After two months of lockdown, Germany, along with some other European nations, has begun to cautiously ease up its social distancing restrictions. Last weekend, Bundesliga players donned their uniforms to play before empty stadiums. Restaurants around the country began to welcome customers. While there’s still no word as to when bars and beer halls will be allowed to reopen, on May 15, Berlin’s beer gardens were allowed to begin pouring again. Although Bavaria is one of the regions hardest hit by COVID-19, Munich’s 200-plus beer gardens followed suit on May 18.
Germany may not have a monopoly on beer gardens, but no other country on Earth does them better. The tradition dates back to 1812, when Maximilian I, the first king of Bavaria, decreed that brewers could sell beer and bread outside of their cellars. Many of the country's grandest beer gardens are almost as old as the law itself. Augustiner-Keller in Munich has been proudly serving patrons since 1812, while Prater Garten, Berlin’s oldest, dates back to 1837 and has retained its charm through two World Wars and the GDR.
Personally, beer gardens are what I love most about the drinking culture here. Far from the rowdy, debauched spectacle of Oktoberfest, Biergärten are the ultimate community spaces. Everyone, young and old, is welcome. The Weissbier is cold and reasonably priced. The pretzels are enormous and in Bavaria, you have a legal right to bring your own picnic.
For most locals, the beer gardens represent a welcome return to some semblance of normalcy. On Monday, I rode my bike over to Café am Neuen See. Situated by a lake in the center of Tiergarten, the sprawling urban park in West Berlin, the beer garden is both one of the largest and best-known in the city. A handful of locals were sitting on the sun-dappled benches, nursing their first professionally poured lagers in a long time.
“I’ve been coming to this place for nearly 20 years. It’s just very special,” Markus, a German in his late fifties, told me over a cold mug of Hefeweizen. “It’s strange, I can’t even remember the last time I was in a restaurant or a bar. I think it will be a while before I sit down inside a restaurant again, but here in the open air I feel safer.”
Like many of the other customers on that day, Markus said he had opted not to visit on the weekend, for fear of crowds. At present, there are fewer than 600 active cases of COVID-19 in Berlin. The German government has been testing aggressively for the virus since February and currently performs more than 140,000 tests daily, in addition to a system of contact tracing. The curve has flattened and the hospitals have retained enough capacity to treat other patients from neighboring EU nations. Nevertheless, epidemiologists maintain that vigilance is still necessary and worry about Germany’s recent surge of anti-lockdown protests based around unfounded conspiracy theories.
Where we would normally have 1,000 seats, we now have less than 500. That makes it difficult, but we’d rather start slow and get our game right.”
Despite the lingering health concerns, the economic and social pressure to reopen the beer gardens is enormous. Earlier this year, the German government canceled Oktoberfest for the first time since World War II, causing a great deal of hand-wringing among brewers. And like all restaurants and other hospitality businesses, beer gardens have already paid a hefty price for the lockdown.
“We went through the Christmas season, then all of a sudden, we closed everything down in March,” said Sven Richnow, the general manager at Café am Neuen See. “It’s been quite a challenge to stay afloat through those two months and keep everybody on the payroll. The lockdown was difficult but, here we are.”
A self-described born-and-raised Berliner, Richnow has a special affinity for Café am Neuen See. After working abroad for three decades, he returned home last year to oversee the beer garden’s expansion. Once completed, the beer garden will feature around 1,600 seats. While the renovation is still underway, the onset of COVID-19 put many of Richnow’s plans on hold. He’s eager to see the beer garden coming back to life.
“I’m 56 today and I’ve been coming here since I was 15. I remember sitting here with my grandmother having a piece of cake,” Richnow says. “Forty-one years later, I’m here running the place and we keep on going.”
That’s not to say that everything in the beer garden is as it was. Until the arrival of a vaccine, social distancing will be the norm in Germany’s gastronomic establishments. While masks for customers are not compulsory, restaurants are doing their best to maintain a minimum distance of 1.5 meters between parties, in some cases employing usual tactics such as pool noodle hats to enforce the rules.
In the end, we’re still Germans and that means we’re disciplined. We like to follow rules. I'm optimistic that we'll recover.”
In order to comply with the rules, Richnow says they’ve reduced the number of seats in the beer garden. Tables are spaced 1.5 meters apart, with the measurements marked on the ground with tape. Staff wear masks and serve pretzels, sausages, and thin-crust pizzas from behind a plexiglass shield. In the near future, additional plexiglass barriers will be set up on the tables in order to separate parties.
“Where we would normally have 1,000 seats, we now have not even 500. That makes it difficult when we get really busy,” Richnow says. “We’d rather start slow and get our game right than be hit by 2,000 guests who are desperate for a beer in the sun.”
Ultimately, the overall safety of the environment rests largely on the guests. Richnow says that rather than keeping an eye on whether certain patrons are getting too drunk, his main challenge is to politely ask large groups to follow the social distancing guidelines. For the most part, he says guests have been respectful.
“In the end, we’re still Germans and that means we’re disciplined. We like to follow rules,” he says with a laugh. “I’m optimistic. It’s difficult, because we’re in an area that is popular with tourists. We will most likely miss our American friends this year, but I remain hopeful that we will recover.”
At the opposite end of the spectrum, BRLO BRWHOUSE, one of Berlin’s newest beer gardens, also opened their outdoor space on Friday. Unlike its more traditional German counterparts, the tap list here typically includes German-style IPAs and pale ales from BRLO’s craft brewery and the kitchen specializes in vegetable-forward dishes like a vadouvan-dusted, whole roasted cauliflower. Repurposed shipping containers stand in for the usual wooden decor.
“We put a lot of thought into this space. It’s really a contemporary interpretation of a beer garden,” says Katharina Kurz, co-founder at BRLO. “Craft beer is such a small share of the market in Germany, so we really wanted to create a welcoming place to introduce more people to the culture surrounding it.”
In order to keep the business going, BRLO pivoted to offering delivery service almost overnight. While the added revenue helped the brewery survive, Kurz says the lockdown has been hard for the whole team. Although the beer garden is back in business, they’ve opted to keep their indoor restaurant closed for the time being.
“We basically removed more than half of our seats and tables in the beer garden,” Kurz says. “In Berlin, all the restrictions were not expressed super clearly. A lot of gastronomers are in WhatsApp groups and email chains asking each other, ‘Do you know what’s going on?’”
Kurz worries about what the reduced capacity will mean for the business, but she’s relieved to be able to safely welcome customers back. Beer gardens, regardless of what form they take, are an essential part of the social fabric of the city.
“One thing that was nice to see was that the guests were super respectful about the restrictions. They appreciate the effort that’s put into it with distancing the tables and hygiene,” Kurz says. “We’re really fortunate to have this lovely outdoor space. At some point, I hope we can have that bustling atmosphere back, but for now, I’m just happy to be open again."