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A brief ode to the quintessential symbol of the Bavarian soul

It’s summertime in Bavaria and yes, depending on your mood you could drive to a lake for a swim, you could have a backyard BBQ in the evening, or you could moan about the heat-wave while you’re watering the garden. Or, you simply do something that’s so popular with all Bavarians that it almost qualifies as a state of consciousness: you go to the beer garden.

No, it’s not a garden in the traditional sense of the word. Well, not often. It’s mostly a place under chestnut trees, there’s gravel on the ground, and you sit on what are called “beer garden sets”, which are folding tables and chairs. As the name subtly hints, you go to a beer garden primarily for the beer. Not because of the food. In the past, when there were not as yet any sophisticated cooling systems for beer, the brewers used to store the last beer before the summer, the “Märzen”, in rock-hewn cellars, often located next to rivers, for the cooling effect. Chestnut trees provided shade from the heat – chestnuts because they form a wide roof of foliage, and their roots do not go particularly deep, but instead are widely ramified just below the surface. This means they pose no danger to the cellar’s structural integrity.

Since back then the populace did not yet have refrigerators either, when they wanted a beer they went directly to the source – meaning the beer garden. The primary purpose was simple and unequivocal: drinking beer. Chilled beer straight from the cellar. This is why in Franconia, people still say “We’re going to the cellar!” So since an outing to a beer garden was mainly themed around liquid refreshments, traditionally everyone was permitted to bring their own food to eat under the chestnut trees.

In some parts of Bavaria, this rule is still irremissible – but in the more urban centres it’s been relaxed a bit. There you will find bring-your-own areas and waitressed areas, and there people don’t eat a traditional beer garden dish with their beer, but even occasionally something warm.

Many beer garden fans aver rapturously that the beer garden is like no other place the distilled quintessence of the Bavarian lifestyle. Oktoberfest? Commercialised! Beer garden? Symbol of conviviality! So if you want to get acquainted with the real Bavaria, and take on board the authentic character of its people, the best thing to do is drive to a small beer garden outside the big cities, sit down under a chestnut tree, and either bring your own food with you or savour a cold sausage salad with a pretzel, accompanied (of course) by a properly chilled Märzen. Your feet will thank you for burying them in the cool gravel; you just have to be a bit careful when casually leaning back: though most beer gardens have folding chairs, there are also some with beer benches, and most of them do not have any backrests.

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