Last year, the girls and I spent a spring day in Munich, mostly enjoying the lively Marienplatz, and hanging about Viktualienmarkt, the wonderful farmers’ market in the city centre. This time, it’s autumn in Munich, which means one thing: Oktoberfest. Or in our case, pre-Oktoberfest. We’re about a week early, which means we have a bit of elbow room compared to the crowds of the coming weeks. Oktoberfest is the world’s largest festival, with more than 6 million visitors popping in.
Bavaria has a unique beer culture. During the 16 days of Oktoberfest, nearly 7 million litres of beer is consumed, served in one-litre glasses (ein Maß), so not for the milksops amongst us. At noon on opening day in mid/late September, the Mayor of Munich taps the first keg with a forceful
(’It’s tapped’, in the Bavarian dialect)
A bit of history, perhaps? Oktoberfest was originally a royal wedding. On 12 October 1810, Bavarian Crown Prince Ludwig married the lovely Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen and invited the entire town to the party: five days of full-on fun and fanfare, heaps of food and drink, sports and music. A role model for royals near and far, I’m sure.
It was such fun, they decided to do it again. And again. And have done ever since, only interrupted by warfare and the like. The 2014 Oktoberfest was the 181st celebration.
Today, locals love to don traditional clothes during the festivities: dirndls for the girls, lederhosen and Tirolerhüte for the boys. Around town, I see adverts for dirndls, some of them very elaborate and no doubt costly. (It reminds me of the Norwegian national costume, bunad, elaborate, hand-sewn dresses, in many cases, worn only once a year.)
Naturally, special beer is brewed for Oktoberfest. Special – and potent. Oktoberfestbier – or Wiesenbier, has 6 % alcohol, as opposed to 5 % in normal German beer. Even that’s a bit on the strong side, in my experience. I remember being 15, out and about Europe without parent guidance for the first time, and having my first encounter with German beer; much too much of it for the novice that I was. Painful. But enough about me.
According to the Reinheitsgebot (purity law), only beer brewed within Munich’s city limits can be sold during Oktoberfest, which means you’ll have beer from one of the Big Six. Our group of international journos have afternoon beer (yes, you read that right) in one, run quickly through a second, and have dinner in a third.
There are 14 beer tents. Some are huge, with seats for 8000 inside and an additional 2-3000 outside, we’re told. There are no entrance fees and you can bring your own food, but not drinks. Oktoberfest means merry-go-rounds and roller coasters and all sorts of fun for the whole family, but children under six aren’t allowed in the beer tents after 8pm.
As the tents aren’t exactly soundproofed, the slap-your-thigh oompa oomph music stops – and the tents close – at 11pm. Only two venues in Munich are allowed to remain open until 1am.
Not ready to go home at 11? You don’t have to. There are several after-venues, and Löwenbrau is the biggest. We’re invited for afternoon tea in the garden, Munich style: heaps of lovely desserts. And beer.
Since I learnt my lesson decades ago, I have a Radler, beer mixed with lemonade. (When I mention this to an Australian friend, he looks at me as if I’ve just sworn in church. Diluting beer with, well anything… pah, pure blasphemy.)
Löwenbrau has been in the beer brewing business for 700 years, but it isn’t the only one in town.
The 16th century Hofbräuhaus is perhaps the best known beer hall, some say in the whole world. It’s smack in the middle of Munich’s city centre. Even in the week before Oktoberfest, it’s packed to the rafters – or rather, to the vaulted painted ceilings. An interesting quirk here is the Maßkrugsafe-Gerüste, beer stein safes, where patrons pay an annual rent, 200 euro, to keep their beer mugs locked in. There are only 424 lockers and the only way to get your hands on one of these coveted little boxes is to inherit it.
Paulaner is in the Nockherberg area, so not quite as central. From 1629, it’s the youngest of the three, but it is the largest. According to beer enthusiasts, Paulaner offers the best brew around, a pale, sweet lager. And that, after all, is the most important thing.