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Posted March 2019

Tourists can be forgiven for feeling spooked as they wander around Munich and notice the four digits 1328, often accompanied by the ominous letters JW and a pastoral shaft. These symbols might be stuck on drain pipes and traffic signs, or sprayed on train carriages and, good heavens, even tattooed into men’s calves. No worries, they have not stumbled upon the secret da Vinci code. 1328 was the year the Augustinian monks’ brewery was first mentioned. And the letters are Joseph Wagner’s initials. An enterprising and perky second-generation owner of Augustiner, he had himself incorporated into the brewery’s trademark logo in 1887.

As its name suggest, the brewery was originally part of the Augustinians’ monastery near the city’s landmark cathedral. After “secularisation” in 1803, which is a polite term for the Bavarian state’s confiscation of church properties, it was moved to a site nearby in the city centre before it was sold to the Wagner family in 1829. Having outgrown its premises, Joseph Wagner erected Augustiner’s present red-brick brewery, an architectural landmark, west of Munich’s railway station in 1883, while converting the old brewery into its flagship beer hall in 1886.

Replete with vaulted stuccoed ceilings, dark panelling and two beer gardens both front and back, the huge beer hall bears testimony to Munich brewers’ erstwhile wealth and their idea of “Gemütlichkeit”. This is one of those untranslatable German terms, which means “cosy” and “comfortable” in English but refers more to an atmosphere than to the physical comfort of Augustiner’s hard wooden chairs and benches. Despite, or because of this, the beer hall, which has not seen a thorough makeover since the 19th century, is popular with tourists and locals alike.

It is a much cherished prejudice, in the rest of the world, that German brewers are hostile to change. As with most prejudices, Germans’ ostensible disdain for going with the flow, as captured by the rebuke “We ‘ev alwez done it sis way”, bears little relationship to reality. There is one restriction, however: Augustiner. They seem to happily and cheerfully embrace this dogma. For as long as anyone in Munich can remember, Augustiner has begged to differ, and continues to do so. This was not lost on the beer writer, the late Michael Jackson. In his Pocket Beer Book (8th edition 2000) the first sentence of the entry on Augustiner reads: “Munich’s beer-lovers favour Augustiner among the city’s principal breweries. There are other reasons, but its conservatism is one.”

Hipsters, upper class gentry, not least the annual contingents of school leavers, who celebrate their graduation with the obligatory crate of Augustiner along the river Isar, will take objection to the term. So will Munich’s down-and-outs with aspirations to class, who can be seen with an Augustiner bottle on the go. Augustiner conservative? Never. Do a quick poll in an Augustiner beer garden and punters will tell you that it is cool, even radical. Much like the Munich punk band “1328”, by the way, which calls its music “beercore”. Tapping into Munich’s groupthink will reveal an unspoken consensus that Augustiner is actually giving the finger to the beer establishment, aka all those “TV beers”, which are heavily advertised, only to be flogged in supermarkets at rock-bottom prices.

 

Staying shtoom

I would not call Augustiner “conservative” either, because the term can imply some sort of political agenda. As far as I can see, it is not trying to roll back time to a point in the past when things were allegedly better. In my view, Augustiner’s current guardians are merely continuing in the footsteps of their Übervater, the late Ferdinand Schmid. A lawyer, not a brewer, he ran the firm from 1970 to 1991 as an external manager, laying down the iron law on Augustiner, as he took it from success to success – while making sure that none of his successors could tamper with his legacy. Then as today, Augustiner’s people are doing their own thing, so much so that they routinely rebuff the Nosy Parkers from the press.

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