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.

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