The real Oktoberfest

Visitors raise their glasses to toast the start of 2016 Oktoberfest festivities in the Hofbraeu tent.
Visitors raise their glasses to toast the start of 2016 Oktoberfest festivities in the Hofbraeu tent. Photo: Johannes Simon/Getty Images

"Drei. Zwei. Eins. O'zapft is!"

I'm at Oktoberfest in Munich and the Lord Mayor's tapping of the first keg heralds cheers, music and cannon fire, signalling to all other tents they can begin to serve beer. And so begins 16 days of traditional celebrations and, inevitably, much drunkenness.

The latter seems most widespread among the nearly 900,000 foreign tourists who descend on Munich for the event (about 15 per cent of the total festival visitors) from September 17.

Oktoberfest visitors cheer with the traditional one-litre beer mugs.
Oktoberfest visitors cheer with the traditional one-litre beer mugs. Photo: Johannes Simon/Getty Images

For many non-German revellers, the relevance of the festival is lost amid the lederhosen and oversized beer mugs. To call Oktoberfest a beer festival is like dismissing the Melbourne Cup as a horse race. Sure, it has horses and a track but it stops a nation because of the place it occupies in our collective consciousness. Its significance now is borne out of the race's history and what it has meant to generations through wars, economic booms and busts.

Even if you accept the comparison, you are only just scratching the surface of Munich's folk fest. It is the Melbourne Cup, Royal Easter Show and Australia Day all rolled into one.

The fabled history is well known. Crown Prince Ludwig, later to become King Ludwig I, married Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen on October 12, 1810. The citizens were invited to the festivities, held in a field in front of the city gates, and the area has been called Theresienwiese, or "Theresa's fields", ever since.

The horses races and festivities were so well received they were held again in 1811, this time with the addition of an agricultural show, given the time of year coincides with the end of the autumn harvest. Over time carnival attractions came to be added and the event moved to mid-September to make the most of Southern Bavaria's late summer.

Beer didn't come to be so intertwined until the late 19th century.The Schottenhamel tent, home of the Anzapfen (tapping ceremony), today seats 10,000 inside and out. In 1867, it was a humble beer booth seating just 50.

The rapid industrialisation of brewing, better brewing techniques and the expansion of efficient transport saw Munich's breweries export greater and greater volumes. Munich's Oktoberfest Museum records that in 1881, 25 per cent of its product was sold outside of Munich and by 1906 this had increased to 50 per cent.

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Locally, this saw beer, already a staple ("beer is food" as Bavarians like to say), dominate the economy. It simultaneously become more important to the annual celebration and in 1895, in collaboration with the city's breweries, innkeepers introduced the idea of "Beer Castles".

Today more than 5 million litres of beer is consumed annually at the event. It's big business for the six Munich breweries that have the rights to the tents.

The beer has changed, too. While each brewery brews a special Oktoberfest Bier, these days it is a much paler lager than previously. Beer purists will argue that the Marzen, a March beer, is the true fest beer, even if it no longer has a place at the festival.

Marzens go back to a time before refrigeration, when brewing wasn't possible over the summer months. Beer was brewed in volume in March, and stored ("lagered" in German) in cellars packed with winter ice, for consumption over the summer. It was a darker, richer brew than today.

Of course, tastes change and darker beers have fallen out of favour with modern drinkers. The economics of brewing demand that lighter-bodied beers are brewed to fit the tastes of the masses.

And here's the rub. While they look and have the drinkability of modern pale lagers, at about 6 per cent alcohol they pack a punch. Served in the traditional litre glass, they are a trap for the unwary.

Sitting and drinking with Munich locals, it is striking how slowly they actually drink, at least by Australian standards. The beer is almost secondary to the animated chatter, singing and dancing. Over the course of four of five hours the voices get louder, the gestures more animated and the faces flushed, but all are far from drunk.

When asked about this, my host – a proud Münchener who now lives in Australia – says that Bavarians have a drinking culture. "Australians just drink," she said.

And they do. They are looked on with benign amusement in Munich, with locals appearing happy that many of the tourists who flood the event corral themselves in the party tents, leaving more traditional tents to them.

Amid the dancing, the pork knuckle and pretzels, perhaps the best thing about a trip to Munich is the freshness of the beer. The only beers available at the festival are brewed in Munich, consumed "around the brewhouse chimney", as the locals like to say. They are aromatic and bready, and a delight worth travelling for.