The Beers of Munich
At pp. 101-102 in Charles Graves’ Gone Abroad the author describes the best beers of Munich with a short account of the renowned beer hall Hofbrauhaus.
… Munich is, not unnaturally, inseparable from thoughts of beer. So I sampled about twenty-two varieties, dark and light, strong and very strong.
Of these, he lists more than a dozen that found especial favour: Lowenbrau, Spaten, Hacker, Paulaner Thomas, Salvater [his spelling], Koenigliche, Pschorr, and Wagner. Each is mentioned for both dark and light iterations except for Salvater, or Salvator as known to us, which is dark only.
Also, when reviewing Hofbrauhaus he mentions only dunkel (dark lager) being consumed.
Modern accounts have it that Paulaner merged with rival Gebruder Thomas in 1928, hence the double-barrelled name for this storied brewery. (It was the only brewery I visited, well, the adjoining beer hall, on my visit to Munich, but I tasted other beers in the city, not quite 22 though).
Beer scholarship has established that pale lager or Helles in Munich developed in the early 1900s, following the example of the noble Pilsner Urquell of Bohemia, inaugurated in 1842 at the Citizen’s Brewery in Pilsen. Before about 1900 Munich lager was dark in hue.
Clearly by the early 1930s the pale type was well enough established to merit inclusion in the great names listed, except for Hofbrauhaus, and Salvator again, still brewed today in dark amber only, to my knowledge.
Our LCBO carries it, in fact. The image below is from the listing, and the accompanying description can’t be bettered:
… a double bock beer: a stronger and maltier version of bock beer or strong lager of German origin. Rich aromas of orange, toasted nut, molasses and spice meet flavours of toffee, cloves, chocolate, and creamy malt notes. The velvety finish has a wisp of hop bitterness.
Graves also mentions a light “Schneider” beer served with a lemon slice – the famed weizen of Schneider, a wheat beer. At the time, it was brewed in Munich but today is brewed outside the city as the brewery was destroyed in WW II. This beer is also listed at the LCBO and is a style widely made in craft brewing as well.
The fact that Munich’s norm struck Graves as “strong” is interesting. Munich beer by this period, at least the Helles, was about 5% abv except for bock and double-bock versions, which could go higher. Beer historian Ron Pattinson has data, drawn from a 1948 text, that seems clearly to show this, see here.
As you see above noble Salvator is almost 8% abv, approaching the quaffing German wines in fact.
In the interwar period the draught beers of Britain were lower in gravity than lagers in Germany. This arose from the pressure of increased taxation due to war. Many visitors to Germany, or other countries where a 5% norm prevailed, noticed the difference.
There are two observations in Graves’ account that set it apart from the usual tourist’s account, even of practiced travel writers. First, he states:
The truth of the matter is that, just as in wine, individual breweries have individual good years. It all depends on the quality of the hops and malt bought or grown by the proprietors.
He goes on to say:
… experts … maintain that Paulaner Thomas is least likely to fall from its high level of thirst-quenching endeavour.
It is as true today that beers of a single brewery can vary annually due to seasonal differences in qualities of hops and malt, which after all are natural products affected by weather, humidity, and other factors. This is a good thing, a heritage of the agricultural and indeed craft origins of all brewing. No degree of technical mastery can quite efface this.
There is of course a need for consistency in brewing, even at craft level. To some degree this is at odds with the natural mutability of beer (or wine, cider, etc.) due to the factors noted, but most breweries seem to find a balance. Of those that don’t, many revel in the swings of palate, which their fans appreciate as the hallmark of an artisan product. Fair enough.
Yet, after his three page éloge of Munich beer, Graves states:
But they all tasted very much the same to me.
He means of course, Helles as against Helles, dunkel as against dunkel, and so forth. A damp squib? Not at all. In any well-developed beer culture, in the industrial era certainly, the leading products will tend to be similar. It is no different today for New England India Pale Ale, say.
An industry just tends to move in that direction. Of course, too, Graves was not an “expert”, but rather an enthusiastic amateur, writing a survey for his fellow citizens. In fact he states that an expert can “tell one kind from another in a second”. Essentially true today as well.
The one failing of German beer noted by Graves: no “liqueur” beer was available of the sort “you can get at Trinity, Cambridge, and All Souls and Queen’s College, Oxford”.
This was the ancestral strong ale of England. Despite the washy nature of the daily interwar beer, he was upholding England’s best still available, in other words. I’m not sure today about Oxbridge, but countless small breweries in Britain and elsewhere make fine examples of the old strong brews.
If you find one, imagine you are in an ivied college refectory, or draughty (um) hall sitting on blocky, leather-covered oak chairs. You are tasting the real thing, all things told. And the German types Graves liked, original and craft emulations, can be had around the world.