Known as the third largest city in Germany and the capital of the Bavarian region, culture is an element that runs deep within the soil of Munich.
One key aspect in the history of the city is beer. The famous Oktoberfest is known worldwide and Munich also houses one of Germany’s most famous beer gardens, Hofbräuhaus.
Though these are all enjoyable options to appreciate an authentic Bavarian beverage, other ways can offer an alternative experience to Munich’s beer culture scene.
Oktoberfest’s little sister
At just over 50 years old, Frühlingsfest isn’t quite as old or indeed as well-known as Oktoberfest, which first started back in the 19th century. For this reason, the Spring Festival has been christened with the nickname “Oktoberfest’s little sister.”
Running from April 20th until May 6th, the event is held on the grounds of Theresienwiese. The grounds are a combination of fairground rides, live music and, of course, beer tents.
One of the largest beer tents is Hippodrom, which can seat 2000 people. Outside a group of girls are wearing the typical Dirndl costume (paired with non-traditional sneakers.) They’re from America but are studying abroad in Spain. When asked if they will pose for a picture for an article on Frühlingsfest, a flicker of confusion passes over their faces.
“Oh no, we’re not here for that, we’re going to Springfest, do you know where we can find it?” they ask. Slightly dumbfounded, I try and explain to them that Frühlingsfest (German) and Springfest (English) means the same thing, but they’re adamant that they’re only here for “Springfest.” I eventually tell them I must go and wish them luck on finding “Springfest.”
Inside Hippodrom, the tent is loud and busy. Colourful bunting is draped all across the tent and baskets of flowers hang from the ceiling. A band plays on the stage in the traditional Lederhosen, barmaids dressed in the Dirndls walk around effortlessly holding the handles of three litres worth of beer in each hand, while groups at tables noisily laugh and drink.
Johanna Bray, who runs the tent alongside her brother and sister-in-law, sits on a free bench to talk about Frühlingsfest’s most well-known attraction.
“My brother Sepp and my sister-in-law started the business. The tent has been here for eight years but we’ve been doing it for five years. We employ about 150 staff members. We also have another version of the Hippodrom tent for Oktoberfest but it is a much larger in size compared to this tent,” she explains.
At Frühlingsfest, you’re able to order a specially brewed beer known as the Frulingswiesen, as well as a non-alcoholic option called Hippo Fit.
Just in it for the money?
Later that day, my friends and I manage to experience the atmosphere of Hippodrom ourselves. We haven’t reserved a table but since it’s early enough in the day, we are shown to a table and told it’s ours until half 6pm. For the next few hours we drink the traditional Maß beer (a typical German 1 litre beer) at a pricy €10 per jug. The beer is in fact priced at €9.80, but a 20 cent tip is expected from each beer you are served. We also share a platter of traditional Bavarian food, made up of bread served with fried onion toppings, radishes, and a cheese dip.
At about 5:30pm, we’re told we need to leave because they need to get the tables set up for the evening groups arriving to the tent. Though it’s earlier than we expected and we still have jugs of beer left to drink, it’s no problem. We get up and go to the perimeter of the tent to finish our drinks, along with groups of other people.
Suddenly security guards approach us and start shouting at us that it’s time for us to leave. We explain to them that we’re finishing our beers and we’ve spent a lot of money on the table we had. But we’re told, since we didn’t “reserve” the table, it means nothing to them and they start pushing us out. As we’re being shepherded out like cows, they’re already pulling in the next group of eager tourists with pockets full of money.
Though this is only one personal experience and some people, even the locals, view Frühlingsfest positively.
“The Frühlingsfest is much less known by tourists, compared to the Oktoberfest. Therefore, it can be a much more pleasant experience. I went to the Frühlingsfest two times, myself. I even wore the Lederhosen,” describes Felix Breunig, a native from Munich.
When asks if he believes the festival is authentically German he replies:
“It really depends on the people you ask and where in Germany those people are from. I know a lot of people in northern Germany, get slightly offended when tourists think Bavarian costumes is all there is to Germany. They neither drink from a Maß nor do they usually wear Lederhosen. I think the festival can be regarded as a typical Bavarian experience.”
Having been disappointed with Frühlingsfest and feeling like I’ve fallen into a tourist trap, I go on the search for a richer experience of Munich’s beer culture.
This is what leads me, on a humid day in Munich, to take the metro 40 minutes out of the city centre to the town of Unterschleißheim. Here is where I the craft brewery known as Crew Republic is located. Surrounded by lush fields and a peaceful stillness, the brewery is truly surrounded by nature’s elements.
It’s here that I meet Timm Schnigula, one of the co-founders, to find out what goes into making authentic beer and where their passion started.
In the spring of 2011, Schnigula and his friend and business partner Mario Hanel, started experimenting with making their own beer. Fast-forward to 2015 and they’ve opened up their own brewery named Crew Republic. They definitely call themselves the pioneers of craft beer in Germany.
“In our former jobs we were unhappy. We were working as business consultants, travelling a lot. Through this travelling, Mario and I got to know beers but had no formal brewing background. We started home brewing because we were so fascinated by the beers overseas and couldn’t find any similar beers over here in Germany. This is when we decided to start ourselves and then we decided we mightn’t be the only ones to like what we make and we saw an opportunity to build our own brewery,” explains Schnigula.
Before the brewery opened in March 2015, Schnigula and Hanel were gypsy brewing (brewing on a temporary basis) at other facilities because they couldn’t afford their own brewery at the beginning. Eventually, at the end of 2011, they started selling their beers. And in autumn last year their dreams finally became a reality, when they opened the brewery. Now they even have a tap room which is opened to the public every Friday.
For the two friends, Munich was the obvious answer to where they would set up their brewery.
“Munich is the heart of beer. Yet if you begin to look into it, it’s beginning to lose this. Now it is just standardised beer, with no variety. We wanted to create something new, even though we knew that the mindset of Munich compared to say Berlin is a more difficult place to change. Munich has lost its way with the culture of beer. Beer isn’t really appreciated as a product. We believe it deserves more appreciation and we want to educate people.”
With this in mind, we begin the tour outside the main entrance. Here they have a small beer garden for visitors, as well as their hop fields, one of the key ingredients in beer.
If you don’t know what a hop is, they’re the flowers of the hop plant Humulus lupulus, and are primarily used as a flavouring and stability agent in beer.
“According to the [German] purity law, beer is made of malt, water, hops and yeast. Hops give the flavours, like fruity, grassy, floral, earthy, this is one major component of the smell and taste.”
“In a regular German brewery, you may find two or three different types of hops if you’re lucky. We have 15 to 20 types that we use for our regular beers The field shows our visitors how much we love all our raw materials and hops are our deepest love.”
How a craft beer is made
We begin our tour around the brewery and explaining what is taking place in each machine, Schnigula gives me a brief overview on how beer is made.
“The first thing we need to do is convert the starch of the barley into sugar. All the malted barley is transferred through this conveyor, it’s milled and ground and is mixed up with water. In the beginning you pretty much have a muesli type of texture.”
“You heat it up to a certain temperature level and on these levels natural enzymes inside the grain are activated and convert the starch into sugar. It’s a very natural process. It’s like what happens outside in spring when the plants grow. You’re left with a very sugary substance, what we call mesh.”
There’s no waste in the production and the solids are transferred out and either fed to cattle or sheep. The liquid that is leftover is called wort and is then boiled. Now the famous hops are added and at this point the decision must be made on what type of hop you need based on the desired bitterness and aroma.
“We then cool the wort for the fermentation. Yeast is then put into the tank together with the wort and the fermentation starts. We call it young beer. Then after that it is chilled to an even cooler temperature to lager the beer and round the flavours,” continues Schnigula.
“Now it’s time to bottle the beer. Beer is very sensitive to oxygen, so the difficulty is how do you get the beer into the bottle without having any contact with air? We vacuum the air out of the bottles and pour CO2 in and we do this several times and then you start filling the beer. After that is done you even want a bit of foam from the beer spilling out of the bottle when you put the cap on, because even the smallest bit of air on the neck of the bottle could ruin the beer. This is probably the most high-tech part of the process.”
To give me a clearer understanding of the process, Schnigula leads me upstairs to the room they store their malt. He shows me several variations of the grains. He gives me a handful of each and I taste the different kinds. I learn that a typical malt grain has a nutty texture, while the British malt is caramelized and has a sweeter taste. The dark roasted malt is quite intense, though my favourite is the coffee bean malt, an entirely black grain, roasted like coffee beans.
You see the passion Schnigula has for every detail of the beer process, he even compares the malt to spices, as we chew away like horses on them.
At the end of our tour, I’m given a chance to taste the final product. I try a pale ale called the “Drunken Sailor.” The beer is bitter and dark and now feeling like a connoisseur in the art of beer, I even notice the effects the hops create.
For Crew Republic, their future path is very clear.
“We want to grow and it looks like we’re doing just that. We’re pacing it at a speed we can handle but we won’t be opening other breweries. Craft beer isn’t a matter of size, even if you grow you just need to make sure the philosophy stays the same. What drives you and what drives you to make decisions.”
When asked what he thinks of Frühlingsfest, Schnigula tells me that for beer makers like Crew Republic, selling at the festival isn’t an option.
“We don’t have a stall at the festival, and I don’t know if we would be allowed. At Oktoberfest they would not allow us to sell our own beers. The beers they sell is about getting drunk quickly and has nothing to do with enjoying or tasting the beer,” Schnigula concludes.
When on the quest for a traditional Bavarian experience, you can be led down many paths. Some more authentic than others. Though once you are open-minded and enthusiastic for a city, you never know what you might encounter.