In a recent trip to Munich, I encountered a cultural phenomenon unknown to my apple pie Americanism: beer gardens. In Munich they have beer gardens. (I know this is not a revolutionary find. You’re probably asking yourself which isolated desert state I live in.) But they have beer gardens in Munich. Outside. In parks. Where children play, and moms walk with a stroller in one hand and a beer stein in the other. They drink, communally, outside. In the middle of a weekday afternoon. Some even actually wear lederhosen. They share giant picnic tables with complete strangers and awestruck tourists like me. They guzzle liter after liter of ridiculously good beer out of massive glass beer steins in public. And the most remarkable thing: generally speaking, they do this with extreme civility, without the slightest whiff of debauchery.
It got me wondering: Could this ever happen in American culture? If so, the scene that I envision goes something like this:
Noon: Beer garden opens in middle of public park.
1:00pm: After much pondering, confused passers-by start taking pictures on their cell phones of strange man in lederhosen behind the counter pouring beer.
1:10pm: First American ventures out and buys a beer. Sits down at a bench and starts drinking.
1:15pm: On-lookers are shocked that the man isn’t concealing his public alcohol consumption with a brown paper bag. Old woman on nearby park bench gets scared and stops feeding pigeons.
1:20pm: Four others get curious.
1:30pm: Half a table is filled with five happily drinking Americans.
1:35pm: Whole table is filled with ten happily drinking Americans.
1:45pm: Cops show up and check everyone’s I.D. in the area, just to be safe, as well as the old woman sitting on the park bench.
2:30pm: Five tables are filled with more than fifty people enjoying the outdoor beer garden.
3:30pm: Local police set up fence around beer garden to keep out minors, requiring hand-stamps and background checks before entry.
4:00pm: McDonalds erects similar beer garden 20 yards away, selling their patented McBeerstein. You can keep the collectors stein if you purchase a gallon of beer. Also available is the “Cerveza Steino” and “McDonald’s Southern Style Beer Chicken Sandwich”. The “McRibwich Beer Soup” to be released in August.
5:00pm: Beer wenches are required to lower the neck on their uniform (or “dirndl” as it is known in Bavarian culture) by three inches.
5:30pm: American Apparel puts out new line of lederhosen and dirndls.
6:00pm: Local radio station shows up with “foam machine” and a four baby pools filled with pudding. Loudspeakers are set up to blast hardcore rap across the park.
6:15pm: Post-work crowd arrives with loosened ties and low spirits due to the 400 point drop in the DOW and rising gas prices. Radio station raffles off a Hummer. Post work crowd sows their wild oats with a “my happiest years are behind me” attitude and drinks until the loneliness is gone.
6:25pm: Best Buy provides twenty 52″ inch plasma TVs so that customers can watch Monday Night Football and VH1 at the same time. Beer wenches replaced by Hooters girls.
6:30pm: Grass turns brown. 27 squirrels die in freak canola oil spill from McDonalds beer garden.
7:00pm: Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity and Tri Delts show up from local university. Underagers are equipped with fake ID’s. All are clad with garb from the “Pimps and Hos” party from the previous night.
7:45pm: Police increase the fenced perimeter, adding security choppers above to patrol the area.
8:10pm: CNN, MSNBC, and FOX News arrive with cameras and run a breaking news story entitled “BEER FORTRESS: What’s Really in Your Water?” Wolf Blitzer gets wicked smashed.
8:30pm: United States Department of Defense labels beer garden a prime terrorist threat zone and makes you take off your shoes before entering.
9:00pm: Someone’s hand gets cut off. Riot ensues. Police take action.
9:30pm: News channels release video of the “Beer Garden Brawl”. Popular clip of twenty-something male being accosted by police while saying “Don’t cut my hand off, man!” breaks record for most hits on YouTube.
9:45pm: Old woman on park bench teaches Tri Delts how to jitterbug. Tri Delts make old woman hit beer bong.
10:00pm: Tribes are formed. Media infers that tribes are split among races. Tribe leaders deny such allegations.
10:40pm: “Girls Gone Wild” arrives. Are accused of being “a little too late”.
11:15pm: Ancient soothsayer is seen crying in the middle of all the action screaming, “It was so good at 3:30pm!”
11:30pm: On a dare, Wolf Blitzer eats a pigeon.
11:45pm: For no apparent reason, cement trucks are brought in and a freeway is constructed through the middle of the beer garden. Suburban housing development begins.
Midnight: Unbeknownst to the human race, trees are actually a living, breathing species that are capable of walking and talking (Lord of the Rings-style) and decide to uproot themselves and move away from what is left of the park, half going to Kennebunkport, Maine and the other half drowning themselves in the closest ocean, bringing the American beer garden experiment to a sad and bitter end.
Could there be hope for an American beer garden? Are we going the way of the Europeans with our return to the city centre and increasing murmurs of new urbanism, the dying off of the suburbs, the downfall of the automobile, family values that might be close to gone, and spending habits that outweigh our paychecks? Do you have to hit rock bottom in order to see the top? If America was a teenage girl with an addiction to consumerism, could she be in the passenger seat of Mom’s SUV, careening down pedestrian-free streets, her iPod blasting the Jonas Brothers, on her way to rehab? Could she maybe, just maybe, be out of denial and on the path to renewal? Answer: yes, maybe. But what is it going to take to get her there?
I expect that it will take an increase in the number of pies that sit cooling on windowsills. The Cubs winning the World Series. The continuation of a thriving micro-brew movement. More festivals showcasing giant squash. And maybe the emergence of a trend in overalls.
Maybe a beer garden would force us to experience nature with strangers, start new traditions, get out of our cars and malls, encourage family interaction, and create relationships and spirited conversation. The benefits are obvious. If there is an equation for good community, I think it goes something like this: people + nature + moderate amounts of alcohol – television = good.
I’m sure that Bavarian culture has its fair share of flaws as well, but there are many things about their society to admire and note: relentless celebration and preservation of homespun traditions, purity laws for brewing beer, public spaces in prime real estate areas that are reserved for local farmers to sell their goods, dancing around maypoles in olden attire (yes, they still do that), ancient folk-songs and stories being taught in schools, sausage, polka, and the list goes on. We do some of this, but not nearly as well.
I’m not saying we all ought to put on some lederhosen and open another Epcot Center, but convening outside with others is a start. Maybe in a park. Baby steps, baby steps. Maybe we can add beer a little later on, when all the awkwardness subsides.