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Beer and lederhosen: Oktoberfest in Bavaria


Once upon a time… in Old Bavaria, there was a Crown Prince who chose to commit to the love of his life – BEER (oh, and the beautiful Princess Therese that is).

That was 200 years ago, a time when no one could possibly even imagine the beast that was to be unleashed when Prince Ludwig I announced his plans to wed his princess, with the coolest engagement present on Earth – Oktoberfest.

Today, Oktoberfest is a grand spectacle of tradition, culture and humanity that tourists and locals from all over the world can relish. In case you’ve been living under a rock; Oktoberfest is the biggest and most renowned beer festival on planet Earth – so I had no idea what to expect. Being from distant and isolated Australia, I’d never set foot in Europe or revelled in cultures so rich in diversity and history. I’d only ever been to that pseudo, budget version of Oktoberfest at the local pub down the road.

Glad to find out my hotel was just 250 metres from the festival, I could practically taste the beer (and I could most certainly hear the people drinking it). Arriving at a tall main entrance that read, “Oktoberfest” in large bold letters, I felt my arms prickle with goose bumps. Before me, stood endless stands of traditional food, games, cheesy memorabilia, epic rides, and waves of people dressed in tracht, traditional Bavarian clothing. It’s like stepping back in time for a culinary smorgasbord of sauerkraut, spit-grilled chicken, pretzels and every type of sausage you can possibly imagine. It’d be an absolute fieldtrip for that Californian man who smashed the Hot Dog Eating world record in Arizona a couple of years back.

It’s hard to believe that the whole event stems from a day of royalty and citizens mingling over food, drinks and horse races in a peaceful meadow back in 1810. Now, every year this same meadow is magically transformed into a wild playground, hosting 16 days of intensive drinking, bratwursts, fast rides (hopefully not in that order), and spilling your stein to German brass band versions of everything from “Highway to Hell” to 80’s pop songs – Thanks King Ludwig.

A Toast To Tradition

I knew it was going to be a good day when a wise-eyed German guy with a wispy mustache and a Lederhosen drove a tap into a wooden barrel and raised a 1-litre stein cheering “O`zapft is!” (it’s tapped!). That guy happens to be the mayor of the Bavarian state, and this is to mark the official opening of Oktoberfest. The next scene is like that of a fairy tale as a stream of fancily-dressed horses march down the field. Now just replace the princess and carriage with kegs, and you’ve got the full picture. After this, it’s every man for himself as masses of locals and tourists alike roll in and ice-cold beer starts flowing from the Oktoberfest taps, into the hands of the hottest beer maids you’ll ever see. I even found a carousel venue where the horses and unicorns are substituted with stools around a tiny bar whilst a ridiculously good-looking maid serves beer in the middle. One day, all merry-go-rounds will be made this way.

Now to the beer tents…

Each beer tent represents a local Munchen brewery, serving only high-quality German beer. Don’t even think mid-strength or low-carb – these guys have no idea what that is. I headed straight for one of the most famous tents, the Schottenhamel tent. To be honest, ‘colossal’ doesn’t even cut it – these tents are mammoth, holding around 10,000 Oktoberfest goers each. If you have one of those uncanny drunken abilities to make new friends – that’s a whole lot of new buddies. I had to pause for a second as I reached the entrance. Taking in the surroundings, I stood with my jaw to floor. Each brewery sets up their beer tent with its own theme, so it’s a whirlwind of elaborate colors and decorations to drink under. One could almost call it ‘romantic’ if not for the incessant crowd of merry drinkers. I took a deep breath as I witnessed waves of people raise their steins in synchrony as a lederhosen-clad brass band plays “Ein Prosit”, a simple melody that literally translates to “a toast”. Guess it’s time to grab my first beer?

Removing the Beer Goggles

That was three years ago. My first Oktoberfest experience, where everything down to the colours, smells and flavours will be etched into my mind forever. Since then, the tempting tradition has prompted my return each year – now I’d almost call myself a veteran. I learnt not to walk away in a hat shaped like a chicken and a pair of beer-shaped glasses (capitalism always wins when it comes to walking past tacky souvenir stalls after a couple of steins), and began to build a deep appreciation for the traditional aspects of the event and how the whole affair was run. In actual fact, I would go as far as to say that the structure of the festival is an absolute work of art. The festival’s history tells a tale of a strong beer culture, passion for humanity, and shows impeccably efficient organization on Germany’s part. It’s so efficient in fact, that it’s only been cancelled 24 times since 1810, and that’s due to the big stuff – war, plague and hyperinflation. Not even the right-wing extremists of 1980 could stop the event after a bomb killed 13 patrons. This just prompted Germany to prove its defiance and dedication by re-opening Oktoberfest’s doors the following year with a bigger and grander display, and strong security reinforcements.

Hosting almost 6 million visitors every year and pumping out around the same amount in litres of beer (enough to fill SIX Olympic size swimming pools), it’s almost ludicrous to imagine what must go into the organization of such a mammoth event. They even have a fool-proof structure in place that facilitates the hording of intoxicated patrons into designated safe areas. Unfortunately for some, nothing classifies as a wildly good time until they’ve drunk as much as they can (afford), and are passed out with a half-eaten bratwurst in one hand, and the other half down their front. These are what the Germans refer to as ‘beirleichens’, or ‘beer corpses’. You’ll find them in dozens every day, as they are left to ‘sleep it off’ behind Red Cross tents that are stationed around the festival. The German’s are highly efficient in this aspect, floating large Red Cross balloons about 10 meters above the tents as a convenient landmark for drunk patrons.

Beer and Time Travel

Heading to Oktoberfest for a third time last year, I can gladly say I experienced it like a true local – the way everyone should. Discovering the Festzelt Tradition (a “traditional tent” – and virtually unheard of by tourists), I stepped away from today’s commercialised caricature and revelled in a truly authentic Oktoberfest experience. The recreation of Oktoberfest’s beginnings consisted of everything from Bavarian attire, horse-race events, nostalgic rides and trying my luck at Brauchtümliche dance activities. After a couple of steins here, I was awed by the complete harmony of a charming beer garden where you can treat your taste buds to only the most traditional dishes of spit-roast meats, sausages from a charcoal fire and potato dumplings with red cabbage. It’s a legitimate tribute to a bygone era – and the best part; it’s completely rid of all that tacky commercialisation. Every brewery represented at Oktoberfest contributes the beer, the tent has no official name, and even the classic plain stone mugs are free from branding.

What Gets Lost (other than your brain cells)

16 days of prosting, 30,000 consumed chickens and 130,000 ‘missing’ beer steins later, the masses of crowds return home to recover, the tents are taken down and only a couple of intriguing extras are left behind. I read somewhere (it’s probably rudely inaccurate but still worth the mention), that Oktoberfest lost property is an assortment of the naughty, filthy and just plain weird – with the likes of whips, sets of fake teeth, prosthetic limbs, rabbits, and sometimes even, children.

Add It To The Bucket List (If you haven’t already)

Oktoberfest is one boozy session to pencil into your calendar. Grab your mates, some traditional Bavarian attire, and roll in next year to raise your stein for a toast to an absolutely, unforgettable experience of a lifetime (even if you only remember half of it).

To experience Oktoberfest like this, visit www.thirstyswagman.com

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