‘Listen, we’re not here to see culture. We’re here to drink beer!’ gasped a fellow journalist as our exasperated guide gestured in vain to a church in the picture perfect Bavarian town of Ingolstadt.
But while Rolf, his real name is lost in a blur of lager and pretzels, had a point – this was a beer tour after all – he’d overlooked a crucial detail. In Bavaria, beer is culture.
The golden nectar is as much a part of the southern German state’s heritage as lederhosen, sausages and fulsome frauleins in dirndls.
Great beerhouses and taverns jostle for space in towns and cities across Bavaria, from the lowlands to the Alps, crammed all year round with burly men swigging frothy brews from liter glasses, women sipping on a ‘schnitt’ of crisp and refreshing wheat beer and children gnawing on salty freshly baked pretzels.
The history of brewing in Bavaria stretches back thousands of years, with the oldest preserved malting plant and brewhouse, where beer was made by modern techniques, discovered by archeologists dating from 179 AD.
Now the state has 640 breweries, providing not only jobs and a lucrative economy, but preserving a way of life.
It also makes for one hell of a pub crawl and, surprisingly, you may find yourself going no further than Munich’s international airport arrivals.
Wedged between terminals one and two is the Air Brau, which proudly produces its very own tipple and is not only a perfect place to numb the boredom of waiting for a flight, but an ideal spot to literally soak in one of Bavaria’s cultural highlights.
With my thirst quenched and a bowl of steaming hot white sausages – a quintessential Bavarian dish – in my belly, I joined a group of other hacks, some already pie-eyed from the pre-lunch booze, others hungry for their first taste.
Saving the state capital city for later, we were eased gently into what was, essentially, a four-day binge drink.
Producing 12 types of beer, 20 types of soft drinks and 150,000 hectare litres a year, the Herrnbrau brewery in Ingolstadt dates back to 1752, but is now a thoroughly modern operation.
And considering beer is allowed during workers’ break times and employees are given an astonishing 312 bottles of the stuff a year as part of their wages – that’s more than 10 a week – it’s surprisingly smoothly run and a tour of the place makes for a fascinating introduction to the brewing process and its history in Bavaria.
With its huge glimmering tanks, barrels, kegs and foaming vats of one-day old fermenting alcohol, bubbling like giant cappuccinos, I felt like Charlie in Willy Wonka’s secret side project.
And just like the boy with the golden ticket, I was rewarded with a room full of taps, each pouring out a different beer, fresh from the source.
But the primal urge to drink from the metaphorical teets of the beer mothership is not to everyone’s tastes and on a sweltering hot summer’s day, you’ll find barely soul who isn’t cooling off with a wrist-weakening pitcher in a traditional beer garden.
In 1812, an edict was passed that allowed beer brewers to sell beer and bread to punters and gardens have since sprung up all over Bavaria, with families and friends bringing their own food and picnicking in the shade of a chestnut tree, which were traditionally planted next to breweries to cool the cellars beneath.
Boasting 53 beer gardens crammed in and around the city, Munich is understandably a Mecca for beer fans, not least because it is the site of the annual Oktoberfest, which attracts thousands of thirsty tourists every year.
As part of the state’s bicentinnial celebrations, the Beer Garden Weekend on 21 and 22 July will see gardens across the city host music, dancing and, of course, drinking and eating.
To kick off a summer of hedonistic imbiding and gluttony, we rushed to Munich’s leafy and bustling Viktualienmarkt, situated in the heart of the city’s Medieval center, where, we were told, there was to be a ‘huge erection’.
Much to my disappointment, they were referring to the raising of the May Pole – an event that happens only every four years.
While the 20m tall tree, elaborately decorated in the colors of the Bavarian flag, was certainly impressive, the hordes of spectators had their eyes and their lips pointing in the direction of the free beer, promised to be served after the slow and somewhat anticlimactic phallus lifting.
60 minutes later and 600 liters of gratis beer had been swiftly consumed.
The locals’ guilt-free attitude to drinking at what seemed like any time of the day stems from the knowledge that Bavarian beer is mercifully headache free.
They say the best cure for a hangover is the hair of the dog that bit you. But the beer in Bavaria is so pure, a pinch of cat fluff would do the trick.
And it’s all thanks to the state’s loudly trumpeted purity law, enacted in 1516, which banned anything but barley, water and hops from being used to brew the beer.
Bavarian beer boffins even claim the national drink can be good for you, providing vitamins, minerals and fiber.
An apple a day keeps the doctor away? Next time, why not reach for a pint?
German airline Lufthansa flies to Munich from destinations around the world. For rates and to book a flight, click here.