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Visiting The Mecca Of Beer

Michael Donato, September 19, 2013 -   

Germany and German beers have a strong representation in the history of beer. The German Beer Purity Law, the Reinheitsgebot, is famous for preserving the purity of beer by limiting brewers to only hops, barley and water. The Hofbräuhaus, which opened in 1589 by the Duke of Bavaria before it was even Germany as we know it, is famous throughout the world and one of the most popular tourist destinations in Munich. They have recently opened beer halls in other cities in Germany as well as many locations in the United States. German beer already had a storied legacy before the wedding of Crown Prince Ludwig to Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen led to the first Oktoberfest in 1810.

Oktoberfest is an epic festival of grand proportions. My wife and I visited in 2012 as part of a glorious three-country Eurotrip, but before I tell you about the experience, here's a look at some of the numbers to give you a sense of just how huge Oktoberfest is.

  • There were 6.4 million visitors who drank 6.9 liters of beer, costing nearly 10 Euros each.

  • The festival contributes 1.3 billion dollars to the Munich economy.

  • A full Maß of beer weighs nearly five pounds, and the waiters and waitresses often carry at least a half dozen of them at once across the crowded tent to your table.

  • There are nearly 1000 toilets and a half-mile of urinal troughs.

  • More than a terabyte of additional mobile data was served last year, and that's not even factoring in all the Americans like me without a working data connection. (Check in to Untappd this year people!)

  • Most tents have 5,000 liter super kegs that hold up to 80,000 liters of beer and require multiple tanker trucks to refill overnight.

The grounds at the festival on Theresienwiese cover 31 hectare, which could hold about 58 American football fields. All the tents and rides go up over a couple of months in the summer, and then come back down after the festival. As huge as the festival is, it's not even a permenant structure. Eyeballing it, it's about half carnival and half beer tents. The amount of rides and games was staggering to me, as it's not something I was researching when I was planning my trip.

Take the busiest day Coney Island has ever had, and mix it with New York's St. Patrick's Day parade or Mardi Gras and you start to get the picture of what the place is like. Yes, many of the participants are kids there for the the rides and we still averaged over a liter of beer per person. 

Oktoberfest starts with a parade, a ceremonial keg-tapping, and a gun salute. The parade is a long parade, steeped in Bavarian history and tradition. All the tent owners are featured, riding in with horses and wagons and disembarking at their respective tents. The six remaining Munich breweries have wagons full of barrels of beer, performances like whipcracking and traditional bands, decorated floats and wheelbarrows of hops. The riders on the floats are the only ones allowed to drink before the tapping of the first keg which happens after the parade.

That's when the mad rush for beer begins. There are many outdoor areas where you can find a seat to order beer, which can only be done at a table via waiter service, but because it was raining on and off the tents filled up really fast. We found a spot against the wall at a table near a shop that was not one of the 12 large tents, which allowed us to order Franziskaner in the smaller half-liters. We huddled under an umbrella and enjoyed our Franziskaner Hefe-Weissbier Naturtrüb, and it was good. We ordered a second and watched wet people go back and forth down the road, and other brave souls squeeze under umbrellas attached to the picnic tables in the beer garden area we were in, ordering food and drink and just generally being merry and not letting a little water keep them down. 

Franziskaner Hefe-Weissbier Naturtrüb is part of the Spaten-Löwenbräu group that's owned by ABInBev, but over-arching corporate beer conglomerates are not a primary concern when in Munich drinking beer at Oktoberfest. Either way Franziskaner is a well made beer, coming at a 3.77 Untappd rating with a 5.18 BAR and a 0.44 wOBAR.

We did eventually make it into some of the tents during our visit. We visited both the outdoor areas and inside the intricately painted and occasionally raucus interior. What was amazing was how fast you got beer. For such a large crowd packed tightly into long wooden tables on top of each other, waiters and waitresses noticed you sitting down quickly, took your order quickly, and returned with beer quickly. I've been in American bars where I haven't even gotten the bartender's attention in that time. Part of that is that you can only order one thing, beer, and in only one size. Some of the tents will allow you to order a Radler, a half beer, half lemonade mix, but that's about the extent of it. Still, the beer comes and goes so fast you might start to believe you're simply a cog in a machine designed to move beer from the vats below to the bathrooms adjacent. The bathrooms, at least for men, were similarly efficient. Long rows of troughs with running water and a separate entrance and exit makes it a simple three-step find a spot, relieve yourself, go begin the refill process.

One of the warnings when you're headed to Oktoberfest is that the style of beer is stronger than average, coming in at around 6%. As a veteran beer geek used to American brews with more ABV than that, this warning was unneeded. The beer went down remarkably easily anyway, and the party atmosphere and foreign country all helped to make it the most relaxed you can be in what's basically an assembly line for beer consumption.

Oktoberfest is an absolute blast. You can read some about which tents are better than others, but unless you're seeking out the different beers or different specialty foods that one tent has over another, there seemed to be little difference between them. In all of them you squeeze in next to strangers and friends, because everyone there is both, order a beer, and have a good time. During our visit we met travelers from far away and locals from the city. We met people who conveniently scheduled a work conference in Munich that weekend, to a group that was staying in a campground outside the city and taking a shuttle in every day.

Everyone had stories of past trips, or past days, and everyone was having fun and drinking delicious beer. The only anger I encountered was from a man from the Bronx, not 10 minutes from my own home, who thought I was taking pictures of his drunk and passed out friend at the next table. I wasn't, and we ignored him and eventually moved on.

There's music, there's people dancing on their seats, there are vendors selling all manner of souvenirs, pretzels, and even Weizenkoks, a sugar-menthol mixture that the festival would rather not exist but does anyway.

It's encouraged for you to stand up on your seat and chug the rest of your beer. By encouraged, I mean if you stand up on your bench with the intention to do this, whether you're a 16 year old girl or an 80 year old grandma, most of the hall around you will cheer and clap until you finish. You'll also be booed if you fail, so be careful about just how much beer you have left before you attempt the feat. We drank beer in a bunch of tents, we had pretzels, cheese pretzels, half-meter bratwurst, steak sandwiches, potato pancakes, and roasted macadamia nuts.  And that was just AT Oktoberfest, not counting all the food we ate in Munich, which is a great city to visit in it's own right.

Oktoberfest was one of the top two trips in my life, and it's a trip I recommend to everyone. Germany, and Munich in particular, have come as close to perfecting a beer style and a beer festival as might be humanly possible. There are six major Oktoberfest beers. My personal rank is as follows. It may be highly biased and based on various states of previous inebriation, but I stand by it. As you can see from the chart below, I wasn't too far off in my analysis. I only wish Augustiner shipped their Oktoberfest to America. (Löwenbräu also didn't make the 50-beer benchmark.)

Festbier

Michael’s Rank

Untappd Rating

BAR

wOBAR

Augustinerbräu

1

3.73

   

Hacker-Pschorr Bräu

2

3.67

2.74

0.37

Hofbräu

3

3.48

1.04

0.14

Löwenbräu

4

3.43

   

Paulaner

5

3.65

2.64

0.32

Spatenbräu

6

3.63

2.8

0.31

In addition to beer, Michael also tweets about the Mets and baseball @Ceetar.

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