Winters are long in Germany but all over the country, especially in Bavaria where it all began, from early Spring through Summer and Autumn it is Biergarten time. Simple tables shaded by chestnut trees, enjoying the fresh air, eating, drinking, and it often lasts deep into the night.
A tradition that has hardly changed since it began, officially during the reign of Bavaria's King Maximilian I in 1812, it is one of those customs that has never gone out of fashion.
From the 16th century there had been a law that dark beer, the most popular variety, must be brewed only in colder months, from St. Michael's Day, 29th September, until St. George's Day, 23rd April. As a way of working around these rules some brewers moved to the banks of the River Isar just outside Munich, and dug deep cellars where they could store their beer during the summer months.
These cellars were also filled with ice that had been taken during the winter from the frozen river, then, to ensure the earth remained cool, trees were planted over the cellars. The choice fell to chestnut trees, originally been introduced into Germany by the Romans, as their large leaves would give the best protection against the summer sun in Bavaria.
As an additional safeguard against heat gravel was spread over the area covering the cellars and, just as in Munich, the selling of beer for consumption elsewhere continued.
It was some years before the first large simple wooden tables and benches appeared; customers decided to stay rather than "arrive, buy and leave" with their "Maßkrug", two pint containers, and before too long a visit to a rustic Beer Garden by the Isar had become a popular and fashionable outing.
It also crossed the rigid social boundaries of the day, because a beer garden was open and enjoyed by all those interested.
Maximilian's son King Ludwig I, whose wedding in 1810 had been the reason for the first Munich Oktoberfest, had to deal with the complaints of inn keepers who had enjoyed a beer selling monopoly, as well as those brewers who had not left Munich; the "out of town" Kellerbier Gärten, cellar beer gardens, had begun to affect their businesses.
He created a law allowing drinks to be sold in the countryside beer gardens but banned serving food. This meant anyone who wanted something to eat with their cold beer had to bring a Brotzeit, a snack, with them. An idea Biergärten owners naturally supported as that usually meant their customers would also drink more.
To this day the beer garden culture and custom continues, having spread across the country and becoming ever more popular. Although the only remaining beer cellars from the era are the Paulaner Beer Garden and the Hofbraeukeller in Munich.
The type of beer and size of the beer glass varies according to the region with a beer glass in northern Germany containing 0.5 liter, about a pint, while in Bavaria the usual size is a "Mass" holding a liter, around two pints.
But then in Bavaria beer is classed as a "food".
King Ludwig’s law is no longer in force so there is always a choice of simple, regional, and traditional German food available at any beer garden. not only to satisfy the homegrown visitors used to their own cuisine, but also the tourists and travelers whose bucket list includes a "Visit to a Beer Garden".
No longer just the "Cold Snack" from the King's days, beer garden food can range from Steckerlfisch, grilled fish on a stick, Gebratene Rippchen, Pork ribs, Swinehaxe, pork knuckle, Weiss Wurst, Bavarian veal sausage with sweet mustard, to Reiberdatschi, potato pancakes, Obatzda, a mixed cheese combination, extra large Brezeln, Pretzels, and thinly sliced white radish.
Although many beer garden patrons follow the tradition as it was originally intended: order beer or other drink to go with a small brought snack, or choose something from the beer garden menu, advantage is being taken of the system.
Weekend visitors arrive carrying cool boxes filled with prepared meals, overflowing bread baskets and cheese plates, or order a takeaway Pizza from the local Italian to be delivered to the beer garden. They set out tablecloths and silverware and take over several tables. One for their buffet, one for themselves.
Some even bring their own drinks, with the excuse that they like Rhubarb and Strawberry Cocktail and this is not offered on the beer garden menu.
As a result they are only making use of the Biergärten tables and it is known as the annual Kampf um die Brotzeit, "fight over the snacks". Publicans are beginning to throw out people who they see as breaking the rules of the tradition, which includes bringing too much food.
Of course drinking only what has been bought elsewhere is certainly not part of the tradition, however what constitutes "too much food" is a debatable point; the truth of which is only known by those chestnut trees that have shaded visitors enjoying Beer Garden "Gemütlichkeit" for centuries.
Illustrations: Beer Garden in Andechs Abbey, run by Benedictine monks - Inselmühle In Untermenzing, Photo by Stephan Handel via sueddeutsche.com - A few snacks at the Augustiner Keller München