In 1928 the American writer and belles lettres editor, George Jean Nathan, reviewed noteworthy beers in Germany using the conceit of a theatre review. It’s a sparkling piece, in more ways than one.
“Mathäserbrau” was one of the beers. I hadn’t been aware of it, and a brief check disclosed the long history of the beerhall that birthed it.
Europe After 8:15 is a 1914 travelogue by H.L. Mencken, George Jean Nathan and Willard Wright. Mathaser’s forms the centrepiece of its florid Munch “beeriad”. The book surely gives the definitive picture (in English) of the Munich beer hall just ahead of World War I.
As the trio reported it, Mathaser’s was the resort mostly of the working and trades classes. It offered sturdy food, and beer of good colour (colour alone being held evidently a mark of quality for good beer), variously “red” and “dark”, served in unpretentious surroundings.
The beer came frothing in earthenware and was held superior to the paler beer at Hofbrauhaus and Augustiner, probably the best known (or reputed) of Munich beer shrines. Mencken et al. give the others their due, but seemed to approve Mathaser’s the most.
The authors liked the bluff nature of the beer halls. This is suggested by (probably) Mencken’s statement that enlisted soldiers in their “coma” of love gave their “Lizzies” a simple hug while monocled officers practiced “diableries” to charm their intended inamorata. Mencken added that “no Munchener ever threw a stone”, which must be one of the great understatements of German social history, but never mind.
Mathaser’s met its demise some twenty years ago when converted to a multiplex theatre, but until then was the city’s largest “Bierstadt” with a capacity approaching an astounding 5000 persons.
This Munich visitors page sketches some of its early history. After the First World War it carried on, and did after the next war, too. Judging by reports from the late 1940s to the end, Mathaser’s kept its essential nature although in the last years it shared ownership with erstwhile rival Lowenbrau.
Some notoriety attached to Mathaser’s after the 1918 Armistice. The Bavarian Free State was proclaimed there by revolutionaries that year. Hitler is reputed to have spoken there once, as well, although the notorious putsch occurred in a different place.
This blog page of Potable Curmudgeon contains excellent notes on Mathaser’s as it was not long before its closing. A number of readers’ comments add additional colour and perspective, particularly from ex-employees.
In all, one gets the feeling that the ethos of beer, the communal experience, traditional foods, and live folk music, represents an era now passed. Of course, classic beer halls endure in Munich. The main resorts are Hofbrauhaus, Paulaner in its modern industrial complex, Lowenbrau, and Augustiner’s smaller hall. Hopefully they will remain prosperous as a new international beer culture powered by American craft ways encroaches on traditional customs.
These halls, and England’s pubs in a somewhat different way, represent a pre-modern form of entertainment. They emerged and long reigned in a time of no television, no or just incipient radio, no or few mass sporting events. Socializing was done outside the home: the pub or church, maybe the circus once a year, the odd concert or play, and the odd sporting event.
Public gatherings of this type became less attractive as “home entertainment centres” emerged, facilitated by inexpensive bottled and canned beer. Finally, the online world permits communal engagement from the home desktop or smartphone. No need to sit in serried ranks with the like-minded. And if you want a drink, it’s in the fridge.
It makes perfect sense that 20 years ago Mathaser’s was converted to a movie emporium, as movies then were at a height of popularity. But maybe soon those movie theatres will morph into something else. An IPA hallen, perhaps. (A certain poetic justice there). Forms already exist in nodes in Berlin and other cities.
In the end everything has its time and place. Its zeit.
Note re images: the first image above was sourced from an historical German post card website, here. The second image was sourced from this beer coaster website. All intellectual property therein or thereto belongs solely to their lawful owner or authorized users. Images believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.