Pub/Bar of the Month January 2014: Augustiner Bräustübl, Salzburg, Austria
Salzburg, Austria: home of Mozart, The Sound of Music and Felix Baumgartner, the man who skydived from space. It's a handsome, striking city, built around baroque buildings and bold squares, with dramatic views offered from the castle over the River Salzach and the old town below.
We're not staying here in the centre, however. We're going to take a walk fifteen minutes north-west along the river to the Mülln district.
Here, built into the side of the hill, is a former monastery, part of which is given over to a brewery with its own pub. And what a pub!
The origins of Augustiner Bräustübl lie in the early 17th century, although the Augustinian monks that founded the site and give the place its name died out 200 years later.
At this point, the brewery was handed over to Benedictine brothers at Michaelbeuern Abbey, to the north of Salzburg. The monks still own 50% of the enterprise, with two other shareholders having 25% each.
If you enter from the top of the hill (rather than the car park below), the undistinguished front door does not prepare you in any way for the experience to follow.
It's a modest entrance on a narrow street but, as you make your way over the threshold, the silent corridors broaden out and, with religious statuary dotted here and there, you are subtly reminded you that you are in a place of contemplation.
When the corner is turned and a grand staircase sweeps down a level, then, and only then, do you begin to get the impression that you have come to the right place.
Down here, there's an immediate bustle, but still you wonder whether you are in a pub, as you find yourself in a kind of food court. This, effectively, is the kitchen.
Food provision has been franchised out to a number of private family businesses, meaning that you can take your pick from the hot and cold wares on offer – sausages, chicken, cold meats, fish, salads and sweet pastries and cakes – and carry your meal back to whichever of the four giant beer halls takes your fancy, two of which permit smoking.
At this point, the sheer size of the pub hits home. Each of these rooms houses 200 or more guests, and there are also a few smaller areas.
Undoubtedly, the most popular is the first room you come to, the Stockhammersaal, a big, baronial hall with a tiled floor, stained glass and a barrel-like, curved wooden ceiling. Many of the tables here are reserved for regulars (the wonderful stammtisch concept). If you sit here, see if you can solve the visual puzzles painted on the walls.
The three other rooms are somewhat plainer, similar in style to boarding school refectories, and there is also, down a further flight of steps, a popular biergarten, where gravel crunches under foot and shade is provided by horse chestnut trees (there are 1,500 seats down here alone).
Collect Your Beer
As for the beer, this is dispensed from a central servery. You can either hail one of the yellow-shirted waiters to fetch you a draught or you can enjoy the experience of getting your own. Bear in mind, though, that, for most of the year, there will be only one beer available.
Simply collect a ceramic mug from the shelf, rinse it in the water fountain, pay at the cash desk and then ask the man at the counter to fill it up.
If the beer is too cold (perhaps in the depths of winter), avail yourself of the beer warmer, a stone basin in which you can dunk your mug in warm water.
When you return to your table, the beer slips down a treat. Described as märzen, the 4.6% brew is in fact more akin to a helles lager, the Austrians using the term märzen for general quaffing beers.
It's well carbonated (as you can see when it foams into the tankard from the wooden casks), golden in colour and suitably refreshing after a foot-weary day's sightseeing, with a bittersweet, slightly lemony character.
If you're lucky, you may just catch the brewery's other beers, a bock brewed for Christmas and a beer available in Lent.
But, for once, the beer is not the be all and end all here. It's the setting that matters. The Augustiner Bräustübl is something else – a big, sprawling establishment quite different to every pub I've ever visited.
It's such an unusual place to drink that it should be on every beer lover's hit list.
Augustiner Bräustübl, Lindhofstrasse, Salzburg, Austria.
Tel. +43 (662) 431246
Opening Hours: 3pm–11pm; 2.30pm–11pm Saturday, Sunday and public holidays