Travelling in Germany can be a thirsty undertaking and regular detours into one of the country's many Eckkneipen (corner pubs) can quickly become a necessity. Once your eyes have adjusted to the murky, smoke-filled dimness, be careful where you sit -- a wrong choice can be a severe break with German protocol.
In a crowded German restaurant or beer hall, you'll sometimes find an inviting table placed conveniently near the bar and surrounded by empty chairs. A cryptic sign hanging above will read Stammtisch. While such a table may seem tempting, sitting at a Stammtisch is a privilege reserved for the pub's regulars. If you stay long enough for a second beer, the table will likely fill up with boisterous and chummy Germans on a first-name basis with the bartender.
A Stammtisch is a table permanently reserved for the family and friends of a bar's owner -- also known as the Stammgäste, or "family guests." But more than merely being a piece of furniture, the Stammtisch is where a number of German character traits come together in one place: beer drinking, conviviality, and a deeply ingrained penchant for speaking authoritatively on any given subject.
Belonging to the local Stammtisch used to carry status in German towns, where the mayor or some other local leader would often hold court in a smoke-filled pub. They were invitation-only, intensely territorial, and strictly male -- visible and public inner circles where business connections and friendships were secured. The modern Stammtisch tends to be more casual, involving beer and tobacco, women as well as men, and maybe a game of cards. Nowadays, some Stammtisch groups even organize around non-Teutonic topics like China or even "Windows System Administration with UNIX Utilities," to mention a few examples. There are also a number of groups devoted to learning and practicing foreign languages -- and those reserved for foreigners trying to learn German.
Most among us, though, will immediately recognize the flawed reasoning behind such attempts to combine deep discussion with drinking. Alcohol may facilitate conversation, but it only rarely leads one to world-changing epiphanies. Indeed, the most famous Stammtisch discussion in German cultural tradition may be the scene in Goethe's "Faust" called "Auerbach's Keller," in which rowdy students -- blasted on wine -- match wits with Mephistopheles and mistake each other's noses for ripe grapes.
Even the history of the Stammtisch is wrapped in an alcoholic haze. Some will tell you the tradition goes back to John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy, who married into a Bavarian family. He is said to have founded the first Stammtisch around his favorite beverage -- beer -- in 1409. In so doing, he allegedly became a semi-historical model for Gambrinus, the mythical inventor of beer brewing. But then, there's a whole bunch of such Stammtisch lingo -- but the only way to learn it is to sit down and raise a glass.