Braustuberl Weihenstephan – A Beer Pilgrimage in Germany
One of the lessons on my “lesson’s learned” page emphasizes the importance of pre-checking opening days and times. In the US, we have grown to expect that every business, every restaurant, every place we want to go is likely to be open 7 days a week, and if not 24 hours a day, close to it. That assumption has burned us a few times, and it almost cost us one of our favorite beer experiences.
While Braustuberl Weihenstephan does rank among my top 10 beer gardens in the World, that’s not why our visit there has become one of my favorite travel memories. Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good, and when Shea and I decided to take a taxi to Freising on our final evening in Germany due to its proximity to the Munich airport where we were staying before our early flight back to the US, we were so lucky. First of all we grabbed a taxi at the airport and asked the driver to take us to the Weihenstephan Brewery. I felt this brewery was a popular enough destination that any competent cab driver would simply nod and we’d be on our way. To my surprise, it wasn’t that simple. It wasn’t that he necessarily didn’t know what I was talking about, but he didn’t speak English and we obviously didn’t speak German so the barrage of questions he was asking both confused and worried me, as if “Weihenstephan Brewery” was not specific enough. It wasn’t. The cab driver eventually just pulled up nearby central Freising, pointed, muttered something in German, and kicked us out of the cab. Armed only with a printed out Google Map, as the now indispensable Google Map App was still a few years away from being as helpful as it is now, we ventured forward. To my delight, we came across a sign pointing the way to Weihenstephan… well… kind of. Actually, as if out of some cartoon comedy, the signpost had an absurd number of arrows and had at least one labed “Weihenstephan” pointing in each possible direction. Looking back on this now, and having done subsequent research, it turns out that “Weihenstephaner” is the name of an area within Freising, with at least 6 different streets, a number of different buildings, restaurants, and even a university baring its name. I think I got into the cab at the airport and basically said the equivalent of, “take me to the University here in Austin”, while needing to find a specific building.
So, we picked a random direction and started walking. We came across a promising sign, indicating that we were indeed close to a place that made beer. However, after getting lost again and with some increasing frustration, we decided to stop and eat at a café we stumbled across to both get a little food in us and to ask for help. The nice waitress pointed us in what we hoped was the right direction and we were off again. On the long and arduously steep hike up toward what we optimistically thought would be, at last, the brewery, we stumbled upon a beautiful garden with a sensational view across the countryside. There was a little sitting area wrapped around a beautiful, giant tree so despite our tired legs we decided to walk over to the edge of the bluff and take a few pictures. In an unexpected, magical moment, we spotted what looked like a piece of folded up paper sticking out of the tree. Yes, it appeared we found a love letter hidden in a tree on a hilltop overlooking the beautiful garden and view.
I still remember the look of wonder on my wife’s face when she figured out what she had discovered, no doubt further romanticized after years of faithful Hallmark movie viewing. It wasn’t fully concealed, but it was covertly placed in a way that made it very difficult to notice or find even if you were looking for it. The letter was hand written in German so we were not able to decipher who it was to or what it was about, but the idea that we stumbled across a letter left in a secret place was incredible – albeit somewhat exaggerated given that we already had a bit of a daytime buzz from having a couple of beers at the café. As much as we wanted to keep it, we figured it to be bad karma to rob this fairy tale looking tree of its mystery letter. So, we took a picture of it in case we ever wanted to have someone that can speak German translate it for us, and then folded it up and carefully returned it to its original spot.
Our moment of euphoria quickly waned as we came over the top of the hill to find brewery-type buildings and brewery-type smells but with closed doors, shuttered windows and a sign indicating the tours were not given on Monday’s (today). There wasn’t another person around anywhere, we were alone at a closed brewery in the middle of a small town nearby the airport for our last day in Germany…we were bummed. We were tired from the hill, dejected at the time investment we made with no pay-off and all-in-all a little cranky. We begrudgingly continued on for some unknown reason and then I spotted what looked like outside chairs and picnic tables. We approached just because we had nothing else to do, and we were rewarded with a beautiful outside beer garden with beautiful German architecture, big trees, a cozy vibe, and spectacular views. The only problem was, again, the shutters were closed. We leaned on the handrail looking out over the sun just beginning to shine more of an evening shade of light over the Bavarian hillside and wondered silently what might have been. We even commented that at least we got to see the view, even if we didn’t get to try the beer.
Then, just as we were deciding to walk back into town to try to find a cab, we heard something. We spun around to see shades flying up and shutters opening and freshly washed liter beer glasses being stacked on the counter. As I said before, we were lucky. While the brewery was closed for tours that day, and while the hours were limited, the beer garden was opening up for just a few precious hours for the evening. If the cab driver knew where to take us, if we hadn’t gotten lost, if we hadn’t stopped for food and directions, and if we hadn’t been distracted by the letter in the garden, we would’ve found this place too soon and left without having the experience we were about to enjoy. We promptly ordered a couple of liters and at the last second I grabbed a piece of cured sausage hanging from a wooden display right at the register. The lovely and friendly German women acknowledged my selection and added that the sausage was made by a local specialist and was the absolute best. Having just made it through two weeks in Germany in Austria trying every bratwurst, sausage, and general cured meat product I could find, I smiled and said something nice to acknowledge her comment, but I was silently skeptical.
Now, everything you’ve read up to this point has likely led you to believe that this experience is centered around the quest to find Weihenstephaner, and how we fell backwards into a beautiful walk, a garden viewpoint, a mystery letter, and a pilgrimage worthy beer garden. While all of those inarguably contributed to the memory and the wonderful afternoon, the true star of this story and the experience that I yearn to have again, and yet the one I’d be least likely to duplicate is (dramatic pause): that piece of sausage. I can’t explain it, I can’t describe it, other than to say that I still remember the shock I felt from my taste buds when I first bit down and realized what was happening. It was like being told your entire life that Bud Light was beer and then stumbling onto a Guinness on draught. They say you don’t want to know how sausage is made, but in this case, I wouldn’t care. There is no part of an animal I couldn’t watch get pressed into a casing that would prevent me from eating this masterpiece. I actually took some to go, and ended up stuffing my face with it at 5am in the morning before our flight knowing I couldn’t take it with us but not being able to bring myself to unceremoniously leave it in the trash can of our hotel room.
While I obviously don’t know if that sausage is still being served there, I will back track a little and emphasize that visiting the Braustuberl Weihenstephan, regardless of the sausage availability, is absolutely worth a half-day trip from Munich or visiting the evening before an early flight if you’re staying at the Munich airport. The beer is phenomenal. They’ve only been making their beer the same way there for something like 1000 years, so it’s safe to say they’ve got it down. Further, if you’ve had Weihenstephaner in the states, but you haven’t had it here, it’s simply not the same beverage…not even close. It’s hard to beat a good beer buzz on a beautiful afternoon while on vacation, but getting that beer buzz at a remote beer garden in a small village in Germany drinking a beer recipe that’s 1000 years old, well, that’s why we travel.
While I doubt anyone can randomly recreate all the adventures we had finding the Weihenstephan beer garden, it’s worth finding one way or another. I’d recommend parking in the very convenient parking lot just below the beer garden and then focusing on the beer, the view, the atmosphere, the history, and, if you’re lucky, the sausage. That said, if you’re there, go take a look for the tree in the garden.
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I love Shea’s face as she tries to make sense of the letter found in a tree…