beer-garden rest rooms are most often clean and tidy. We have on-site cleaning personnel to thank for this. Some beer gardens charge 30 Pf. for bathroom use, others charge nothing at all. Thank staff for the dirty work: tossing 50 Pf.–DM 1 onto the plate of an attendant is a particularly nice gesture.

Other Etiquette
Remember that it is customary for two or more parties to share a table if the beer garden you visit is full. Simply ask, or be asked, ist hier Platz frei? (Are seats free at this table?). If you are asked, a polite nod, head shake or Ja or Nein will do the job. As mentioned above, some beer gardens—such as the Hirschgarten, Munich’s largest—require you to grab a mug from a wooden cabinet and hand it to the server when ordering beer. Large troughs of cold water and soapy water are provided as well, giving you the opportunity to wash your mug before heading back for a second brew. However, as the rinse water is often a sea of pretzel crumbs and other food debris, washing glasses is best left to the beer garden’s indoor dish-washing staff. <<<

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