Ethan Fixell

On a recent trip to Germany -- destination Oktoberfest -- I found myself sitting at a long wooden table inside Gasthaus Fraundorfer, an authentic Bavarian restaurant in the mountain village of Garmisch-Partenkirchen. As is my usual tendency at breweries and beer bars in my hometown of Denver, Colorado, I casually asked the English-speaking server to tell me about the beers on the menu: Pointing at the list of helles, weisses, and dunkels, I implored him to describe the options. He looked at me as if I’d asked him to describe the embroidery on his lederhosen. Then he grinned, lifted his arms toward the ceiling, and said, "It’s German beer! It all tastes like heaven.”

Hyperbole or not, I'm tempted to argue that most people I encountered on my trip shared his opinion.

Drinking beer in Germany is part culture, part history, and part joy -- whether or not you drink alcohol. (Case in point: just about every menu I came across listed an alkoholfrei or “alcohol-free” option.) This seems to be especially true during Oktoberfest, the two-week celebration for which people from all over the world gather in Munich, don traditional lederhosen and dirndls, and revel in the celebration of food, people, and German beer.

I may not be German -- but after sampling more than a few Bavarian brews, I now have plenty of pointers for drinking like one.

Go big or go home

credits:"Monica Parpal Stockbridge" align:right width:300

Drinking beer by the pint is as American as McDonald’s, apple pie, baseball, or eating McDonald’s Apple Pies while watching baseball. But in Germany, you order beer by the liter, which is more than double your usual order at a bar (there are 2.11 pints per liter, to be exact). Still, a restaurant may serve beers in 1-liter, half-liter, or .3-liter glasses. If you’re extremely thirsty, then go for the 2- or 3-liter boots. The smallest option may be a 1-liter mug. But since you’re drinking like a German, you’ll take that down, no problem.

Note: Other than the can of Warsteiner you might drink on the flight over, canned beer seems a little harder to come by. Bottled beers are more common, but ordering from the tap, or vom fass (“from the handle”) is your best bet for the freshest brew.

Order locally and seasonally

There are about 1,300 breweries in Germany (compared to 5,300 in the United States) and plenty of opportunities to order like a local, which means avoiding imports and drinking near the source. Just like in the United States, certain big names dominate the scene -- Hofbräu, Ayinger, and Paulaner, for example. But wherever you go, there will be local breweries and brews to discover. If you unexpectedly find a pub on top of a mountain, and they point out the local brew, drink that one.
credits:"Monica Parpal Stockbridge" align:center width:800

Also be sure to drink within the season. One server told me that in the fall, there’s nothing better than a märzen -- a.k.a. “Oktoberfest” beer. As tradition goes, märzen beers were brewed by monks in the month of March, cellared all summer, then tapped in the fall to celebrate autumn festivals (historically, King Ludwig I’s wedding; presently, Oktoberfest). I asked, "What about maibocks?" "They’re good in May," he replied. And I’ll bet they are, with their lighter, crisper character, and dry finish. Whatever your preference, there’s really no judgment. Drinking like a German means drinking good beer all year round.

Pair food with your bier

German beers tend to fall within the 5-6% ABV range, but it’s not the alcohol that will give you a healthy buzz -- it’s the volume. You’re going to want something to pad your stomach. The good news is that German food is hearty and delicious. So you can drink like a German by...eating.

If you’re cracking a beer mid-morning, grab a few brotchen -- miniature buns that somehow pack a baguette’s worth of flavor and comfort into a few little bites -- best when fresh from the oven. For lunch, it’s all wurst, all the time, whether rotwurst (red sausage, such as a beef brat) or weisswurst (usually pork or veal sausage). Sauerkraut is wurst’s best sidekick, full of gut-healthy probiotics. (Your digestive system will thank you later.) You’ll likely find Brathendl, or half-roasted chickens, at beer festivals and traditional restaurants. If you’ve made it to dinner and still need something substantial to soak up the suds, almost nothing beats a traditional schnitzel -- pork or veal pounded thin, battered, and fried and served with lemon and senf (mustard). All of which pairs splendidly with beer, of course.

credits:"Monica Parpal Stockbridge"

Enjoy every sip

Leave joie de vivre to the French; in Germany, it’s all about lebensfreude, or “the enjoyment of living.” After all, drinking like a German is about more than just the beer: It’s about sliding over on crowded picnic tables to welcome both strangers and friends to the biergarten. It’s about the celebratory clinking of steins and the resounding calls of “Prost!” It means toasting to good health and good times, savoring each sip.

And why not? It all tastes like heaven.

credits:"Monica Parpal Stockbridge"