Most every beer enthusiast I know has his or her mythical geography of the beer world, a mental landscape dotted with legendary breweries and drink-before-you-die beers. This topography might also consist of wild yeasts residing in the rafters of old farmhouses, or historic hop kilns concealed along country back roads. Cities themselves stand out like beacons: Munich, Portland, Bamberg, Brussels. A large part of what sustains this mental geography is the excitement of the quest. Sometimes we manage to satisfy of our desires relatively quickly; sometimes the quest may take years.
For me, lover of German beer that I am, it took twenty-five years to make it to Oktoberfest.
If you want to learn more about the history of Oktoberfest and its beers, check out my other articles about Munich’s favourite festival:
I’ve written about my conversion to good beer elsewhere, and I’ve also written about my first visit to a beer garden and my first winter Glühwein. All of these happened way back during my first study year abroad. But why was it so difficult to get myself to Oktoberfest? Well, you see, I thought that Oktoberfest happened in October.
It was the autumn of 1991. I had my bags packed and ready to go. The kindly woman who tended to international exchange students asked what my plans were for that particular weekend, the second in October. “Oktoberfest!” I responded. She slowly shook her head. “Oktoberfest ended last weekend.”
If you, too, happen to be traveling around Europe and are blithely planning a trip to Oktoberfest in mid-October, keep in mind that it ends on 3 October this year.
Which brings us to about ten days ago. To mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of my disappointment, I headed out not just for Oktoberfest, but for the opening ceremony itself.
The morning dawned gray and wet. Over coffee I read yet another newspaper article about how heightened precautions such as a perimeter fence and security check had all but overshadowed the perennial talk of increasing prices for a Maß (1 liter) of beer. But the sheer crush of lederhosen and dirndls on my train from Freising to Munich spoke volumes against the anxiety expressed in certain quarters. Neither the vague threat of terrorism nor the minor deluge seemed capable of holding back the throngs of people streaming from all sides toward the Theresienwiese.
I threaded my way through the crowd and asked a few folks where the opening ceremony would take place. By 11:00 am I had found my way to the Spaten Schottenhamel Festhalle beer tent.
Anticipation grew as the clock approached noon. Screens around the edge of the tent flashed images of the horse-drawn wagons decked out for the occasion and laden with this year’s beer. The procession drew nearer. And then the grand entrance! A marching band, the Münchener Kindl, symbol of the city dressed in traditional brown and yellow-gold, the Bavarian state premier, and the mayor of Munich. The crowd surged forward as the entourage made its way to where the ceremonial wooden kegs had been set up.
Even if you don’t know much German beyond lager and bier, chances are you’ve heard or read the phrase that marks the official beginning of Oktoberfest. After the mayor exchanged a few words with the MC, it was game on. Two, maybe three blows with the wooden mallet, and the words everyone had been waiting for: O’ zapft is!
And so, I raise my stein: Ein Prosit, not only to Gemütlichkeit, but also to another place in my beer geography that has gotten that much less mythical, even if Oktoberfest itself remains legendary.
From now until the end of Oktoberfest, I’ll be posting a series of short pieces that paints a picture of the history and culture of Oktoberfest. Some questions I’ll seek to answer for you include:
- How did an annual horse race that first took place in 1810 become the largest beer festival in the world? And why the heck is Oktoberfest celebrated mainly in September?
- When did all the huge beer tents appear, and what did they replace? (Hint: beer castles!)
- When did the annual tradition of tapping the keg begin? Where did all the Märzen go?
- How does Oktoberfest fit into Munich’s rich calendar of beer festivals? How many people show up in any given year, and just how much Festbier do they drink?
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All images by F.D. Hofer.
© 2016 F.D. Hofer and A Tempest in a Tankard. All rights reserved.