Oktoberfest may be one of Germany’s greatest cultural exports, but every time I mentioned it to Berliners I was met with eye rolls and groans. Was the world’s largest beer festival really so trashy and overcrowded? Surely not an event steeped in tradition and frequented by international football stars!
Luckily the Arthur F. Burns fellowship hosted its closing meeting in Munich on Friday, providing an excellent excuse for me to find out. I expected the tents to consist of white canopies covering benches in green fields. After all, the local name for Oktoberfest, “Wiesn,” means meadow. Instead, the tents turned out to be full-blown halls – German engineering doesn’t mess around – and the grounds were a concrete jungle of carnival rides. Needless to say, these attractions became exponentially more fun and more worth the five-euro entry fees as the evening wore on.
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In U.S. beer gardens, a liter of beer is popularly called a stein. This is one of a few German words Americans believe they know. Although it may have roots in history – “stein” translates to “stone,” which may have been used before glassware – asking for a stein won’t get you far at Oktoberfest. Instead one must order a Maß (“mass”).
We Americans had been warned a thousand times over by skeptical Germans that Oktoberfest beer is stronger and the servings larger than we were prepared to handle.
“It’s not Miller Lite,” they nagged.
For example, Löwenbräu brews its beer specially for Oktoberfest with 6.1% alcohol by volume, a stronger version of its usual ware. I snobbishly replied that this pales in comparison to many American craft beers.
Yet it is not necessarily the alcohol content that puts revelers on the floor by noon; cheering crowds, expensive food, and pressure from the “Ein Prosit” song make the liters disappear faster than they might normally. I sustained only a minor injury from a certain Burns fellow playing bumper cars with our drinks during a prost, resulting in glass on the floor and a cut on my hand.
Oktoberfest organizers say one million people visited the festival this weekend. Last year some 6.4 million visitors consumed 6.7 million liters of beer.
I sympathize with the northerners’ opinion a bit more, but now that I’ve invested in a dirndl I can’t help but think I’ll be back.
Updated on September 26, 2014, to clarify the cost of carnival rides.