Bikes, beer and Bavaria!

Bavaria, or Bayern as this part of Germany is known in the native language, has it all, with the possible exception of a coastline. Big bustling cities, small charming towns, snaking rivers, non-snaking canals, tall mountains, refreshing lakes, cycle-friendly roads, non-smoking legislation and lively folk-fests on a weekly basis – what more could you ask for? Well, there’s beer of course. Luckily, Bavaria has more of that than anywhere else on this planet as well as all other planets I’m aware of. So why do people go to Italy on holiday instead? Because people are stupid, that’s why.

I’ve spent most of the last couple of weeks inside the “Free State of Bavaria”, as it’s known to the locals. It might technically be part of Germany, but only because the locals choose this out of their own free will, you understand. This is very important. Should Berlin try and impose some restrictions on the Bavarians that they don’t like, you can safely assume that Europe will gain another independent nation before you can say “Donaudampfschifffahrtsgesellschaftskapitän”.

There’s an on-going debate as to where the beer-drinker’s heaven on earth is actually located. Some say Belgium. Others say the Czech Republic. Nobody says Iran. I say Bavaria. Mostly because of the fact that in this state alone, there are more than 600 operational breweries that fuel the aforementioned folk-fests and other jolly occasions such as Tuesdays. The vast majority of these breweries are several hundred years old, family-owned, and – not surprisingly – very traditional. This does mean that there’s a certain predictability as to what you will get when you order a beer – almost all have a portfolio consisting of a very drinkable pilsner, an very quaffable helles (light lager), a rich and malty dunkles (dark lager) and a fruity wheat beer. In addition, many also have a Landbier or Vollbier, which is an amber, malty and full-bodied beer.

My lovely wife and I went on a cycling trip through Bavaria a couple of weeks ago. As mentioned in previous blog posts, cycling and beer is a great combination. First and foremost, cycling makes you thirsty, especially on a hot summer’s day. Second and middlemost, you can cover relatively large distances on a bike, so you can visit several breweries in a day. Third and lastmost, a bit of pedalling between breweries means that you sober up sufficiently to avoid risking your own or anybody else’s life due to the combination of your mode of transport and the state of your mental awareness. In other words, with a little bit of planning you can easily visit 4-5 breweries during a happy day of relaxed cycling and even live to tell the tale.

We chose to start our trip in Frankfurt. Not because this is a lovely, charming city (it isn’t), nor because it’s got great beer (it hasn’t), but because it’s got a massive train station that has direct connections from everywhere except Iceland. By following the river Main, which is a tributary to the slightly more well-known river Rhine, you very quickly cross the border into Bavaria – and not just any part of Bavaria, but Franconia, which is where they make loads of wine, until you move a bit further upstream to the region around Bamberg and those nasty vineyards disappear and they start making beer instead.

Small brewery with beer garden

I shan’t describe in detail each and every brewery we visited, since they numbered 42 by the end of the 9th day in the saddle. There’s a photo of my good self in front of each and every one, but since drinking at all of them would have been somewhat suicidal, especially on the day we visited 11, I’ll limit this blog post to more general observations. Here they are:

1) Most breweries are very small and supply the drinkers at only a handful of pubs, or even just the one where the brewery is situated. In this respect they are similar to modern microbreweries. The main difference is that the vast majority of these breweries have been handed down about a dozen generations of a family with the name Schnausenfutter (or similar), and are therefore typically several hundred years old.

2) The majority of these breweries are found in very small towns or villages where there’s very little sign of life, and a surprising number of these have two or more, often within a few bottle lengths of each other.

3) Each brewery with respect for itself has its own Bierkeller (beer cellar), where people drink in summer. You may think this sounds strange. That’s because it is. What happened was that the brewers needed a cool place to store (lager) their beers, which they found in small underground caves at the local hill – the cellars. Then, the thirsty local people would be drawn like dehydrated magnets to the hill, demanding fresh beer. The brewer, sensing a business opportunity, duly planted a couple of massive trees to provide shade, put up some tables and some chairs, and the rest is history.

4) The beer is, without exception, very good and sometimes absolutely wonderful.

One of the larger ones
Of course, there are plenty of other things to see and do in Bavaria as well. However, since this is a beer blog, I’ll just encourage you to read a travel blog if you crave details on museums, art and outdoor pursuits other than sitting in the beer garden. Meanwhile, you could do worse than cancelling your planned trip to Italy next summer and going to Bamberg instead, which is arguably the beeriest town in the world, being host to no fewer than 9 breweries, including ones that brew beers that taste like bacon, ideal for breakfast. The real treasure is the land that surrounds Bamberg, though, where the main output of most brewers is a malty amber lager that tastes so good that it makes you want to drink nothing else for the rest of your life, which in which case would be happy and short, though considering the number of old fellows seemingly spending all day in the bar, perhaps the opposite is true. The fact that the price of a half litre of this amber treasure is around two euros also means that your holiday budget will stretch very far.

In conclusion, Bavaria should be a mandatory stop on every beer lover’s agenda, and just attending Oktoberfest in Munich does not count. Visiting in summer is recommended, since the shady trees of the Bierkeller provide the ideal environment in which to enjoy a half litre or nine. There’s still time this year, so off you go! See you there - I’ll be the one in the corner with the sweatiest bike and the happiest smile.