Your Passport to the World's Beer Capital

They've sung the last Ein Prosit and put the bungs back in the barrels: Oktoberfest 2001 is history. If you missed this year's edition of the world's biggest beer party, don't despair: you can find a bit of Oktoberfest all year round.

In Munich, beer is more than a beverage; it's a way of life. Year after year, its residents finish near the top in beer consumption per capita. Most of that beer is brewed locally and served fresh. Munich is the capital of Bavaria, which gave the world the Beer Purity Law of 1516. It's the gold standard of beer, and German brewers still swear by it.

Munich offers a bewildering variety of places where beer is served. But which ones are worth a visit, and how do you get to them? Larry Hawthorne has spent years finding out the answers to those questions, and he shares them with you in his book, The Beer Drinker's Guide to Munich.

If you're a serious beer pilgrim, The Beer Drinker's Guide is as important as your passport, city map, and credit cards. It's come with me on two trips to Munich, and has more than paid for itself in time not spent staring at maps, straining to read street signs, and wondering if I'd boarded the right train.

I first used The Beer Drinkers Guide several years ago, when Starkbierzeit, Munich's strong beer festival, was in full swing. Starkbierzeit, which takes place every March, is Oktoberfest without the tourists: breweries showcase their most potent brews; and Münchners pack beer halls offering traditional food and entertainment. The guide not only shepherded me to Paulaner Keller, where the festival originated, and the raucous festivities at Löwenbräu's enormous beer hall, but also showed me the way to a tiny place in the suburbs whose name translates into "research brewery."

This spring, armed with a brand-new edition, I returned to Munich to take in its beer gardens. The Beer Drinkers Guide led me to Hirschgarten, with its famous herd of deer; and the "jazz beer garden" that launched the "Beer Garden Revolution," a citywide protest against a court-ordered nine o'clock closing time. I also visited Weihenstephan, the world's oldest brewery; the famous Kloster Andechs monastery-and-brewery complex; and Volksfest, a springtime celebration held on the Oktoberfest grounds.

The Beer Drinker's Guide reviews more than 70 beer halls, beer gardens, and neighborhood pubs. Except for a few day trips for the truly dedicated, they're all located in greater Munich. All the information you need is there: detailed directions, including which buses and trains to take; telephone numbers; opening and closing times; and what kind of beer is on tap. Many of the city's beer halls and gardens have colorful histories; Hawthorne, who's an engaging writer, weaves these stories, along with plenty of beer trivia, into his reviews.

Each establishment is rated on a scale of zero to five beer mugs, but only those earning at least two and a half mugs are listed. For the record, the famous Hofbräuhaus checks in with four and a half mugs; the lofty rating is more a reflection of its fame than the friendliness or efficiency of its service which has gone noticeably downhill. It's still a Munich must-see but, as the author puts it, "there is life after the Hofbräuhaus: you only have to find it."

Hawthorne's well-organized book is also full of practical information about Munich. One essential topic is public transportation. Driving to a beer hall is the height of folly: there's no place to park, and German drunk-driving laws are even tougher than ours. Besides, with Munich's efficient bus and subway system, who needs a car? The book makes using the system a breeze, with everything from the basics of buying tickets to a full-color subway map.

The Beer Drinker's Guide includes an excellent course in beer appreciation. Even non-beer geeks will enjoy Hawthorne's introduction to German beer. There are profiles of Munich's "Big Six" breweries, which have been around for centuries, as well as descriptions of Bavaria's many beer styles. While most of us associate German beer with pale-colored lager, the visitor who knows where to look will find--and enjoy--dark beers, bocks, wheat beers, even beer-and-lemonade concoctions.

The guidebook also teaches you how to celebrate like a local. It demonstrates proper form for handling Munich's formidable one-liter beer stein; shows how to avoid social sins, like forgetting to tip or sitting at a table reserved for regulars; and lets you know when it's okay to bring your own food to a beer garden. Music is a vital part of the beer hall experience, and Hawthorne has provided the lyrics--in German, of course--of popular drinking songs.

Whether you're planning to take part in Oktoberfest, or a smaller event like Starkbierfest or Volksfest, The Beer Drinker's Guide to Munich tells you what to expect. All you need to do is buy those plane tickets and book that hotel--before it's too late.

The Beer Drinker's Guide to Munich retails for $15. It is available at major bookstores and through the author's website.