From the corner of my eye, I could see that the man to my left was gesturing to me. I looked over at him – a stereotypically beefy German guy – and watched him point to his seat, which was also my seat as we were sharing a bench. He said something in a foreign language, I smiled, and returned to my pretzels and beer. And then the guy stood up and I went flying.
What the man was trying to convey was a rule straight out of Beer Gardens 101: When two people sit on opposite ends of a bench and one gets up, the other will go flying lest he prepare himself.
We were in Munich, the beer-garden capital of the world, but the rules apply anywhere. And that's good news because Cleveland is well on its way to becoming the beer-garden capital of the Midwest.
When Sterle's Country House added a beer garden, it was breaking with 60 years of tradition. Older generations of Americans, perhaps, didn't appreciate the unabashed pleasures of drinking cold beer out of doors with friends and friends-to-be. But new owner Rick Semersky knows that this generation fully recognizes the bliss that comes with spending quality time on a beer garden.
Sterle's joins Market Garden Brewery, Great Lakes Brewing, Tremont Tap House, Barking Spider and Nano Brew as some of Cleveland's best beer-themed perches. Those places will have company when Hansa House in Ohio City completes its brewery and, if word on the street is correct, Hofbräuhaus rolls out the barrels.
We say, the more the merrier, because all anybody really needs to know can be learned in a beer garden.
Learn to Share
Picnic tables with benches are the only proper seating choice at beer gardens – and you don't get them all to yourself. Instead, ask to join those already seated at a table, or better yet, invite others to join you at yours. And when it's time to get up, warn the person on the other end of the bench.
Make Nice with Strangers
Sharing tables (see above) with strangers unavoidably leads to conversation with strangers, which ultimately leads to those strangers no longer being strangers. Drinking beer is nice, but making new acquaintances while drinking beer is even nicer. So toast with tablemates early and often.
In Germany, biergartens sell three varieties of one brand on beer. Go to Lowenbraukeller, for example, and you'll enjoy that brewery's helles (regular), weizen (wheat) and dunkel (dark). While there's nothing wrong with choice, too many options can lead to anxiety and stress, emotions nobody needs to experience at a beer garden. That's why we're huge fans of the concise beer menu.
At the beer garden, service is slow to nonexistent: the rambling layout and loose seating arrangement all but suspends the traditional style of waiter service. Guests go to the beer as opposed to the other way around. The next time you fly, why not pick up a round for your tablemates – even those you just met. Magnanimousness is a wonderful thing.
Eat, But Not Too Much
Drinking beer by the liter is one of life's sweetest endeavors, but it doesn't leave a whole lotta room in the belly for food. No sweat: There's never much food at the beer garden anyway, just fresh-baked pretzels, radishes with salt, some bratwurst and mustard. It's wise to nosh a little here and there so you can keep on drinking beer by the liter.
Have a Little Fun
True Bavarian pretzels are huge, like big-as-your-head huge. So naturally, they are shared (see above). To make the splitting process a little fun, friends "wish on a pretzel," each taking hold of one side and pulling. Whoever ends up with the larger half gets his or her wish – and more pretzel! What we call a win-win.
Less Sometimes is More
Drinking beer by the liter is great fun, naturally. But let's be honest: after five or six, we start to feel a little full. That doesn't stop those beer-loving Bavarians, who just switch to a smaller vessel. There's the half-liter, of course. And then there's the schnitt, a wee portion of beer and foam that's just enough to keep the party moving. We prefer the Austrian term for it, pfiff, which translates to "whistle wetter."
Every Bavarian beer garden is shaded by a dense canopy of horse chestnut trees. The trees were planted centuries ago as a form of passive air conditioning, with the broad umbrella-like leaves shading the subterranean beer cellars. These days, the trees provide some much-appreciated relief from the hot summer sun. Our beer gardens don't have 200-year-old horse chestnut trees, so wear sunscreen.