Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Mathaser, Munich and the summer of '87 with the lads.

These are holy days in the pantheon of the Curmudgeon’s beer travels, for it was on July 16, 17 and 18, 1987, that I was joined in Munich by Bob Gunn, Barrie Ottersbach and my cousin Don Barry for three nights of Bavarian bacchanalia.

The stories have been suitably embellished over the decades. There was my episode of disgruntlement at having to leave a beer hall at an hour I considered to be far too early, and a stern worker’s gentle suggestion to take the argument elsewhere. There was Don’s rising from the bench to tell us that he’d had enough and was returning to his hotel … except that his lips never moved and no sound was emitted in spite of his recollections of prime oratory. There were liter steins of beer, various and sundry sausages, Deutschmarks and Pfennigs, aspects of unfathomable etiquette that became second nature before the last glass was poured, and a constant flow of conversation, information and education.

To me, it remains remarkable that we coordinated our arrivals so well. While making plans to meet friends in Munich in order to partake of the city’s bountiful beer and pig flesh wasn’t such an unprecedented feat, and we’ve managed to do it many times since, considering the circumstances at the time and our relative inexperience traveling, the manner by which our scheme came to fruition still elicits a smile.

Knowing that we all would be in Europe during the summer of 1987, detailed planning began over the Christmas holidays in 1986. Barrie and I had booked a two-week tour of the Soviet Union and proposed to approach Munich by rail from Prague. Bob, who was on his first trip to the continent, and Don, who had been many times, had devised detailed itineraries, and both would be arriving in Munich on the same day, but from different directions. As was his habit, Don booked a single room at a favorite haunt, while the rest of us made reservations together in a triple at another hotel somewhat near the Munich train station.

We knew what day to be there and where we’d be staying, and yet in those far-off and primitive times, lacking e-mail and mobile phones, and with each member of the quartet having been traveling for quite some time before the projected Munich gathering, a considerable element of uncertainty was palpable. In essence, could we remain sufficiently sober, avoid unexpected transportation delays, and show up on time, and where we were supposed to be?

Happily, it went off without a hitch. Barrie and I arrived at the Hauptbahnhof and found Don idling with beer in hand at the fabled Track 16 Imbiss, and after enjoying a few Pschorrbraus and portions of Leberkase, we ran into Bob at the hotel.

Admittedly, iad I known then what I know now, we’d have avoided Munich entirely and gone instead to Bamberg, but given our remedial state of beer knowledge, it’s likely that the choice of Munich was all for the best. We might not have fully grasped Rauchbier and Kellerbier.

The city’s brewery consolidations had already started to diminish historical distinctions, although international corporate investors had yet to appear as they have in recent years. The future could be glimpsed, but at the same time old ways seemed to persist, and these traditions can be pleasing so long as it is remembered that much of what Americans know about Germany actually pertains to Bavaria, and much of what they know about Bavaria actually applies to Munich alone.

For example, “beer halls” in the sense of the Hofbrauhaus do not exist in matching scale outside the city. In 1987, a beer hall larger than the Hofbrauhaus was our home away from home for two glorious evenings: Mathaser Bierstadt, which was tied to Lowenbrau. It was cavernous, filled with nooks and byways and various banquet rooms and snugs, and decidedly grittier than the Hofbrauhaus – no less attractive for tourists, but rowdy and with an earthier composition of native barfly.

These many years later, what I’ve taken away from three Munich nights in July isn’t capable of being detailed. That I experienced it with wide eyes and a sense of wonderment cannot be doubted. For a beer- and history-loving Hoosier just shy of his 27th birthday, roaming Europe for the second time, Munich was the epitome. It was Disneyland with ubiquitous mugs of foamy lager and all the sauerkraut and potatoes one cared to eat.

Unfortunately, the Mathaser perished, and the site is now an ultra-modern cinema and entertainment complex. The last time I was there was in 1995, and even then the beer hall seemed exhausted. Dubbed American movies probably are showing now, and outside, you’ll see imported Miller and Corona throughout the city. The old brands aren’t the same, at least to me. Oktoberfests have become golden, and all beer tastes steadily colder on each trip. There is a Hofbrauhaus franchise in Newport, Kentucky.

Fond memories, indeed, and now increasingly balanced by melancholy.

7 comments:

DYLANESQ said...

Beautifully written, I share your sentimentstotally and with equakl sadness. In the winter of '62-'63 while working in the banquethall and night club at the Hotel Bayerischerhof, the Mathaser ( I agree with that spelling too)was THE BEST.

My daughter, Meghan , is about to embark on a trip to Munich...here is what I wrote her today July 29.09...
Your upcoming trip to Germany is bringing back some pretty strong memories, one of which unleashed a flood of emotion when I just discovered, a few minutes ago, that my alltime favorite Beer Hall in Minuch, the Mathaeser [ which used to be a stone's throw from the main station (Hauptbahnhof) and the main traffic circle , Karlsplatz ( colloquially known to us locals as Staccus)] has been torn apart and has become a modern, artificial multiplex cinema and urban bar/restaurant center.

That is a fucking crime.

Meg, this breaks my heart and I'm crying as I write this and knock back a couple of Labatts Blues, saddened that a place which was so central to my experience in Munich has been so abused and all I am left with is my memories of so many wonderful wild nights there with my best friend, Andy Gardiner (who was to die, almost appropriately, a few years later in a late night, post pubbing car crash near Cambridge, UK).

The Mathaeser was a HUGE..and I mean massive open beer hall ( held 3000+) with a boxing ring type stage in the middle on which performed various wonderful oompahpah bands with their 'blasmusik' ...I can hear them now..."Heute blau und morgen blau und oooooooooober...morgen wiederrrrr!!!" ( "Sad today and tomorrow sad too and the day after all over again !!" ...perfect to sing when you are half wasted on huge steins of frothy beer straight 'vom foss' (from the spring or barrel) interspersed with shots of schnapps dispensed by hefty aproned waitresses with an aluminum bucket full of ice containing a bottle or two of schnapps over their muscled arm. In the same hand they held a tray of shot glasses. They just wandered through the crowd pouring shots which we sometimes just dropped into our steins, glass and all, depthcharge style. (A depthcharge was a mine dropped on submarines in WW2..when it reached a certain depth it exploded, hopefully on top of a German submarine.Those schnapps 'charges' were pretty devastating too !!)

All the while while singing lusty (lustiger) German beer drinking songs, arms locked with those of complete strangers and rocking rhythmically back and forth, row-the-boat style, on the benches on which we all sat, twelve to a table.

Then, if you were hungry you could retire to one of many satellite rooms off the main hall which served 'eintopf' of wonderfully tasty linzensuppe (lentil soup) served with semmeln (rolls with sesame seeds), soup guaranteed to make you fart for a week.

Oh Meg, those were great times. We were so broke but managed to have such memorable times.

The Mathaeser's ( pronounced mattayser) rival was the Hofbrauhaus....after which the famous song was sung...

In München steht ein Hofbräuhaus (Hofbroyhouse)
Eins, zwei, g'suffa ...(pronounced zuffah)
Da läuft ( loyft) so manches Fäßchen ( fessschen) aus:
Eins, zwei, g'suffa ...

translated....

In Munich is the Hoffbrau pub--
One, two, drink up!!
So many kegs flowed out of it
One, two, drink up!!!


To us it never rivalled the wildness of the Mathaeser. Hitler spoke here and you could feel, even in 1962/3, an undercurrent of angry, cold, nastiness, a sopposed to the Mathaeser's good old German friendly spirit (gemütlichkeit = gemootlichkite)

But, today it is all that is left and the service sucks and they steal your change if you aren't careful but it is still a must in Munich.

Prost !!!

The New Albanian said...

Many thanks for that. Ironically, I stayed at the Bayerischerhof the first time I ever visited Munich.

I am going to reprint your response as a marquee post if you have no objections.

paul481 said...

Thanks for your reminiscences of the Mathäser Bierstadt which also left me with a feeling of melancholy for great times gone forever.

I caught the overnight train from London to Munich in the summer of 75 looking for a holiday job. Having spent all the first day in a fruitless search for work, I was heading along Bayerstrasse back to the Hauptbahnhof to collect my stuff in anticipation of having to sleep in the park for the night when I tried one last time at the hotel right next to the Mathäser, Hotel Stachus. It worked and I got a bellboy/washer-up/night porter/general dogsbody job for the summer.

My duties basically consisted of anything nobody else wanted to do, such as washing up for breakfast. Now, standing over a hot, steaming sink at 7.30 am on a warm summer’s morning washing up for 150 Swedes may not sound like a lot of fun, but the perk of the job was the handily-placed fridge, packed with deliciously cold half-litre bottles of Löwenbräu. I have not drunk beer at that time of day before or since, but never has the golden nectar tasted so sweet or slipped down so effortlessly and however much I drank, I never felt drunk because I was sweating so much from the hot kitchen it just seemed to go straight through the system. This was going to be a great job.

The Mathäser was a constant presence. It was so close you could see into it at the back because the kitchen windows of the hotel looked straight down onto it. The oompah bands were generally audible in the background at most times of the day and night, and even during the hours when it was closed there was always activity or movement of some sort going on and the place seemed to be reassuringly alive and breathing even if it was now at rest, like a friendly giant slumbering in the background.

As you would expect, the Mathäser had a huge kitchen (or apparently five kitchens: http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mathäser ). Whenever a large party arrived at short notice and the hotel was short of food, I would be sent round from the hotel to pick up a few hundred frozen Schnitzel. The head chef knew me and would just add a couple of ticks to the slate as I staggered out under the load, a mere drop in the ocean of the vast quantity of supplies at his disposal. I think they must have brewed beer on site as well, because on warm, slightly damp mornings the streets around the back were always filled with that wonderful smell of brewing hops.

There were plenty of other large beer-halls and beer-gardens in Munich, usually displaying the arms of the brewery to which they were attached: Spaten, Paulaner, Franziskaner, Hacker-Pschorr come to mind and I selflessly devoted many hours to a thorough investigation of the particular qualities of each of their different brews: Pils, Export, Export Dunkel (always my favourite but you don’t seem to be able to get it now, not the same stuff anyway) and so on.

But none had the all-encompassing warmth and down-to-earth openness of the Mathäser. You walked in and it was always busy and unaffected: all life seemed to be there simply enjoying itself and to have been there enjoying itself for eternity, like a timeless tavern scene painted by one of the Dutch masters. But after a moment’s surprised contemplation, you realised that all you had to do was find a small space in those vast, cavernous rooms, sit down and get the Fräulein to bring you the first Maß, and you became a part of that eternal scene yourself.

The Mathäser was not sophisticated, but it was genuine, and it is indeed a tragedy that it has been replaced by a soulless, glass-and-aluminium ‘entertainment’ complex, where the closest you can get to a decent drop is a miniscule amount of beer served in a champagne glass at some frigging café. They don’t know what they’re missing…

Eddie said...

Thank you for your wonderful memories and for stirring my own deeply felt memories of youth. On my nineteenth birthday, a Sunday in June 1968, I found the Mathaeser Bierstadt of Munich by accident. Walking on the street outside with my buddy, a fellow soldier from the 24th Infantry Divion, we entered an alcove, drawn by the wonderful smells of cooking sausage. Then, from somewhere, I heard music. We explored further, up a staircase and opened two huge doors--and there it was--beer-drinkers heaven. It was 11AM on a Sunday morning and there were two thousand people in the place! DRINKING BEER! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! We were two dopey kids, but we stumbled upon one of the greatest beer-drinking joints in the world! And I love beer. For the next yesr, it became my favorite place in Munich, our home away from home. We would take the #6 trolley to Karlsplatz, walk toward the Hauptbahnhof and there we were. It was, at one time, in the Guiness Book of Records. More beer was served in that building, in one year, than anywhere in the world. Everything the previous posters wrote was right-on about the place. I have the warmest of memories the place of how kind the people treated a young soldier. I can't believe it's gone. That makes me very sad. Again-thank you for the memories.

The New Albanian said...

I want to thank you all again. I never imagined opening the Pandora's Box of these great memories, but damn, I'm sure glad I did.

Jim Hardie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jim Hardie said...

My partner and I lived and worked in Munich in '78-79. The Mathäser was our favourite watering hole by a country mile and believe me we sampled a few! Saturday nights at the Mathäser were always packed with incident. It was a place that you felt was steeped in history, very down to earth and REAL compared with the tourist traps. We were so happy that on a visit ten years later very little had changed and we naively expected it to be ever thus. I only found out its fate today (April '11) after a search on Google Earth/Streetview. We are devastated that it has gone. I thought that Müncheners of all people were a breed that valued what they had.
So sad