When I was an elementary school student in Minneapolis, German was a required subject. It was a German part of the country, though not as German as neighboring Wisconsin. Twice a week, as part of our lessons, we filed into the language-resources room and sang a song about the Hofbräuhaus:
In München stet das Hofbräuhaus
Eins, Zwei, G’Zupfe!
In Munich stands the Hofbräuhaus
One, two, down the hatch!
It was something of a joke on the part of our teachers that they were making eight-year-olds sing a German drinking song. At least it impressed upon our young minds the idea that a venerable institution called Hofbräuhaus existed in Munich, Germany. Its importance in our imaginations only increased as we, growing older, learned more details.
Throughout the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, the water available throughout Europe was fantastically polluted, and served as a vector for many deadly diseases, not limited to cholera, typhoid, and dysentery. Accordingly, everyone drank beer instead. But by the late 16th century, beer had a bad reputation due to frequent adulteration with inferior and even toxic ingredients.
Into the breach jumped Wilhelm V, Duke of Bavaria, who had been asked by the city fathers of Munich to establish a brewery where the wholesomeness of the product could be guaranteed. The new brewery lurched into action in 1592 in the city’s old courts building. The only beer produced at that time at the company to be called Hofbräu was brown ale.
While the brown ale was brewed with barley, the duke’s successor to the dukedom, Maximilian I, preferred lighter wheat beers, and he promptly ordered the brewery to make them. He also decreed that Hofbräu would have a monopoly on making wheat beers. By 1605, the facility was producing 38,000 gallons of beer per annum, and couldn’t keep up with the demand. By 1607, a new, larger building had been constructed to house the brewing operations.
Maximilian I also decreed that beer be marketed to the masses, where before it had mainly been served to the well-off. By 1614, the brewery began making a darker, stronger beer called maibock. As the story goes, when Sweden occupied Bavaria during the Thirty Years’ War, the city of Munich was able to prevent its own pillaging by promising the Scandinavians 1,000 gallons of bock — the very beer I most enjoyed on my visits to Manhattan’s new Hofbräu Bierhaus. I was not as easily bought off as the Swedish soldiers.
In 1828, amid much fanfare, the brewery was opened to the public as Hofbräuhaus, and the idea of drinking beer on the premises where it was produced on a large scale became a common idea. As nearly every beer fancier knows, in the case of most brews: the fresher the beer, the better the taste.
Other milestones followed: The operations of the brewery and mega-tavern were taken over by the State of Bavaria in 1852. In 1896, the brewing operations were moved to another site, and the old building was turned over completely to beer drinking. The next year the building was demolished, and a bigger and more modern indoor and outdoor beer garden was built (the place in the Adolf Hitler painting).
In 1935, the song my fellow students and I had sung in Minneapolis was penned by Wiga Gabriel, with words by Wilhelm Gebauer. It was an instant hit, and sheet music sold briskly. The following October, during Oktoberfest, it became a permanent fixture of the festivities at Hofbräuhaus, and other beer gardens in the city.
The Hofbräuhaus was almost entirely demolished during three Allied bombing raids in 1944. By 1958, a new Hofbräuhaus had been built, a place large enough to exploit the tourist hordes who descended on Munich every October. The place had a very ambitious restaurant, and the stove installed there — 90 feet in length — was said to be the largest in the world.
Over the years, the beer garden had many famous guests. Mozart was a habitué in the 18th century, and claimed to have written the opera Idomeneo there. In the early 20th century, Vladimir Lenin was a regular. Hofbräuhaus served as the headquarters of the Bavarian Communist Party soon thereafter. In fact, it was a great center of fervent political debate in the years leading up to World War II.
The early organization of the Nazi Party occurred there (Adolf Hitler painted a famous picture of the place), and, Sue Kovach Shuman suggests in a Washington Post travel piece, the first violent attacks on Jews took place there. The entry also suggests that apart from staging his speeches and organizing rallies there, Hitler wasn’t very fond of the place — he never touched a drop of alcohol, and was a notorious vegetarian, proving that not all vegetarians are virtuous.
Later visitors have included many Americans: John F. Kennedy, Louis Armstrong, Thomas Wolfe, and George H.W. Bush among them.
The modern structure is said to have an area of 33,000 square feet, making it one of the largest dining and drinking facilities in the world, and it has an ambitious restaurant that puts the food offerings of our own Hofbräu Bierhaus to shame. A cursory glance at the current online menu shows such dishes as sweetbreads, milt (salmon semen) sausage, cheese spatzle, veal ragout, and roast suckling pig.
Perhaps most surprising of all: The offerings of Hofbräuhaus are not limited to beer, but include several types of wine, too. Making our own version seem merely like a vehicle for marketing Hofbräu beers.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 27, 2011