Danke for the Memories: Oktoberfest
Oktoberfest: Germany’s grand contribution to world beer appreciation and beer bellies. Every year Oktoberfest attracts beer drinkers from all over the world to eat, drink, sing and make merry, while hopefully not making more of a fool of themselves than necessary and throwing up all over the place in the process.
I need two hands!
Foamy liter steins of beer, called ‘mass’, are hoisted high, sometimes with two hands because they’re so freakin’ heavy, saluting the strains of Bavarian Oompah Band music. Flocks of roasted chicken, herds of oxen steaks, and tons of sausages of all manner and perverted shapes are consumed in a carnivorous orgy. It’s a homophobic vegetarian’s worse nightmare.
Munich’s Oktoberfest started as a wedding celebration for Bavaria’s Crown Prince, Ludwig I to Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen in 1810. Though called “Oktoberfest”, the festival today actually begins in the last week of September. Originally the festival was held in mid-October and lasted only five days. The festival was later extended to 16 days and was moved back to the end of September so beer-drinkers could enjoy the lingering warm autumn evenings and perhaps avoid freezing to death in their stupors overnight.
Munich has a long and robust history with beer. Before Munich was even a full-fledged city, clever monks were brewing especially stout beers to help them through periods of long fasting. In 1516, Duke Wilhelm IV of Bavaria passed the Purity Law that decreed beer could only be brewed from grain, hops, yeast, and water. The good Duke thus preserved the special flavor of German beer that brings in the beer-thirsty pilgrims every year.
It felt good to be back in Munich after so many years. This is where it all began (no, not the Nazi Party – even though it did). This is where both my interest in traveling and beer drinking began.
I first went to Germany while at University on a Work Exchange Program. It was my first trip ever overseas. The premise of the program was to give students a taste of living and working in a foreign country over the summer holidays in order to broaden their cultural (and economical) outlook. For poor students like myself, who couldn’t afford Study Abroad programs, Work Exchange was a great way to travel and make a
little money in the process.
Some basic knowledge of German was required to participate in the program. I had studied German for three years in High School and one year in University so naturally I couldn’t speak a word of it when I got over there. Prior to my departure, the coordinator of the program would periodically call me up to test my German ability. At one point, he told me if my German didn’t improve I would not be able to participate in
the program. I starting screening my calls from then on to avoid speaking with him.
After a summer working as carpentry assistant just north of Munich, I could carry on simple conversations in German. Granted, I couldn’t exactly debate philosophy, politics, or anything like that but I could talk about more important things such as beer.
“Deutsches Bier ist sehr stark!” (“German Beer is very strong”) I would say with authority.
“Americanish Bier is sehr schwach. Es ist Wasser.” (American Beer is very weak. It’s water.”) I would add to strengthen my point.
I drank my very first beer in Munich. I had never cared much for the taste of American beer before going to Germany. German beer I found quite delicious since it lacks all the preservatives and other unpleasantries (like formaldehyde) that are found in many other beers.
My very first beer was served at the famous (and sometimes infamous) Hofbrau Haus. A burly arm attached to an even burlier serving maid plunked down in front of me what I thought was a small pitcher because it came in a liter glass. It took me half-an-hour, one bratwurst, and two large pretzels to wash it down. After I stumbled away from the Hofbrau Haus evening in my first alcoholic-induced haze, it took me two months to find the place again.
I missed Oktoberfest that year because I had to return to school. I always harbored a hope that one day I would make it back for that Hallowed Happy Hour and drain beer after beer (of which my limit is two) with other beer pilgrims from around the world.
Accommodations are scarce in and around Munich during Oktoberfest. It would be wise to book well in advance, preferably at the end of the previous festival. However, as I made my plans to visit Oktoberfest in my usual fashion, i.e. on the spur of the moment, I was left with very few options. My accommodations were a bit spartan. I had a mind to complain to the staff about the living conditions but the staff consisted of train engineers, ticket officials, and the guys who clean up the vomit from the platforms. One night, my traveling companion, Deirdre, had some fellow, whom I suspect was not part of the staff, play with her ear while she was asleep. I said she should feel lucky to get a complimentary ear massage. I recall she didn’t speak to me for some time after that remark.
Deirdre enjoying a Big Preztel
Oktoberfest begins with a parade of the Brewery Landlords. Each beer brand has its own cart made out in festival colors with servers decked out in leiderhosen. They head straight to the beer tents set up in Theresienwiese field, which was named in honor of the Princess Therese. In one of the tents, the Lord Mayor of Munich starts the beer-swilling festivities by tapping the first keg and shouting: “O’zapft is!” (It is tapped!).
There are 14 tents that each cater to different tastes and styles. For those sick of beer (which would beg the question: why come in the first place?) there is a tent for wine connoisseurs. If sausages three times a day begins to wear thin, there is a tent that specializes in fish dishes. As of yet I do not know if they have set up a Tofu Tent for vegetarian visitors. All the tents have their own reputation – some
traditional, some modern, and some wonderfully decadent.
One tent sponsors crossbow shooting. Beer, pig knuckles, and crossbows, the Armbrustschutzen Tent offers something for everyone – provided you like beer, pig knuckles and crossbows, that is. I displayed my crossbow skill and won Deirdre a stuffed bear. Alright it wasn’t in the Armbrustschutzen where I did my William Tell impression. It was at one of the game stalls, and the bolts I was firing were made of foam
rubber. They wouldn’t let me fire the crossbows at the Armbrustschutzen, which probably was a wise decision in retrospect.
In addition to the beer drinking tents, they have a funfair filled with puke-inducing rides. A twirling, upside-down ride high in the sky is just the thing after downing a few liters of your favorite brew. One has to be careful when walking below to avoid such dubious rain from the heavens.
After downing a liter of beer, Deirdre and I, wisely avoiding the puke-n-spin rides, went to our favorite ride: bumper-cars! There’s no law that says you can’t “Drink and Bump”, so we fell to it with reckless abandonment and became drunken terrors on the bumper-car rink. I still remember the look of shock on the faces of those poor children and teenage couples as we bore down on them with Wagnerian fury and bumped
them into oblivion.
The beers at Oktoberfest range in several categories:
Helles – this is the standard beer served in a liter stein which brawny beer maids grasp five to six in each hand.
Dunkels – an old-fashioned dark beer served in liter steins as the Helles. It’s brewed with toasted malt and has a rich robust taste. I prefer it over the Helles.
Pils/Pilsner – served in a half liter glass. Pils is a lightly-toasted malt beer originally hailing from the Czech Republic and is often poorly imitated in other countries, fortunately not so in Munich.
Weissbier – a tasty, strong beer made from wheat and sometimes served with flecks of lemon in the foam. It too is served in a half glass.
Some lessons I learned the hard way about German beer my first time in Munich which I now pass on to the readers are as follows:
- Don’t drink an entire liter on an empty stomach, and especially don’t follow that first liter with a second one just because someone else is paying. I found myself outside of a bar violently throwing up in the arms of a sympathetic German woman who I had the cheek to ask for a kiss later.
- Don’t chug German beer. German beer, unlike most of the cheap swill preferred by college students, actually has a good flavor that is worth taking the time to savor. That first night at the Hofbrau Haus, I watched a group of American college students encourage a girl to chug a whole liter of Helles. Surprisingly, she accomplished it but barely kept the beer down through the applause and she quickly threw it all back up.
Ein Mass Bier
Don’t play “Quarters” with German beer – or any drinking game for that matter. Some of the Work Exchange participants and myself engaged a few of the carpenter apprentices in a friendly game of Quarters one night. The fellow beside me had an amazing stroke of Beginner’s Luck and I had to down glass after glass of Spaten Helles. I remember the brand well because it was not too long afterwards that I began “spatting” like Hell in the bathroom. Spaten’s logo is a shovel which must symbolize the tool needed to pick people off the bathroom floor after a few too many rounds of the old brew. Good beer, though.
I survived Oktoberfest last year, barely. The last night there we spent in the Augustiner-Brau Tent eating roast chicken washed down with more liters of beer. Ours was a lively table, though I almost got into a fight with one of the guys at the table at the beginning of the evening. He told us he was taking a newly-opened table all for just his friends. Deirdre, ever the peace-maker, just smiled and sat down anyway so everything worked out alright. We jumped up on our benches a few times to croon merrily and drunkenly German drinking songs and a few American songs with our beer buddies.
By the end of the night we stumbled away from our new-found drinking buddies, then took an overpriced, uncomfortable bus ride to Bratislava, Slovakia.
For those heading to Oktoberfest this year, I wish you the best in foamy delicious beers, savory sausages, succulent chickens, and juicy oxen steaks.
Hold your beer high and say for me: Prost! Gemulichkeit!