Every Wednesday in The Man Who Invented Beer, Nashville native Adam Cowden takes a gander at some of present-day craft beer’s finest offerings.
This week, I’m back in Chicago to celebrate the birth of my 10th sibling (no, you didn’t misread that). Fortunately, this occasion comes right on the heels of another birth: that of the Hofbräuhaus Chicago! Just recently opened in January, the German microbrewery/beer hall/restaurant is, of course, inspired by the world famous Munich original. As anyone who has had the good fortune to visit this magical place will tell you, there is no better toast to family, friendship, and life than knocking back Hofbräu beer by the liter, singing while standing on tables and smashing thick glass steins together so hard that you get a face-full of beer splashed right back into your mouth before you can say “Prost!”
What’s the story?
It’s no secret that beer is to Bavaria as freedom is to America. In old Bavaria, beer was considered a basic foodstuff (in the same category as bread), and in 1516 Duke Wilhelm IV enacted the Reinheitsgebot, known today as the “Beer Purity Law.” In addition to setting the price of beer in Bavaria, the law restricted brewers to using only three ingredients: water, hops, and barley. The existence of yeast was not yet known, though it was included de-facto in all brewing processes by means of “seeding” a new batch of brew with a small part of an old batch). Bavarian brewers and beer drinkers took such pride in these standards that they made compliance with the Beer Purity Law a precondition of German Unification in 1871. Until being superseded by the Provisional German Beer Law (the Biergesetz) in the 1990s, it was widely considered the first and longest-running food quality legislation in the world. Though the new Provisional German Beer Law allows for certain additives and extra ingredients, most Bavarian brewers still take great pride in claiming compliance with the Reinheitsgebot, even though the inclusion of yeast in their brewing process means that they are not, strictly speaking, compliant with the original law.
The story of the Hofbräuhaus begins shortly after this. Late-16th-century Duke of Bavaria Wilhelm V, like Wilhelm IV before him, was picky about his beer. He, along with the members of his royal household, loved to party, but were dissatisfied with the quality of beer in their city of Munich. Wilhelm commissioned his chamberlain and counselors to solve this issue, and they came up with a simple solution: let’s brew our own beer! Excited, Wilhelm recruited the master brewer at a nearby monastery, Heimeran Pongraz, to begin planning what would later become the Hof (court)–bräuhaus (brewery).
Over the next few centuries, the role of the ducal brewery was to expand far beyond the royal household. Wilhelm’s heir Maximilian, disliking the dark beer produced at his father’s brewery, commissioned the Hofbräuhaus to produce Weissbier (wheat beer). Since brewing using wheat was forbidden by the Reinheitsgebot, the Hofbräuhaus‘ ability to produce Weissbier was an exclusive ducal privilege. The Hofbräu Weissbier proved so popular that in 1610, Maximilian legalized it for sale to common-folk in Munich’s taverns. The demand for the royal beer continued to grow steadily over the next 200 years, especially after Prince Ludwig’s marriage to Theresa of Saxony in 1810 inaugurated the Oktoberfest celebration that still takes place today. Ludwig, responding to complaints that common folk would like to be able to enjoy Hofbräu beer, later commissioned the Hofbräuhaus to publicly serve beer and food (thus launching the Hofbräuhaus as it is known today) and cut the price of a liter of the stuff from six down to five crowns.
The Hofbräuhaus survived both World Wars, though not without some significant bombing damage. Nearly 60% of the Hofbräuhaus was destroyed, but the beer hall was soon renovated and demand for Hofbräu beer continued to increase, in part due to American soldiers stationed in Munich who returned with distinctive “HB” mugs. The modern Hofbräuhaus can serve up to 30,000 patrons on a busy day, but Hofbräu beer soon began to flow beyond Munich. The first Hofbräuhaus outside of Germany opened in Melbourne, Australia in 1968, and today there are locations in Hong Kong, South Korea, Italy, and the U.S. The “Chicago” (actually, it’s in Rosemont) location is the most recent addition.
Why should I drink it?
As Munich’s foremost watering hole, the Hofbräuhaus has played host to some big names and has helped irrigate some of history’s most influential art and thought. While in Munich, Mozart lived directly across the street from the Hofbräuhaus. If a poem that he wrote entitled “Among All Cities” is to be believed, the Hofbräu beer even helped provided the brain lubricant for his composition of the opera Idomeneo:
Of all the cities in which I stayed
Made music and my instruments played
I once took up residence in Munich.
I gave a fine concert there at court,
the opera Idomeneo in 1780 there I wrote,
and often sought refreshment at the Duke’s brew house.
The beer there really pleased me
and the guests never ceased to amuse me
Anyone who’s been there would agree with me!
Lenin and his wife, who noticed that the “HB” on the Hofbräu insignia, when translated into Russian characters, abbreviated the phrase “People’s Will,” were also regular patrons of the famous beer hall while living in exile in Germany. Yes, it’s true that Hitler was also wont to host Nazi throw-downs at the Hofbräuhaus in Munich, but it’s also true that Hitler did not drink or smoke, and avoided meat when he could. Needless to say, the beer and sausages routine at the Hofbräuhaus wasn’t really his cup of tea. We can only wonder what the world could have been spared if Hitler’s “kampf” in “Mein Kampf” were a struggle with drinking rather than imaginary Jew-demons.
Finally (and take this one with several grains of salt), an additional incentive to choose to get Hofbräu-hammered is that the beer won’t give you a hangover. During my visit to Munich, I attempted (and conquered) the “Munich Beer Challenge,” which involved consuming upwards of four and a half liters of German beer over the course of a few hours. Our tour guide boldly claimed that we shouldn’t worry too much about suffering too much the next morning, because German beer, in accordance with the aforementioned purity laws, is completely free of the preservatives and additives that are so abundant in cheap American beer. I hadn’t ever heard and haven’t heard since that preservatives and additives have anything to do with hangovers, and I can confidently report that the claim that German beer will not cause any sort of hangover is false. I have to admit, though, that everyone in my group was shocked at how mild our discomfort was the next morning. I don’t know whether to thank the beer itself or simply the power of suggestion, but the hangover was not the gut-wrenching, desperation-soaked experience we all expected.
What does it taste like?
The Hofbräu brewery offers four types of regular beer, in addition to four seasonal recipes. Compared to other “craft breweries,” this might not seem like a lot of variety, but then again the Hofbräu brand cannot truly be labeled “craft.” Though it does fit the American Brewers Association’s production criteria and definition as “small, independent, and traditional,” we typically think of “craft” breweries as entities that operate in opposition to mega-brewers such as Anheuser-Busch, who offer beers designed explicitly for mass consumption. In Bavaria, however, the beer situation is much different than in America, and small bräuhauses have always and continue to be a primary means of quenching the populace’s thirst. Considering that Germany ranks 2nd in the world in terms of per capita beer consumption, this is no small task. Hofbräu beer is designed for mass consumption and for nourishment, because in Bavaria beer is considered the legal equivalent of food. (Seriously, you are allowed to enjoy a beer anywhere you can enjoy an apple.) Complaining that it doesn’t come in enough variety is like complaining that chicken doesn’t come in enough flavors.
No matter which Hofbräu variety you choose, you’re going to notice the characteristic smoothness and and clarity. The absence of extra ingredients or additives means that there are no “shortcuts” or masking; the quality of the beer has to speak for itself. There’s a great Jack White quote where he says that having all of the colors available in your palette can kill creativity. I think the Germans have adopted a similar philosophy in their brewing process; allowing only the minimum necessary ingredients forces the brewers to focus on the quality of the ingredients and the process itself. Aside from the Hefeweizen and Dunkelweizen, all Hofbräu beers are bottom-fermented lagers. The overwhelming majority of beer produced in the world today is of the lager variety. Don’t be surprised if Hofbräu’s Pale and Light Lagers taste vaguely familiar, because most of the beers that you drank in college (including Natural Light, Keystone, Miller Lite and Bud Light) were of this variety. The difference between these old, familiar friends and the Hofbräu brews is that the latter taste how the former are advertised: crisp, refreshing, and delicious. Having invented lager beer, the Germans are masters of this style, and Hofbräu Lager tastes like the beer you know and love in its purest and most unadulterated form. An exercise in cleanliness and simplicity, this stuff is meant to be enjoyed as it is traditionally served: liters at a time.
If you want something a little more complex and flavorful, I highly encourage you to try to try Hofbräu Dunkel. Closest in style to the beer originally brewed at the 16th century Hofbräuhaus, this is unquestionably my favorite offering. A dark lager, it has all of the malty sweetness and spice you would expect from a dark ale, but none of the bitterness or smokiness. It’s also not at all heavy, and you can (and probably will) gulp it down like candy-water. The Hefeweizen and Dunkelweizen, though lacking the cleanliness of the lagers, are also very good and full of the characteristic fruity, banana-like taste.
Should I try it?
Absolutely, yes. As discussed, the beer itself is excellent, pure and German-engineered to foster celebration. Yes, it might be possible to find better-tasting beer, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a beer that’s more fun to drink. Certain beers, like the Hofbräu brand, are so tied up with a sense of place, atmosphere and identity that the drinking experience cannot be entirely described by its flavor. In this case, you can really only capture the full experience if you are surrounded by friends and clutching an “HB” mug of beer topped with a full, thick head of foam, slurring and forgetting the words to “American Pie” (the default American drinking song) while wondering how many more liters your stomach can handle. It’s in virtue of this that the expensive and relatively out-of-the-way Hofbräuhaus in Rosemont deserves a visit, and in virtue of this that Hofbräu beer deserves a near-perfect rating.