MUNICH’S OKTOBERFEST is either mankind’s lowest form of depravity, or its highest.
I’m just back from a few nights in the festival’s famed brewery tents – during which I enjoyed everything from too many liters of lager to the cacophony of a Bavarian folk band’s version of the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” – and I can’t decide.
I’m going to describe the scene, but with one stipulation. Oktoberfest cannot be described. It is too big, too loud, too awful, too wonderful for words.
This was the 200th anniversary of its inception. It all began as a royal wedding celebration, and it has grown into the largest annual event of any kind in the world. In the space of 17 days in September and October, more than 6 million people flock to a 103-acre expanse of asphalt and compacted dirt that Bavarians still perversely call the “Wiesn,” or “meadow. “
There are roller coasters and Ferris wheels and roasted chicken and chocolate-covered grapes. There are beautiful girls in shape-enhancing dirndls and hairy men in horribly revealing lederhosen. There is hugging and singing and clapping and weaving and dancing and crying.
Most of all, there is beer – raised in toasts, spilled to the floor, guzzled in delight.
All of it comes from Munich’s six breweries: Lowenbrau, Hacker-Pschorr, Hofbrau, Augustiner, Spaten and Paulaner (who, I should disclose, hosted me for the festival). The mayor of Munich taps the first keg in a quaint, time-honored ceremony, but for the most part that’s the last barrel you’ll see.
Instead, much of the beer is delivered to the festival grounds in 7,000-gallon tanker trucks, then transferred to a maze of beer lines that stretch for hundreds of feet. Then it’s poured into tens of thousands of heavy one-liter glass mugs called mass krugen. Up to 7 million of them would be drained this year.
The action is inside the tents – lavishly decorated buildings erected temporarily with massive wooden beams and joists. In the evenings, you need a reservation for a seat, but still hundreds outside push and shove for an open spot.
The largest can hold 10,000 people – about the size of college basketball arena. That’s 10,000 people all consuming inordinate amounts of liquid and large plates of wurst. Let’s just say it’s a good thing the bathrooms are the product of Germany’s legendary technical superiority.
The noise is a welter of discord till the music starts. Then it’s a welter of wedding reception standards, Bavarian drinking songs and John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads. ” One of the most popular is “Ein Prosit Der Gemütlichkeit,” which is roughly translated as “A toast to getting toasted. “
Outside, the sound is of carnival music and broken glass shards being kicked across the asphalt. Lights flash above a hundred food kiosks. It is impossible to walk more than 50 feet without hitting gridlock, usually because some semi-comatose kid (the drinking age is 16) is blocking the walkway, his head slumped to his knees. Medics will be along shortly to clean up the mess.
In the age of M.A.D.D., many Americans would rightly recoil at the excess. Yet it is a shame that it could never happen here; we could use a break from all the serious stuff that’s going around.
I asked Paulaner brewmaster Christian Dahncke if there was any opposition to Oktoberfest in Munich, and he reacted as if I was speaking in a foreign tongue (which, to be truthful, I was).
“For people who don’t want to get drunk,” he replied, “we make nonalcoholic wheat beer. “
I love that sentiment: Live and let live.