From the September 2010 issue of National Geographic Traveler
With a declaration of “O’zapft is!” (It’s tapped!), Munich’s mayor kicks off Oktoberfest, first celebrated 200 years ago in honor of the marriage of Crown Prince Ludwig. The Wiesn (as locals call the fest) has since evolved into a 16-day toast to Bavaria’s rich heritage, attracting millions and spawning spin-offs worldwide. But Munich is just one of the myriad cities where beer has been a part of life since the Middle Ages, when it was safer to drink than water. Parched? Here’s where to get a taste.
Munich: Community Gardens
The home of Oktoberfest has been hailed as one of the world’s most livable cities. Nowhere is the sense of gemütlichkeit—loosely translated, a communal warmth—felt more keenly than at the city’s 36 beer gardens. City residents have been going for centuries to places such as the Hirschgarten or Paulaner am Nockherberg to enjoy a mug of Bavarian brew and a typical BYO picnic of salted white radish, pretzels, and obatzda (a savory mash of cheeses, onions, and spices). The biergarten first sprouted on the banks of chestnut tree–lined Isar River because it was the coolest place to store beer during summer months, when brewing was forbidden by Germany’s purity laws.
Breweries in Munich, in fact, still follow 15th-century regulations stipulating that beer be brewed using only barley, hops, and water. Among the city’s most storied institutions are the state-run Hofbrauhaus, on Old Town’s Platzl, and Augustiner Bräu, known for its signature Helles (a golden lager).
But during the approximately 16 days preceding the first Sunday in October, all the action shifts to the 14 massive beer tents—each accommodate thousands—outside the city. Entrance to Oktoberfest itself is free, but drinks (about 10 bucks for a liter beer), parade tickets, and the obligatory souvenir stein can add up.
Amsterdam: Beyond the Green Bottle
Heineken is an Amsterdam icon, along with tulips, bikes, and canals. But the beer scene in the Dutch capital in 2010 goes well beyond the pale lager in the signature green bottle that put it on the map. Craft brewers have sprung up in the last 25 years, riffing on traditional lagers, Belgian-style beers, and bokbiers, a strong malty German brew.
Most quaffing is done in “brown cafés,” the convivial pubs found in old neighborhoods, such as the cozy Café Gollem near the Spui, where patrons duck in for a beer and a game of snooker. On sunny afternoons, young Amsterdammers point their bicycles toward the Leidseplein, the heart of the city’s social scene, to grab an outdoor table and a frothy draft at one of the café terraces.
But craft beer connoisseurs make a beeline to Brouwerij ’t IJ, a former public bathhouse east of the city center. Regulars line up before the brew pub opens every afternoon to ensure their fill of the coveted elixirs, from the hoppy pils to the robust ijbok, before it closes at 8 p.m. Missed it? Some of the brewery’s beers are poured in the Jordaan neighborhood at the canal-side Café ’t Smalle.
Brussels: Variety Pack
Centuries before Brussels became the staid, buttoned-up seat of the European Union bureaucracy, the city was a brewing mecca, known for its lambic, a bracingly tart and bone-dry brew naturally fermented with wild yeast. While the city has shed its provincial image to emerge as one of the Continent’s coolest capitals, the beer continues to flow—some 600 varieties throughout the country, from bright witbiers to rich Trappist ales. Lambic still rules in Brussels, but most of what is consumed today is infused with fruit, like morello cherries. Sample multiple styles at the Cantillon brewery in the Anderlecht section.
Serious beer drinking, however, is reserved for the city’s ubiquitous cafés, where the beer menus are as thick as novellas. At the famed Delirium Café in the old town’s Ilot Sacré, for instance, one can choose from more than 2,000 brews, including several vintage lambics, each served in its own special vessel (Belgians are sticklers for proper glassware). For a more streamlined beer list and a prime people-watching perch, try the art deco brasserie A La Mort Subite off the Grand Place with its 13th-century guild houses.
Dublin: Mother’s Milk
Ireland boasts many a delicious brew, but none as near and dear to the hearts of Dubliners as the toasty stout with the thick creamy head that is Guinness. Practically everyone of drinking age (18 and up) has an opinion on where in town to get a proper pint of the black stuff, as it is known. But start at St. James’s Gate Brewery, where Guinness has been brewed since 1759, for a look at an exhibition on the company’s 250-year history, including the ads (“Guinness Is Good For You”) that helped make it a household name. A free sample awaits at the seventh-floor Gravity Bar, worth a stop for its sweeping view of Dublin alone.
As for that second pint, there are some 800 pubs in the city from which to choose, many concentrated along the cobblestone streets of Temple Bar, the city’s cultural hub, where the craic, or entertainment, is always lively and downright boisterous as night falls. Eamonn Doran’s is famous for its live music—The Cranberries got their start here. The more intimate Palace Bar hosts occasional “trad” (traditional Irish) bands. Literary sorts head to Mulligan’s to rub shoulders with locals and pay homage to former patron James Joyce.
Prague: The Original
Beer is deeply rooted in the Czech psyche. And, at less than two bucks for a half-liter glass, it’s a relative bargain. But this is no swill. In many ways, Czech beer is the standard by which all others are measured, including the original Budweiser (or “Budvar”) and Pilsner Urquell, which was developed in Plzen in 1842 in response to a “beer party”—townspeople dumped barrels of beer to protest its poor quality.
In Prague, however, Staropramen reigns. More steins of the brewery’s crisp lager are hoisted in the capital’s cavernous beer halls than just about any other brand. Traditionally, bars pour only one type of beer as advertised by the sign outside, like U Dvou Kocek, rumored to pull the tastiest Urquell in Prague. Another Prague institution is U Fleku, a rambling pub in New Town that has been brewing its own caramel-hued lager for 500 years. As at most crowded beer houses here, strangers may have to sidle up next to each other at long wooden tables—a good way to meet locals, whose initial brusqueness is usually tamed by successive refills, especially when the discussion veers toward beer.