The calm before the storm: setting up for Oktoberfest in Munich's Theresienwiese.
I took another swig of crisp, clean German lager as I spied the nascent Oktoberfest fairgrounds across the street. Only the steel frames and brewery names were up – the stark beginnings of the world’s biggest booze fest.
I knew I wouldn’t be back to attend the festival this year, but had celebrated for a few hours on the Theresienwiese years before. So I could picture the famous festival in full swing – the carnival rides spinning, the lederhosen-ed men, the women in dirndl, the elaborately decorated beer tents fully adorned and packed with revelers. But now, in the construction phase, I saw it in a different way. I saw it as a massive investment; a colossal undertaking for an event that would run a mere two weeks.
Why? How did it all start? How much did it all cost?
"Tens of millions," my new German friend, Max, chimed in. "But it brings in over a billion."
I sipped from my stein of lager. It tasted great. Perfect, actually. Maybe it just seemed better because I was drinking it in Munich, a city rich in beer history and tradition. What that history was – aside from tourists getting rip-roaring drunk in beer halls like the Hofbrauhaus – had remained a mystery to me. It hit me that I’d never bothered to inquire, which made me feel like more of a dumb American than usual, so I asked.
"Max, this may be a stupid question," I said, "but why’s there an Oktoberfest?"
"Excuse me," he said. "Can you repeat that?"
Up till that point, I’d assumed Max’s English – like most Germans’ – was more advanced than mine.
"Oktoberfest. What’s the history?" I said. "Aside from a good excuse to get wasted."
Max told me and I listened like the student who’d missed a week of school and now desperately needed to catch up. He was an educated man, a convincing German from Munich, so I ate up every word.
"See that beer you’re drinking," he said, "it all started here.”
"Beer was invented in Munich?" I asked.
"No. Beer was first made in Mesopotamia and Egypt thousands of years ago. But Munich is where lager beer – what you are now drinking – was first made.”
"That’s why Oktoberfest is here?" I asked.
"No," he said, expressing a hint of exasperation with my ignorance. Then Max leaned forward and readjusted his position. "Well, perhaps... May I explain?"
Max explained, in near perfect English, that Munich brewers discovered the "bottom fermenting" method in the 15th century, which produced lager beers. This cold temperature brewing method differed from the traditional warm brewing method (top-fermenting) which produced ales. Since this was all pre-refrigerator, he said, during the warmer months barrels of beer were brewed in caverns in the Alps to produce lagers – cleaner beer, with presumably less bacteria than warm-brewed ales. Soon after, Bavarians passed the Reinheitsgebot beer purity laws (1516) which stated that the ingredients of beer be restricted to water, barley and hops, and set a standard for good, clean lager beer throughout southern Germany.
"Max," I said, "I really appreciate this, but I’m never gonna remember the details. How does this all relate to Oktoberfest?"
"Well," he said, "A few decades after the beer purity laws, summer brewing was outlawed in Bavaria. The rulers knew cold brewing made purer beer with cleaner qualities than top-fermented summer ales. The official brewing season was restricted between September and April, which meant that a large supply of beer would be stored in the chilly Alps during the summer."
I stared at my beer on the table in front of me, then at the Oktoberfest fairgrounds across the street; then at the faint outline of the Alps in the deep background. I was beginning to see where Max’s story was headed.
"By the end of summer," Max continued, "the many barrels of lager remaining in the mountain caves were brought down into Munich and – with the knowledge that the new brewing season would begin – the old beer was consumed in celebration. I believe the festival was sponsored and encouraged by the king and nobles to keep the common people happy."
"Wow," I said. "That’s really interesting – and makes sense." I drank the rest of my lager and felt much smarter than I had when I took my first sip.
Nighttime in Munich's Marienplatz.
That night – inside our spacious room at the Hotel Seibel which overlooked the Theresenweise – I shared my newly acquired knowledge with my girlfriend. She seemed impressed. So impressed that she immediately went to searching "Oktoberfest history" on Google and fact checking.
"I think Max’s story is bullshit," she said after reading a bit.
I checked and, indeed, the information online said that the first Oktoberfest was held in October of 1810 to commemorate the wedding of a prince and princess. The citizens of Munich were invited to the royal wedding, which took place on the current Oktoberfest Theresenweise fairground. The public party happened there the following year and became an anniversary celebration of sorts, complete with a horseracing event. The addition of local brewery beer tents came decades later and Oktoberfest (as a beer festival) grew from there.
That was it. Nothing about beer purity laws, lagers, or the Alps. Nothing I read online resembled Max’s version of history. But I much preferred Max’s explanation.
The next morning, as I gazed over the Theresienwiese fairgrounds from our hotel room, I remembered my one experience at Oktoberfest. I drank three steins that night, ate a huge pretzel, and was more full than drunk. I watched a person stand on a table in leiderhosen and dance, fall four feet down to the hard ground, get up, laugh, and continue dancing. I witnessed someone fall victim to an extreme gang-wedgey that ripped their underwear to shreds just because this unfortunate person was caught in the area of the beer tent where underwear was traditionally verboten. I remember loud, goofy German folk songs, international drunken diplomacy, and huge lines just to piss in a putrid fifty-meter long metal trough. I had no idea about the history or the breweries involved, or anything aside from what I believed at the time to be the whole point of Oktoberfest: to get sloshed. Shitfaced. Wasted.
Now, looking out over the mostly vacant and lifeless Theresienwiese, I finally had collected some background and solid facts about the grand event: Seven million visitors. Ten million liters of beer consumed. Over one billion dollars generated in two weeks. The biggest festival in the world. With knowledge comes respect, I gathered.
But why Oktoberfest?
I still didn’t have a definitive answer. There was the online-trivia-short answer consensus, and then the more layered beer-based story that Max had told me. I wanted to believe it was a combination of both. But as I looked at the grand beer tents under construction and the otherwise barren Theresienwiese, I mainly wanted to attend the event again with a new sense of perspective. What’s more, I wanted the experience, which is really the appealing thing – not the history outline; not the bullet-pointed facts; and not the red thumbtack stuck into a black dot on the “Places I’ve Been” world map on the wall. The rich history, the energy around the event, and the beauty of Munich got me excited about coming back in late September with new eyes; a new appreciation.
Oktoberfest – how’s that for a spontaneous five-day trip!?
I asked the receptionist at our hotel – across the street from the fairgrounds – what the availability of rooms was during this year’s Oktoberfest. Before looking at his booking calendar, he laughed.
"During Oktoberfest?!" You’re about a year too late, my friend. We sold out six months ago."
He told me that there were still vacancies somewhere in Munich between September 21 and October 6, but not at his hotel – or any others in the neighborhood.
"Maybe I’ll save it for next year," I told him, defeated.
But when I got back online later that day, I found myself distracted from my original task, instead drifting into a search for flights to Munich on Kayak.com and rooms on Booking.com. From what I gathered, a last minute trip to Oktoberfest would be quite expensive, but not impossible.