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The world’s biggest beer festival opened in Munich on Saturday. Running until October 6th, it is expected to attract more than six million visitors, drinking seven million litres of beer and eating 116 oxen.
Here is a timeless guide to Oktoberfest’s traditions, tents, food and beer.
Festooned in primary colours like a drugged-up circus impresario’s vision of utopia, the Hippodrom is the Oktoberfest at its most garish and most glamorous. Enter here and you will be sealed inside a giant beach ball of debauchery. Though it is one of the smallest of the big tents, this only heightens the intensity. There’s a champagne bar where the sexually unattached tend to hang out, and it has become a ghetto for slightly incongruous tourist-celebrities – Paris Hilton and Eva Padberg have both dirndled themselves up here in the last few years. More familiar German glitterati like Boris Becker and those TV-hosts whose names you can never remember are also regular patrons. Music is provided by the regular band Happy Hippo. Whatever that name suggests to you is true.
For those who consider the Hofbräuhaus in central Munich too intimate, low-key and artsy, the brewery’s tycoons created this tent just for you. It’s an immense, raging cavern of Bavarian-ness – the Hofbräuhaus to the power of a kazillion. A huge brass-band, augmented with vocalists and electric guitars, screams uninterrupted for hours at a time, and this venue has become the base-camp for most Americans and Australians. Still, rural Bavaria is literally inserted into the Hofbräu-Festzelt: according to the managers, Margot and Günter Steinberg, an entire field of hops is used to decorate it.
This is the keeper of the spark that ignites the thousands of barrels all around. Except it’s not gunpowder that explodes here, but liquid gold, streaming into gullets and displacing minds. This proud tent is more tradition-conscious than some of the others. It is the home of the ceremony where the mayor of Munich taps the first barrel – with blows from his Conan-esque hammer – signalling the opening of the Oktoberfest. It has earned this honour by virtue of being the oldest of the regular tents, and its management is still in the hands of the venerable Schottenhamel family. The traditional food served here is heavy, large, and very, very good.
At some point, the famous Löwenbräu brewery, makers of maybe the finest Bavarian beer, decided that it wasn’t enough just to have lions on every glass, barrel, flag, and tent pole in this place. They decided to make the foreign tourists understand what their beer was named after by installing a 4.5 metre plastic lion at the entrance to their tent. It roars – some would say belches – into the throbbing crowd every few minutes just so you don’t forget where you are. But with any luck, you might actually find some actual locals from Munich in this tent, as it is the traditional meeting point for fans of the city’s second, more traditionally working class, football team – 1860 München – also known as the “Lions.” Beer still costs plenty though.
Perhaps ever since you were a boy you’ve wanted to tear roasted ox meat off a spit with your bare teeth like a Viking. You probably won’t get a chance to do that here either, as the continually roasting creatures are hung tantalizingly out of reach, but at least you can eat oxen in every imaginable form. There is even an ox-brunch plate (€28.50), where lots of cuts are offered to you at once, like some nightmarish vision of meaty hell. You can even find out the name and the weight of the animal you are eating, as if they were poor sinners serving purgatory in the flames, and you are their tormenting demons.
There are six Oktoberfest breweries. Six and only six. And they are all Bavarian.
If some Beck’s representatives showed up one day and asked to set up a little stall at the entrance, they’d be condemned according to ancient law without trial and taken to a Munich prison, where they’d have to share a cell with a frisky wild Bavarian boar that had been captured in the forest “within the last month.” Okay, that was all made up, but Bavaria’s attitude to beer has always been ruthlessly litigious.
The famous Reinheitsgebot (purity law) was introduced in 1516, and is still heralded as the world’s first consumer protection law, though the modern adherence to the three ingredients (hops, barley-malt and water), is subject to myth and marketing. It was followed by the Brauordnung of 1539, which ruled that you could only brew beer between September and April. But that clearly didn’t last as long as the purity law.
These six breweries have mischief on their minds when October comes around, for they infuse their Oktoberfest brews with more alcohol than their regular output. On top of this, connoisseurs say that Oktoberfest beer is brewed lighter, sweeter, and less carbonated, to make it slide down all those throats with greater ease. To ensure that after Oktoberfest the transition back to your regular beer runs smoothly, the special festive brews are made available in supermarkets and in many of Munich’s regular bars and restaurants.
Four of the six breweries have their own major tent at the Oktoberfest, while the others are heavily represented everywhere else. According the aforementioned connoisseurs, there are apparently differences between them, so here they are:
Augustiner-Bräu-Oktoberfestbier: 6 percent alcohol. Available in – Augustiner-Festhalle and Fischer-Vroni. The only Oktoberfest beer that still comes from wooden kegs. Everyone loves this one – except the people that prefer the others, of course.
Löwenbräu-Oktoberfestbier: 6.1 percent alcohol. Available in – Löwenbräu Festzelt, Schützenfestzelt. This one is bottom-fermented, light, sweet, and with a spicy aroma.
Hofbräu-Oktoberfestbier: 6.3 percent alcohol. Available in – Hofbräuzelt. According to the Hofbräu people, this one has a “slightly bitter taste” best enjoyed in combination with a big pile of grilled meat and dumplings.
Paulaner-Oktoberfestbier: 6 percent alcohol. Available in – Winzerer Fähndl, Käfers Wiesnschänke, Armbrustschützenzelt, Nymphenburg Wein- und Sektzelt. One reviewer said this brew was “malty, with good quilting, and a spicy finish.”
Spaten-Oktoberfestbier: 5.9 percent alcohol. Available in – Hippodrom, Schottenhamel, Spatenbräu Festhalle and Ochsenbraterei. This one is meant to be “malty, light, sweet, full-bodied, and with a light hops-bitterness.”
Hacker-Pschorr-Oktoberfest-Märzen: 5.8 percent alcohol. Available in – Festhalle «Bräurosl», Hackerbräu-Festhalle, Pschorrbräu. Described as “golden, bottom-fermented, with a malt-aroma and a very mild bitterness.”
The food at the Oktoberfest is a lot subtler than you think. Okay, maybe not in the big tents. The chefs’ guiding credo there usually amounts to wedging a stick through anything with four legs, fins or feathers and burning it. But then if you spend your whole Oktoberfest in the big tents you are obviously someone who enjoys life’s coarser pleasures.
That’s fine for some, but there are other, more refined gourmands than you – people who come to the festival with a schedule of what rich, heavy, Bavarian delicacies they are going to shovel into themselves and when. True, these people often don’t make it through the two weeks without a heart attack, but emergency services workers at the festival should earn their keep too, right?
The connoisseurs hunt their delicacies in the smaller tents – those with capacities measured in the hundreds rather than the thousands. Here are a few of the best.
Chicken and Duck
The chicken might well have been the first animal to be sacrificed at the altar of Oktoberfest. The original grilled chicken stall was set up in 1881. Now there are six medium-to-small tents dedicated to the fiery demise of poultry, each with their own specialities. Hendl- und Entenbraterei Heimer, for example, encrust their ducks with a blend of herbs and spices that is so legendary it might as well be a Bavarian state secret. It comes with a not quite so unique celery salad.
Only at Oktoberfest will you find a special tent for sausages. Though it’s not so much a tent as a Disney-fied version of an old Bavarian townhouse. You get the idea – two storeys leaning all quaintly to the side. It is called Zur Bratwurst. This means “To The Grilled Sausage,” which is perhaps the simplest and best name for a restaurant ever. They do pork, veal, and ox-meat sausages, plus those traditional Bavarian tiddlers.
If this is your first Oktoberfest, and you have no qualms about devouring cute baby cows, then your lucky day has come. Able’s Kalbs-Kuchl is a brand new tent, and it offers enough veal to make an animal rights activist give up on the intrinsic goodness of humanity. Of course, unless you’ve had a veal Wiener Schnitzel, you’ve not had a veal Wiener Schnitzel at all. It’s veal-ly good. Oh, you know what we mean.
Desserts – Kaiserschmarrn or Dampfnudel
If you’ve ever had a barium meal, you’ll have an idea of what a Dampfnudel feels like. If you haven’t, Wikipedia “gastrointestinal series” when you get a chance, and in the meantime, be very cautious if anyone offers you a Dampfnudel. The “Nudel” part of the word is very misleading. It is not a noodle at all. It is, in fact, a giant lump of uncooked dough, thinly disguised with a sprinkling of powdered sugar. If you eat it, you will have to lie still and digest like an anaconda for a while. If you can’t go without dessert, then head to Café Kaiserschmarrn. It’s hard to miss. It has two oddly sized minaret-like towers on it, and they’re calling you to pray to the god of cake. The place’s namesake Kaiserschmarrn is a delicious dessert akin to a shredded pancake covered in sugar and jam.
– The Local