German Beer As It's Meant to Be

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The Munich beer world is dominated by the Big Six: Paulaner, Löwenbräu, Augustiner, Hacker Pschorr, Hofbräu, and Spaten. It's enough to make a man happy for a lifetime.

To make himself ecstatic for a lifetime, said man would have to drive about 45 minutes southwest of Munich to the Andechs Brewery. Located on a steep hill near the eastern shore of Lake Ammer, the brewery is run by Benedictine monks, who have occupied the site since the 15th century (except for a few decades in the 19th century, when Napoleonic rule secularized church holdings in Bavaria). For non-quaffers, there's a magnificent baroque church, resting place of composer Carl Orff and home to the annual Orff Festival.

But really, leaving Munich to see a church is like leaving Vegas to find a casino. Leaving for beer is another thing. The brewery, one of Germany's oldest, has been in operation since 1455, and over the centuries the good monks of Andechs have perfected the Bavarian drinking experience in their Bräustüberl, a Bavarianism which roughly translates to "Eden for All Things Brewed and Beautiful."

To taste German beer as it's meant to be enjoyed, you really have to be in Germany.

From the parking lot, it's a rigorous but mercifully short climb up the hill, just enough to build a thirst. At the top you find sprawling patios with sweeping views over the neighboring farmland. The patio space is buttressed on either side by indoor dining areas, beer and food counters, and gift shops (just because they're monks doesn't mean they can't make a buck). The restaurant is famous for its pigs' knuckles, but there's lighter fare, such as, um, beef and potato salad. It's not like you're there for a Four Seasons buffet.

For a major tourist spot, Andechs is surprisingly homey. Many of the tables are reserved for Stammtische--a German tradition in which friends or coworkers meet regularly for a few beers and conversation, sort of like having the best happy hour ever, every other Tuesday. In a back room hard-core Andechs fans can keep their monstrous Krüge safe in a steel locker (language note: Even though it's is the German word for "stone," "stein" is the English word for Krug, also known as a beer mug). How's that for hospitality?

Oh, and the beer. What's there to say? Two of Andechs' beers rank among Beer Advocate's Top Ten German Beers--the Doppelbock Dunkel and the Weissbier Hefetrüb--and the former is generally (though not universally) considered the best beer in the country. Dunkel, or dark, beers are usually available in German bars, but doppelbocks--as the name implies, bock beers, but doubled, with alcohol in the high single digits, heavy malt, and strong chocolate overtones--are increasingly rare. Spaten Optimator and Paulaner Salvator are good options in Munich (Ayinger Celebrator is also a good pick), but the Andechs brew tops them both. It's surprisingly drinkable, even on a warm day, with coffee, toffee, and dark fruit notes in the taste, with a little hoppiness and a slightly bitter finish.

But wait--there's more! The Bergbock Hell, though not often available on tap, is worth a taste if you can find it. The regular Dunkel is a lighter, less bock-y alternative to the Doppelbock Dunkel. The Weissbier Dunkel and Special Hell are also good, lightweight drinks.

Like many of the best German beers, Andechs is almost impossible to find Stateside. But also, like many German beers, even if you can find it, by the time the beer gets to your local bar it will have sweated and shivered through cargo holds and customs warehouses, making the final drinking experience a let-down. To taste German beer as it's meant to be enjoyed, you really have to be in Germany. And to taste Andechs as it's meant to be enjoyed--not just the beer, but the patio, and the southern Bavarian sun, and the monks, and the pigs' knuckles--there's no alternative to a short drive outside Munich.

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Clay Risen is an editor at The New York Times, and is the author of A Nation on Fire: America in the Wake of the King Assassination. He has written for The New Republic, Smithsonian, and The New York Times Sunday Magazine.

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