Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Bavarian Food And Beer

Beer kegs at the Paulaner brewery.
I'll start this post with some statements I never thought I would make. The beer in Bavaria was almost universally disappointing and was without doubt the part of my recent trip to Europe that fell farthest below my expectations. The food in Bavaria, on the other hand, was absolutely amazing; I loved almost every serious meal I ate while I was on vacation there. If you had asked me to describe my expectations for beer and food before I boarded my flight to Germany two months ago, I would have said I was looking forward to the beer more than most aspects of my trip and I was dreading the food. Something strange happened between the time I took off from Dulles Airport and arrived back in the United States ten days later.

When I arrived in Frankfurt and presented my passport to enter through immigration, I was asked the purpose of my visit. When I responded that I was on vacation, the follow on question was if I was visiting to drink German beer. I responded enthusiastically that I intended to drink a lot of German beer. About eight hours later, I was downing my first liter of dunkles beer at the Hofbrauhaus near the Marienplatz in Munich feeling a little let down and hoping that the rest of my beer drinking experience in Bavaria would be better. It was, but only a little.

Munich is surrounded by breweries; there are at least nine world renowned breweries in or near the city. The rest of Bavaria is not much different; there are breweries almost literally everywhere. Each brewery in Bavaria generally brews three types of beer: a helles, which is essentially a beer which tastes like Bud Light but with about twice the alcohol content; a dunkles, which is a little deeper in flavor and color than helles because of the roasted malt used in the brewing process; and a weissbier or German wheat beer, which is a chewy citrusy wheat beer.

My first mug of beer in Bavaria (in the foreground).
In addition to the breweries, Munich and the rest of Bavaria is full of bars and beer gardens. Each bar or beer garden is usually aligned with a single brewery meaning two things: you have no choice of beer brand when you sit down to drink and you typically have three types of beer to choose from: helles, dunkles and weissbier. That's it. That's all you can get. There are some exceptions to this rule. Sometimes, you can find a bar that serves a helles and dunkles brewed by one brewery and a weissbier brewed by a second but you still end up with three choices. Pretty daunting, especially if you consider it's impossible to find non-Bavarian beer in Bavaria. It made me realize the kind of creativity and variety in beer we can now get in the United States. It has to be one of the premier beer brewing nations, unconstrained by strict adherence to brewing tradition.

Before you lament my dilemma with only three beers to choose from, let me say that I really like German weissbier. It has a ton of delicious flavor with not too much yeast taste and the texture and body of the beer is wonderful. Think Samuel Adams Summer Ale if you need a point of comparison. It's so much more satisfying than Belgian style witbier, which I generally find watery and sometimes lacking in taste. Of all the weissbier I had on my trip, I thought the König Ludwig and Munich's Augustiner Bräu were the best although not by a lot. If you like the taste of weissbeer, I don't think you can really go too far wrong in Bavaria. But drinking weissbier for nine straight days was not why I came to Bavaria. 

Now because I like to work hard at finding good beer, I refused to let the situation presented to me keep me down. So I worked at it (meaning I kept drinking). Where I was frustrated with the limited beer selection in bars and beer gardens I visited, I found greater variety at breweries' official beer gardens. Hofbrauhaus offered four beers to choose from but Paulaner, Andechs Abbey and Hacker-Pschorr all offered at least five and the selection beyond the ubiquitous helles / dunkles / weissbeer choices were worth seeking out.

Both Hofbrauhaus and Hacker-Pschorr's beer gardens served a summer beer, which is a medium colored unfiltered lager with good body and far more taste than the helles or dunkles beer but without the sweeter yeasty taste you get from a weissbier. The Nockherberg beer available at the Paulaner beer garden had a similar profile and was perhaps the better of those three beers. I also found a bottled Hacker-Pschorr keller beer at the end of our Paulaner brewery tour (ironically) that was far tastier than the helles beer we were assaulted with at other places. I'd liken it more to a full bodied pilsener beer than the standard light German style lager we found elsewhere. Sometimes hard work pays off.

And then there's the food. If I had to give my impression of Bavarian food prior to my trip, I would have described it as meat and potatoes based and would have displayed very little enthusiasm for it at all. Add in to the equation an experience I had at an Alsatian restaurant in Paris on a trip I took in 2004 where I was served blood sausage and my piece of pork still had the pig's hair on it and I would say I was positively dreading the food possibilities on this trip. I've loved English, Dutch, Belgian and Finnish food on trips to Europe. I was absolutely not looking forward to food on this journey.

Spaetzle at Hacker-Pschorr's beer garden in Munich.
But I was surprised. And very pleasantly so. Of the first seven days I was in Bavaria, I think I ate sausages at some point on six of those days, before varying my diet just a bit the last three days. The sausages in Germany, be they frankfurters, bratwurst, knockwurst or whatever, are unlike American versions of those same foods. The grind on the meat is super fine, the casings snap and the taste is amazing. There's no gristle or hard crunchy things when you bite into them. I hate to say it was like eating hot dogs every day because the sausages tasted so much better but that's my only point of comparison. I do love hot dogs by the way. I would eat them every day if I thought it was healthy.

Sausages are eaten hot and cold in Bavaria. The cold salami I ate at Andechs Abbey and the weisswurst I ate on a beer and food tour in Munich were equally as good. And each type of sausage is paired with their own spicy or sweet mustard which improves the overall taste of the meat. I didn't see any blood sausage at any of the places I visited, although that's probably because I didn't visit the right (or wrong) places.

The best meal of the trip: pretzels and sausages at Andechs Abbey.
Besides the sausages, other highlights of Bavarian cuisine that I will long for include pretzels and spaetzle. The only real exposure I had to pretzels before this trip was at sporting events (think rock hard brown pretzels with tons of salt) and Rock Bottom Brewery (think fresh baked brown pretzels with tons of salt which get rock hard quick). The pretzels in Germany are works of art: crusty and slightly salty on the outside with warm doughy bread on the inside. And they are served with raw sliced white onion and a spiced cream cheese and butter mixture that is out of this world good. I would kill for some of that stuff right now. Also, for the record, raw white onion makes pretty much everything better. Call me crazy on that one.

I only managed to have spaetzle once on my trip, so the sample size is admittedly difficult to rely on, but the cheese spaetzle I had at the Hacker-Pschorr braureihaus was incredible. It was like a lighter, fluffier version of macaroni and cheese and it was absolutely delicious. If I ever go back, I'm having more spaetzle, if I can give up the sausages and pretzels.

Apple strudel in Salzburg.
Finally, a word about dessert. I'm not much of a dessert guy but I did have to have some apple strudel in both Germany and Austria (especially Austria). If there was a food I thought would be incredible but wasn't, it's the apple strudel. I found the three servings I had to be pleasant, with a lot of apple, but the traditional vanilla custard served with the strudel didn't do much for me and the plates I had were ultimately a little disappointing.

My advice to traveler seeking out good food and beer in Bavaria is this: find the kind of beer you like and drink your beer at brewery beer gardens if you have to; eat plenty of sausages and pretzels; and when presented a chance to eat cheese spaetzle, take it and don't look back. If you don't like it you can always order some more pretzels. Oh, and if you ever make it to Andechs Abbey, get some of the pork roast or convince a friend to get some and steal some of the crispy pork fat. Delicous. Prost!

No comments:

Post a Comment