All posts by Kevin Holsapple

The author of Prime Passages is Kevin Holsapple. Currently living in northern New Mexico, Kevin has traveled extensively over the years and aspires to do alot more of that in the coming years. Now semi-retired, Kevin's working life included management of a destination tourism activity, community development work, advising and training small businesses, operating recreational tours, and even operating a beer hall.

The Great Beer Garden Field Guide

Biergarten in Brannenburg by Max Liebermann, 1893 (Wikimedia Commons)
Biergarten in Brannenburg by Max Liebermann, 1893 (Wikimedia Commons)

There are great beer gardens …. then there are patios and terraces where you can buy a beer and sit while you drink.   Not all places posting a sign that says “beer garden” live up to that label.  I know a great beer garden when I experience one but it takes some thought to try to translate that into an explanation and as far as I can find, there isn’t a ready-made explanation.  When I started thinking about this story, I asked people everywhere I went about what they think makes a space a great beer garden and I received a variety of ideas in return, but no really satisfying definition to match my experiences.  It quickly became clear that my expectations came from living and traveling in Germany … particularly my times in Bavaria.   I have seldom been disappointed by following a sign that points to a Biergarten or beer Keller in Bavaria.  People who had never been to a Bavarian Biergarten didn’t seem to have much of an opinion on the subject.  That doesn’t mean that great beer gardens are exclusive to Bavaria though.  You can find them all over the world if you know what to look for.

Victual Market Beer Garden, Munich
Victual Market Beer Garden, Munich

I propose that there are five important attributes possessed by any great beer garden.  Whether you are a business offering a space that you are calling a “beer garden” or a beer lover seeking out the many special places there are to enjoy a beer, an appreciation of what makes any old patio space different from a great beer garden can greatly enhance the experience you can expect and will want to go back for.  I found a number of articles and blog posts on the web, usually titled something like, “Top Ten Beer Gardens in …” but more often than not they listed places that sounded like restaurant patios or did not make any attempt to define the essence of what makes their place a beer garden.

Some History

Vintage Beer Garden, Whitefish Bay, WI
Vintage Beer Garden, Whitefish Bay, WI

The beer garden idea originated early in the 1800’s  in — no surprise here –Bavaria and was tied to the rising popularity of lagers.  Lagers need a cool place to ferment, so beer makers began digging cellars to facilitate making their beers.  This practice was known as “lagerung,” which translates as “storage.”  Shade trees were planted on the land on top of the cellars to help keep things cool below.  Some breweries began setting up chairs and tables amongst the trees planted on top of their cellars and sold their beers there to a thirsty public and it was natural to sell food as well.

Restauranteurs and tavern owners didn’t like this competition and lobbied the authorities to forbid breweries from selling beer and food directly to the public. Breweries pushed back and in 1812, King Maximilian I settled the dispute by ruling that brewers could continue to sell beer but not food. The clever breweries allowed their guests to bring their own food and snacks to have with their beer and that is still the way things are today in an authentic Bavarian beer garden.  In Franconia, arguably the beeriest part of Bavaria, the term bierkeller or “beer cellar” is synonymous with  “beer garden” and many bierkellers are still located on the grounds above the actual cellars.

The idea of beer gardens migrated around the world, particularly in conjunction with the immigration of old world brewers who created beautiful beer gardens to market their breweries.  Places like Milwaukee, St. Louis, and Philadelphia had great beer garden culture in the early 1900’s but most of the venues died off owing to anti-German sentiment during the World Wars and the prudery of Prohibition.  Beer garden culture has thankfully made a comeback in those and other places as people discovered what they had been missing.  Modern variations on beer garden culture have also been enriching the scene as well.

So what is it that makes a space a beer garden?  It appears that the criteria used by some places who claim to have a beer garden are that they have patio or parking lot where you can buy a beer from them and drink it.   For me, there is much more to it than that.

1.  Interesting Setting

Hebendanz Bier Keller, Forchheim
Hebendanz Bier Keller, Forchheim

Nature often plays a prominent role.  We are not talking wilderness here, but a great beer garden needs interesting natural surroundings and given seasonality, it is wonderful if it is a naturally shady space.  Shade of some kind is a must.  A scenic view whether natural or urban in nature is a big plus.

The most memorable beer garden experiences I’ve had have been under a canopy of trees with sunlight filtering through.  The ground below is unpaved, often covered with finely crushed stone.  The background view in every direction is often leafy green, but an interesting architectural feature is not an uncommon part of the view.  The setting of a great beer garden oozes calm and comfort.

2.  Good Beer Served Properly

a fine beverage
a fine beverage

Duh … There certainly isn’t much point in having any kind of beer garden without good beer.  The “served properly” part is equally important though, and I think it is often overlooked.  Properly served means served at a proper temperature and in proper glassware.  Getting an otherwise good beer served to me in a plastic cup is a sure downer.  I’ve never encountered this in Germany, but I experience it way too often in the U.S.   I can’t figure it out other than to chalk it up to laziness or ignorance.

Beer gardens are often extensions of brewery operations, but that certainly isn’t a necessity.  Breweries generally take pride in the quality and presentation of their beers, but there is no reason why third-party operations can’t do the same.  In fact they may be freer to offer a broader range of interesting beers.

3.  You Can Bring Your Own Food or Snack

carry-in lunch at Augustiner Biergarten
carry-in lunch at Augustiner Biergarten

Laws and regulations are less restrictive now than they were in the early days of beer gardens and the prohibitions against breweries serving food melted away over time.  The tradition of allowing patrons to bring their own food and snacks persisted and continues to be a welcome part of beer garden culture.  Most beer gardens do offer their own food options as well, either in designated seating areas serviced by wait staff or at carry-out windows in on-site structures (or both).

Why does it matter?  When I have this option, I feel more like I am at a community space rather than being at someone’s business (even though I’m not) and that shifts the atmosphere in a positive way.  The availability of the casual option to bring your own snack is not offered at all beer gardens, but in my view, it is always a feature of the great ones.

4.  There is Communal Seating

Augustiner Biergarten
Augustiner Biergarten

A great beer garden is a place for human adventure and communal seating facilitates meeting and interacting with others.  With communal seating, you go from isolated groupings of people with their backs turned to each other to a situation of implicit invitation to join with people you don’t know.

Communal seating is a considerably intertwined with the fifth and final attribute.

5.  Last, but not least, “Gemütlichkeit”

Andechs Monasterey Biergarten
Andechs Monasterey Biergarten

Gemütlichkeit (pronounced “guh-myoot-lish-kite”)  is a German-language word used to convey the idea of a state or feeling of warmth, friendliness, and good cheer.  This is the essence of the mood that permeates great beer gardens.  A great beer garden is much more than a place where people go to drink beer.  It’s a community meeting place that welcomes one and all. Old people, young people, families, friends, strangers all meet there.  Conversations come easy, Games are played, and pressures and stresses are set aside.  A great beer garden is a place where you feel relaxed and comfortable.

The family-friendliness of a place contributes to a gemütlich feeling.   Play areas for kids, games, and even petting zoos can be found in beer gardens.  Going to a great beer garden is in some ways like visiting a park and what good is a park if it isn’t a place you would ever consider going to without your family?

A beer garden without an atmosphere of Gemütlichkeit is missing something.

Do your criterium for a great beer garden differ?  It would be great to hear about it in a comment.

Related stories:

Read a story about a beer garden hike

Read a story about a hike that passes a large concentration of beer gardens

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Bike & Beers & Rock & Roll

Cleveland map
Click for interactive Google map with bike routes and breweries

Bike & Beers & Rock & Roll … maybe not as exciting sounding as sex & drugs & rock & roll but all of these things are readily available for the asking during a visit to Cleveland, Ohio.  I spent a couple of days during an eastern roadtrip in Cleveland riding and exploring.  I found Cleveland to be a fairly bikeable place with many established bikeways.  I spent time on several that mapped well with brewery locations including the Cleveland Lakefront Bikeway, the Lake to Lakes Trail, the Harrison Dillard Bikeway, the Centennial Trail, and the Ohio to Erie Trail.  These routes are shown in the interactive map along with brewery and attraction locations.  Each of these routes would also be fine for walkers.

The local brewery scene provides a variety of interesting way stops.  The biggest cluster is right in the city center, mostly in older commercial areas.  Ohio laws and regulations must be fairly friendly to allowing multiple locations as many of the breweries were part of multi-location enterprises.

A prime attraction for me outside of the beercation was the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  This museum is located on the Erie lakefront right along the Lakefront Bikeway.

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RRHOF Cleveland

The Rock Hall of Fame features a striking, modern facade along the lake and houses all kinds of interesting artifacts from decades of rock’n.  The rock (stone?) age artifacts like the hand-held transistor radio I held to my ear in the 60’s, the same LP turntable I had in the ’70’s, and 8-track cartridges that we hauled around in cars in high school all induced a wave of nostalgia.  There is also glass case after glass case of musical instruments and other ephemera associated with artists and bands.

For some reason, I started thinking about what bands and artists were missing and why.  Where were Jethro Tull, Supertramp, Alan Parsons Project, King Crimson, Bad Company, Steppenwolf, Robin Trower, and Kansas?  And I also wondered about the presence of acts that seem at best distant relatives to the genre.  I discovered in writing this article that I’m not close to the first person this has occurred to.  In fact, there is almost a cottage industry — check out  http://www.notinhalloffame.com/rock-and-roll if you want to browse the overlooked.

For me, I know Rock & Roll when I hear it and I realize that the organization behind a museum like this has biases and is trying to keep too many people happy, but I found it pretty easy to set all that aside and enjoy the parts I was interested in.

Beery Cleveland

Butcher & Brewer, Collision Bend, Thirsty Dog, Noble Beast, Hofbrauhaus, Masthead, Jolly Scholar, Platform, Brick & Barrel, Great Lakes, Nano, Hansa, Market Garden, Bottle House, and Boss Dog were all stops on the rides.

Favorite Beer:  Hansa Brewery Maibock – Hansa was the Gold Medalist for their Marzen in the 2019 U.S. Open Beer Championship and their brewing acumen extends to their Maibock offering, “Scoring Position,” as well.  This is a beautiful, deep amber brew that is full-bodied with a substantial head.  The taste is of lightly toasted malt and it is a well-balanced beer that is heady stuff at 7.8% ABV.

Friendliest Place:  Great Lakes Brewing has a comfortable, old-school taproom with easy-going, friendly servers.  The brewery seems to be an anchor for the old neighborhood where it is located.

Quirkiest Place:  Jolly Scholar Brewery & Study Hall is embedded in the student services building of Case Western University — a really nice combination of a place to study while enjoying a beer I think.  It wasn’t easy to find my way into this place as all of the exterior doors to the building seemed to be locked when I arrived.

Biking Cleveland

The lakeshore ride features big views of Lake Erie and a nice panorama of the city center.  My favorite ride though was through the cultural gardens that line the Harrison Dillman Bikeway.  These gardens have been in the making for more than 100 years and they honor many of the countries whose immigrants were important to the development of Cleveland and the Mideastern U.S.   The more than twenty-five gardens are beautifully landscaped and often feature interesting sculpture.

There are also some interesting ethnic neighborhoods including Little Italy.  Public transit was bike-friendly and I made good use of light rail routes several times.  People seemed friendly enough, and I even had one lady who good-naturedly quizzed me about what I was doing and demanded I take a picture of her for the story when she found out.

For more stories about bike and beers, CLICK THIS LINK.

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A Hike to the Highest Brewery in Germany

Enzianhutte-route
Route to Enzianhutte – click on image for interactive route map
oberstdorf-location
Location of Oberstdorf in Germany and the Alps.

The hike to the highest brewery in Germany began on a crisp morning in the hamlet of Oberstdorf, a picturesque village surrounded by alpine peaks.  Famous for skiing in the winter and hiking in the summer there are dozens of lifts and gondolas on both sides of the valley used for both activities.  Dozens of mountain gasthauses dot the slopes along the many hiking routes making the area a veritable paradise for beer hiking.

Oberstdorf is as far south as it gets for a town in Germany and the hike to the mountain hut, Enzianhutte begins several miles South of town.  The house brewery at Enzianhutte is called Hausbrauerei Gipfelstürmer is not only the highest altitude brewery in Germany at 1804 m (5919 feet), it is undoubtedly the most southern.  “Gipfelstürmer” means “summiteer” and the logo of the brewery features a whimsical mountain hiker.  My research found only one higher altitude brewery in Europe at Rifugio Lavarella in the Dolomites of Italy (2042 m).

Gipfelsturmer brauThe hike begins near the furthest south bus stop at Alpe Eschbach, a rustic mountain gasthaus with a dairy barn taking up the back half.  The only way to reach Enzianhutte is on foot and the route definitely builds a thirst climbing about 900 m (2950 feet) over 3.5 miles.  Starting in a mountain valley the route immediately climbs into dense forest, crosses many mountain streams, and breaks through the tree line just below Enzianhutte.  There are two mountain gasthauses along the way, Gasthof Einödsbach, and Petersalpe, which provide great spots for rest and refreshments.

Operating since 2012, the Enzianhutte mini-brewery produces dark and light wheat beers, an alcohol-free wheat beer, as well as an unfiltered Zwickel.  These are served on a sweeping terrace overlooking a mountain pasture with big views.  It is a busy place as it is a waypoint for deeper multi-day hikes in the alps.  I ordered lunch and a Zwickel to provide sustenance for the hike back down the mountain.  The small brewery is located in the lifthouse for the tram that brings supplies up to Enzianhutte.  This is the only place to get their beers and the only way to get here is up-elevation on foot.  In my estimation, this improved the enjoyment of the beer considerably.

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Hiking to the Highest Brewery

For more stories about hikes and beers in Bavaria, CLICK THIS LINK.

Silly trivia:  Oberstdorf was the site of the “agony of defeat” ski jumping fail used in the intro to ABC’s Wide World of Sports in the 1970’s — in case you don’t remember that

 

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The Biggest Bavarian Beer Festival You May Have Never Heard Of

Gäuboden location
Gäuboden location in Germany.

Gäubodenvolksfest is the biggest Bavarian beer festival you may have never heard of.  Named for the small region of Gäuboden where the event has been held since the early 1800’s, Gäubodenvolksfest is a colorful, traditional event in Straubing hosting 1.4 million visitors over its eleven-day run each August.  That makes it Bavaria’s second-largest folk festival next to Oktoberfest.

The Gäuboden is a vaguely defined region (not a political sub-division) that consists of a long valley along the Danube river between Wörth an der Donau and Künzing.  The town of Straubing is in the middle of this stretch and is the largest in the Gauboden with about 50,000 people.  The soil in this stretch of valley is very fertile and I’ve seen it called “the granary of Bavaria” which is a perfect explanation for the excellent breweries there.

People have inhabited the Gäuboden since Neolithic times and Straubing traces its history to Roman times BC.  A part of Straubing that is still called “new town” was established by Duke Ludwig Wittelsbach of Bavaria in the 1200’s and makes an attractive medieval core that I passed through on my way from the train station to the festival place.

Gäubodenvolksfest - image by Stefan Karl
Gäubodenvolksfest – image by Stefan Karl

Five area breweries each brew special fest beers that are served up in seven large beer tents called festzelts that have a cumulative 27,000 seats.  Festzelt Greindl and Festzelt Nothaft serve beers from the Karmeliten Brewery,  Festzelt Krönner serves beer from Schlossbrauerei Irlbach, Festzelt Lechner and Festzelt Weckmann serve Röhrl Brau, Festzelt Reisinger serves Reisinger beers from Arcobrau,  and Festzelt Wenisch serves beer from Erl Brau,  A midway with rides, games, and carnival food connects things together.

many Maß
many Maß

All five of the breweries are family operations located in Straubing or nearby.  Karmeliten and Röhrl have monastery roots dating to the 1300’s and 1400’s respectively although both are family operations now.  Eril Brau is a fifth-generation family operation.    Schlossbrauerei Irlbach has more than 500 years of brewing history, and Arcobrau, founded by a Count in the 1500’s is owned by a descendant of Bavarian King Ludwig.  There is a lot of history behind this set of beers.

Gäubodenvolksfest started as an agricultural fair and there are displays of the latest farm equipment and implements in a section of the festival called Ostbayernschau (Eastern Bavaria Show), a big consumer exhibition with hundreds of exhibitors.  The whole thing had the feel of a State Fair in the USA with the welcome addition of huge beer venues and excellent beers.  There is a distinctly local feel at Gäubodenvolksfest — I didn’t encounter a single other foreigner in my time there.

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Gaubodenvolksfest

Beate & Kevin

A shout-out and special thanks go to my couchsurfing.com friend Beate Christowiak who lives in Straubing.  Beate graciously volunteered to show me around a bit and help me to get oriented to Straubing and Gäubodenvolksfest improving my experience by a considerable amount.

For more stories about beer festivals and other events , CLICK THIS LINK

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Inventing an Elf Seidla Steig

Franconian Switzerland location
location of the “Franconian Switzerland” in Germany

“Inventing an Elf Seidla Steig” is a bit of a tongue-in-cheek bow to two thoughts.  The name “Elf Seidla Steig” means Eleven Mug Climb and is my rip-off of the name of a popular beer hike called the Fünf-Seidla-Steig (Five Mug Climb) located in Germany’s “Franconian Switzerland“.  Using the word “inventing” is likely a misnomer as well, as this part of the world is so old that many others have probably “invented” this route before.  No matter – the goal wasn’t invention but rather some great hiking with interesting beers to try along the way and to extend the popular Funf Seidla Steig beer hike into a multi-day adventure.

The Fraenkische Schweiz, or Franconian Switzerland in the north of Bavaria is a beautiful region of forested slopes, deep valleys, and rolling farmlands.  There are crazy rock formations and caves scattered throughout.  A line of mountains called the Franconian Jura (Frankenjura) passes south of Nuremberg and curves to the north through the area.   And if that isn’t enough, this scenic area boasts the highest concentration of breweries found on any landscape in the world.

The Elf Seidla Steig as I am describing it passes eleven breweries and many more beer cellars in the course of 35 km and two overnights.  The route can be hiked in either direction, but the logistics for me were better starting at Weißenohe on the southern end.  A short, afternoon train ride from Nuremberg dropped me onto the empty platform at  Weißenohe.  The train line ends at the next stop at Grafenberg.  Weißenohe is the traditional starting point for the Fünf-Seidla-Steig up to Thuisbrunn and back – usually done as a day hike.  Part of the idea of a multi-day variation was to spread out the beers a bit.  I visited three breweries the first afternoon, four on the second day, and four on the third day.  Throwing in a scattering of keller stops as well made spreading it out important.

room at Lindenbrau
room at Lindenbrau

As for logistics, multi-day meant finding a place to stay for two nights at appropriate junctures along the way.  The first night I stayed at Grafenberg at Lindenbrau – one of the breweries that still offers rooms.  I targeted Leutenbach for the second night, but I was unable to get a room there.  The Drummer Brewery rooms were totally booked and Pension Rumpler was closed for vacation (damned urlaub!)  Not too far away in Sclaifhausen is a place called Gasthaus Kroder that caters to hikers and has an inexpensive, hostel-like dorm in addition to regular guest rooms.  Forchheim is a big town where there was no shortage of options post-hike – I used Air BnB to find a nice place in the center.  For provisions, I got by fine carrying a big daypack.  Food was no problem as there are plenty of places along the way to enjoy great Franconian cuisine.

Drat! Urlaub!
Drat! Urlaub!

The biggest logistical issue to navigate though, is the dreaded “urlaub” and “ruhetag” gauntlet.  “Urlaub” means “on vacation” and “ruhetag” means “rest day”.  Between those two facts of life, you have to plan carefully if you expect to find all of the places you are interested in stopping at open when you pass by.  Many of these places are not large operations so don’t take for granted that they are going to be open just because you are coming.  There are no hard and fast rules, but places out in the country are usually open on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday but generally have one or more rest days when they are closed.  In a bigger town like Forchheim, places are open more often.  Beware and plan accordingly!

In addition to the breweries, the bier kellers along the route are a cool feature.  In this part of Bavaria, beer gardens are called bier kellers.  Historically, beer gardens were often built under the shady trees planted on top of kellers (cellers) where beer was lagered and cooled and they came to be referred to as “kellers”.  Along the route near Forchheim there is a concentration of twenty-one kellers on a forested hillside that is described as the largest beer garden complex in the world.  The keller season lasts from April to October and 5 to 10 of the kellers are open on a given day.  All are open during Annafest, a great annual festival called held here in late July (read about it here).

The Franconian Switzerland is also famous for its orchards and the route passes through many.  Sweet cherries,  apples, pears, and plums are abundant and because of that, there are a lot of craft distilleries scattered across the countryside.  I was told there are more than 300 distilleries (brennerei) in the region, and you’ll see many along this route.

Elf Seidla Steig
Click on the map to open interactive Google map of the route

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Weißenohe to Grafenberg

Klosterbrauerei Weißenohe is not far from the train station.  Brewing history in Weißenohe goes back to the 10th century when the Benedictine monastery began.  The facility was privatized in the early 1800’s and is family-owned and operated to this day.

The path to Grafenberg climbs out of town through a forest and eventually emerges into open orchard and farmland before dropping into the town.  Brauerei Friedmann is visible from the path.  The family-operated brewery, started in 1875, is on a main street and their beer garden is perched on a steep hillside above where there are great views.  Friedmann`s Bräustüberl in town is where I finally caught up with one of their beers.  Lindenbrau is another family-owned brewery in Grafenberg that also has guest rooms for overnight stays.  It is a few steps from the center of Grafenberg, a walled town dating back to the 1100’s that is quite photogenic.

Grafenberg to Dietzhof

From Grafenberg, the route climbs again and joins the route of the Frankenweg, a famous German long-distance trail that runs 520 km (320 miles) from near Lichtenberg in the north of Bavaria to Harburg.   The next stop, Georg Hofmann Brauerei in the village of Hohenschwärz, was founded in 1897 and is now a fifth-generation family operation.  They have a pleasant, shady beer garden outside of their pub which was a welcome spot to rest with a cool dunkel.  Continuing north through rolling terrain you eventually descend into the picturesque village of Thuisbrunn and Gasthaus Seitz, home of Thuisbrunner Elch-Bräu.   This brewery and distillery is very young by German standards having been established in 2007.   Beer is served into their beer garden from a rock cellar behind the guesthouse.  The clientele was a mixture of bikers (both motorized and not), hikers, and people out on a country drive.

At Thuisbrunn, the Elf Seidla Steig route parts ways with the Frankenweg and heads west on farm roads and rustic forest paths.  Since I just made this route up, there are no more convenient trail signs or markers so a bit of navigation is required.  I found it to be easy enough with the Google map downloaded to my phone for offline use.  The route climbs over a rise to the village of Haidhof and then traverses forest before beginning the drop toward Leutenbach beginning near the St. Moritz chapel and spring.  There is interesting local folklore connected to the spring.

Brauerei Gasthof Drummer in Leutenbach has been family-owned and operated for over 250 years.  It is a classic country inn with fresh, tasty beer.  Brauerei Alt in nearby Dietzhof resides in an ancient farmhouse built on the remains of an even older noble residence.  Five generations of the Alt family have operated the small brewery – it is a great place fo a Franconian dinner and a nice beer.