A Taste of Europe

IMG_2507In keeping with this column’s recent “travel” theme and following last month’s story about the booming craft beer industry in San Diego County, it’s time to think more globally and take a look at the beer capital of the world – Munich, Germany.

Although we were a bit early for Oktoberfest, the world’s largest and most famous annual beer festival, we still managed to explore the roots of great German beer this past summer. Our family’s travels took us to several European countries, but Germany is where beer is a big part of the national history and culture. But big hops are not.

Accompanied by my family and later joined by some friends and relatives along the way, our journey began in Amsterdam. Strictly for research purposes, we made it a priority to sample the beers that each of our host nations had to offer.

IMG_0188The concept of what we know as a craft brewery in California is significantly different in other parts of the world. We were in Amsterdam for just a few days, but thanks to our expert guide Sam Robinson, who spent the previous seven months there studying (and doing his own research), we found several local small breweries. Fashioned more like a traditional American brewpub, the two quaint Amsterdam Café Gollem locations not only brew a handful of their own beers, but they offer hundreds of other bottled and on-tap craft beers from around the world. With the country’s adjacent proximity to Belgium, we expected to find plenty of Belgian beers, and most of the house-brewed offerings were Belgian style or clearly Belgian influenced. Not surprising, none of the IPAs brewed there carried the hop-forward qualities of a good West Coast IPA. We were, however, quite surprised to see a number of bottles from California, including several from the Lost Abbey/Port Brewing in San Marcos.

IMG_0182A counter to Amsterdam’s worldwide giant Heineken brewery, Amsterdam’s most famous small brewery is Brouwerij ‘t IJ, one of the first modern microbreweries to pop up during the mid 1980s. Brewing its own pils, amber, IPA, double Natte and triple Zatte, along with several seasonal beers and a host of Belgians, the brewery is probably best known for its unmistakable location in a former bath house next to the De Gooyer windmill.

Beer in Germany is akin to a religion. Different breweries can be found in every region, and small breweries are littered among street corners in most towns. As we made our way along the Rhine River, Bitburger pilsner, which claims to be Germany’s No. 1 draft beer, was everywhere.

No place in Germany is more proud of the nation’s beer history than Munich, where most of the massive legendary beer halls brew their own beer. Nowhere else in the world can you drink Bavarian “bier” the way it is supposed to be consumed – in liter mugs accompanied by traditional German brats, meats, potatoes and other bland foods.IMG_0243

Our friend Taissa was our tour guide for Munich. A former exchange student who is from Germany and spent a year at Upland High while living with the Moore family, she and her friend Nick were the perfect additions to the Robinson troupe. Taissa even dressed the part in a traditional Bavarian Dirndl dress as she led us to the world-famous Hofbräuhaus. Although it is undoubtedly a major tourist attraction, locals hang out there as well. It’s definitely worth the effort.

Customary polka bands add to the authentic environment throughout the Hofbräuhaus, which originally opened in 1589 as the Royal Brewery of the Kingdom of Bavaria. The house-brewed Hofbräu beer was outstanding and a nice diversion from both our hoppy American craft brews and domestic fizzy yellow beers. Beth Robinson actually prefers the German beers to our hoppy California craft brews.

Not far away is Weihenstephan Monastery Brewery, the world’s oldest continuously operating brewery. Still standing on Weihenstephan Hill after nearly 1,000 years, the brewery officially began brewing in 1040, but its roots trace as far back as the year 725. Like many of the major breweries in Munich, Weihenstephan hosts visitors at both an indoor beer hall/dining area and a spacious outdoor beer garden that overlooks the surrounding region.IMG_2498

Our stay in Munich also took us to the Augustinerkeller (1812) and Löwenbräukeller (1853) breweries, where enormous beer halls and expansive outdoor gardens are the norm. In fact, there are some 200 beer gardens spread throughout Munich, including the most famous, the Chinesischer Turm – or Chinese Tower – which is located in the English Garden, the city’s largest park area boasting one of its most recognizable landmarks.

However, none of the beer halls or gardens can compete with the 16-day Munich Oktoberfest, which is expected to draw another 6 million people this year from Sept. 19-Oct. 4. Construction for this year’s folk festival was well underway during our visit, and many of the individual brewery “tents” were close to completion. Definitely a destination for a future trip.

Originating in 1810, today’s Oktoberfest draws similarities to our local county fairs, with carnival rides, parades, food booths, contests, agriculture and entertainment – to go along with 14 separate beer tents. Only beers brewed in Munich and conforming to the Renheitsgebot, or German Beer Purity Order, are supposed to be served at Oktoberfest.

IMG_2510Closer to home, the standards for our Oktoberfest celebrations vary. Around the world, events mirroring the Munich Oktoberfest festival take their own shape, with the focus on Bavarian biers, food and music.

The annual Big Bear Lake Oktoberfest is scheduled for Sept. 12-13, while Fairplex in Pomona will host its Oktoberfest over the weekends of October 9-10, 16-17 and 23-24 (after the genuine Oktoberfest has already finished its run). Elsewhere, one of the oldest and largest Oktoberfest celebrations in Southern California, the 48th annual Alpine Village Oktoberfest in Torrance, will be held Sept. 11-Oct. 31.

Our European adventures took us elsewhere, but nowhere else is there a place where beer is so ingrained into the fabric of the city.

An abbreviated version of this article also appears in the September edition of 9-0-9 Magazine.