Of the hundreds of breweries in Bavaria you would think that there would be lots of them in Munich – a city whose name itself conjures up visions of beer. I knew about the big ones, but I was intrigued to see what might be going on in the way of smaller operations as well. What was close to 40 breweries in the late 1800’s has dwindled to less than ten currently as a result of economic changes, war, acquisitions, and consolidations. That doesn’t mean less beer is being produced though.
Casual inquiry about the breweries of Munich typically results in discussion of what are referred to as the “Big Six” — Hofbrau, Paulaner, Augustiner, Hacker-Pschorr, Spaten, and Lowenbrau. Although all of these were their own breweries in the past (Hacker-Pschorr is a consolidation of two breweries), a bit closer examination reveals that they are really brands as much as they are distinct breweries. For instance, Spaten and Lowenbrau are currently brewed at the same brewery and location as is Franziskaner, another popular Munich brand. Hacker-Pschorr, although brewed at a separate brewery is owned by Paulaner. The data I have seen suggests that Paulaner is the largest Munich brewery in terms of output (2.3 million HL annually – about 2 million US BBL), with Spaten/Lowenbrau not far behind. Augustinerbrau, Hacker-Pschorr, and Hofbrau are also large-scale breweries but have smaller output.
As I spoke with people in many different settings during my time in Munich, Augustiner came up most often as the local favorite of Muncheners. I found it to be an excellent beer, but I wouldn’t put it up over the many other beers I tried on the basis of taste — I didn’t have a bad beer the whole visit. I would have to say that the best beer I had on this trip was Andechser — not a Munich beer but made in a monastery brewery in the countryside nearby. But that’s a whole ‘nother story (you can read about my visit to Andechs here). When I asked people about their preference for Augustiner, they often said they were loyal because they liked it and it is the only remaining locally-owned and controlled brewery among the Big Six brands.
As for smaller breweries, there are a handful of small operations that sell their beers at pubs in the city specializing in craft brews. Tap House Munich is a good place to find and try these. These outfits make IPA’s and pale ales, as well as more traditional brews. They position themselves as the hip German cousins to the craft brewers emerging all over the world.
I also came across a couple of small Munich breweries that can be visited. Forschungsbrauerei is a family-owned small brewery and pub that I would have liked to visit, but I ran out of time. They do traditional brews rather than positioning themself as a craft brewery. Another was Geisinger Brau which I was able to visit and I’ll talk about later in this story.
But first, let me talk about my visit to the massive Spaten Brewery. There are tours of the various large breweries and this one picked me by being the only one that was running on the particular day I had to do a tour — it was during Oktoberfest and I was told that all of the other breweries had suspended their tours on that day to concentrate on the festival (my article about Oktoberfest). Only breweries that are located within the city of Munich proper are eligible to be served at Oktoberfest — The Spaten Brewery is located within easy walking distance of the central train station and the city center. It is a huge complex taking up many city blocks.
Our tour guide was an apprentice brewer who studied brewing at the local university. He gave us a great orientation to the history of the three brands that they brew. Spaten dates back to the late 1300’s and has been at its current location since the 1850’s. Spaten merged with Franzikaner, formerly a Franciscan monastery brewery in 1922 and then with Lowenbrau in 1997. There are four beers marketed under the Spaten Banner (a lager, a dunkel, an Oktoberfest, and Optimator – a doppelbock) that range from 5.2 to 7.5% ABV. Under the Franziskaner banner there are 9 varieties of wheat beer, many of them non-alcoholic as well as a terrific Keller or Zwickel beer. Under the Lowenbrau banner there are eight varieties including a wheat beer and non-alcoholic brew. The brewery employs about 500 people.
Our guide gave us some great stories about the big picture history of brewing as well. Beer was being brewed well before the process for making it was well understood. Early brewers did not know about yeast and the role it plays in fermentation. It seems that they would make up a concoction of water and grain and hope for the best. Monasteries that brewed beer would often have their brewery located near their bakery. As a result of the yeast from the bakery being in the air they experienced good success with the fermentation of their brews. A batch of beer that turned out well was seen as God approving of and bestowing a blessing on the brewers. Conversely, a few bad batches in a row could be seen as God sending a sign that evil was afoot and sometimes resulted in dire consequences for the brewers.
The tour I went on was organized by Blue Line I think, and I booked it through Viator. It seems like it was $12 or $15 or so and I thought it was well run and a good value. There are many different outfits offering brewery tours of one or another of the “Big Six”.
The last stop on the Spaten tour was their tasting room in a penthouse high above the city. We were treated to some great fresh pretzels with obadza spread to accompany 5 or 6 small glasses of various beer samples. Our guide talked about each of the beers in turn. My favorite was the unfiltered Franziskaner Kellerbier, a dark golden, smooth, malty brew.
Giesinger Brau is about as small of a brewery as Spaten is big, but just as impressive in its own way. I stopped by here for dinner one evening and after I explained my interest, was able to visit the brewery floor and try several of their beers. This brewery was founded in 2004 in a garage and grew until it moved to its current spiffy facility in 2014. The brewery has a capacity of several thousand hectoliters per year.
The brewery and pub are in an industrial-ish building inside of a brick walled compound. The clean, modern brewery set-up is contained within a big, high-bayed space.
The Giesinger bräustüberl (pub) is a cozy space on two levels. It has the feel of (and is) a comfy neighborhood meeting place. I happened to sit next to an interesting fellow from the neighborhood who has adopted this pub as a favorite place to enjoy a beer. He helped me with a bit of background and recommendations. Thanks, Franz! Franz blogs on his thoughts about politics, economics, and culture at Der Königsblaue See.
The Untergiesinger Erhellung, Giesinger’s flagship brew is a beer is a smooth, unfiltered Helles .
The unfiltered Dunkles was a tasty malty beer with one of the most photogenic heads of foam ever.
The Doppel-Alt is a strong (7% ABV) top fermented, hoppy beer. Like all of the Giesinger beers it is unfiltered.
The Smoky Fox provided an excellent complement to dinner. It is a Vienna Lager style beer with a slightly smoky character — kind of like a light Rauchbier.
An intriguing beer they have on the menu is an Eisbock that is prepared for you when you order it. I did not try it, but as I understood the description, they make it by filling a glass jug with their bock beer and then they freeze it at the precise freezing temperature of water. Then the jug is turned upside down to drain into a small pitcher. Only the water freezes so the malt and alcohol drains into the pitcher. What drains out might be called a beer liqueur and has a hefty 30% ABV (60 proof). I grabbed a couple photos from Untappd reviews and both of these reviewers gave a strong endorsement.