This Oktoberfest marks not only another excuse to sit outside and imbibe, but a huge anniversary: the 200th anniversary of the original "biergarten." Originating in southern Germany two centuries ago, the beer garden is an outdoor venue where beer and (traditionally) German snacks are served. While some U.S. cities, particularly New York, picked up on this trend a while back, the phenomenon is rapidly spreading across the country — just in time for Germany’s largest party.
Although they now serve as a perfect leisure activity, beer gardens were born more or less out of necessity. In an age before refrigerators and sophisticated brewing systems, lagers underwent a slow, cool fermentation process, and needed to be stored and aged at even cooler temperatures for several months. The problem? A Bavarian brewing ordinance enacted in 1539, says Alexandra Schulz of Paulaner Bräuhaus (with 18 locations worldwide). The ordinance, which came after several brewery fires, restricted brewing during the winter months — causing a big problem for brewers (and drinkers) needing a cold one during the summer. So Bavarian brewers began to store their barrels of brews in underground cellars, and planted trees over them to shade the ground from the hot sun.
These storage gardens were located near rivers, which provided an extra cooling element, and all at once, Bavarians realized they had created the perfect spot in which to enjoy the finished beers. Following the 1812 act that allowed brewers to serve beer to customers on the land above their underground cellars, the biergarten was born. Brewers began to serve traditional German dishes such as schnitzel, spatzle, and sausages to accompany the frothy refreshments. With their perfect combination of food, drinks, and socialization, beer gardens became a gathering spot for German families, and thus developed beer garden culture.
Surprisingly, the first Oktoberfest precedes the 1812 ordinance that birthed the biergarten. In 1810, King Ludwig I invited the public to celebrate his marriage in front of the city's royal gates; the event might have been the first-ever "biergarten" in the sense that we know it today — crowds of people, gathered together, enjoying a pint (or three). The 179th Oktoberfest in Munich this year will bring together beer lovers from around the globe to sit back with a pint.
Expatriates began to transport the Bavarian idea of biergartens worldwide, thanks to the newfound love of wheat beer, says Schulz. Waves of immigration brought the beer garden to America, but Prohibition, along with anti-German sentiment after World War I, caused the fad to fade. Bohemian Hall & Beer Garden in Queens, N.Y., and Mecklenburg Gardens in Cincinnati, which both made our list, are noteworthy examples of historical beer gardens that survived tough times.
Now, we’re seeing the comeback of the American beer garden — in styles both traditional and modern. Some have maintained their historical roots, and these German-inspired spots keep even the hippest beer drinkers coming back for more. But others have tried to outdo the traditional competition by putting a twist on a classic concept. By vamping up the menu with more American selections and creating a different ambience, this beer garden revival brings something for everyone. "The biergarten, which has represented freedom and serenity for 200 years, simply epitomizes the way of life in Bavaria," Schulz says. "It also represents an attitude which anyone can adopt, whether old or young, rich or poor, local or from afar."
The best part is, you don’t have to go to Germany to experience Oktoberfest — or a fantastic beer garden. We’ve rounded up the best beer gardens of all varieties from around the country. Here’s how to celebrate Oktoberfest, and the 200th birthday of this beloved drinking venue, while staying close to home.
Whether historical and authentic or innovative and adapted, here’s where to enjoy some of the best beers in America in a great atmosphere. As the Germans say, Prost!