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The Great Oktoberfest

Zubin Dsouza

In 1814 an incredible event took place which flooded certain streets in London with beer. It wasn’t a very happy occasion because a rupture in a beer vat belonging to a brewery let loose a night of mayhem that caused a million and half litres of beer to fill the streets, homes, drown several people including toddlers and destroy a pub.

There were about eight deaths reported for the entire ghastly incident.

That was probably the last time that copious amounts of beer caused sorrow and bereavement. The recently concluded Oktoberfest in Munich is a testament to that fact!

Can you imagine a celebration that is a fortnight-long, has spawned tackier imitations all over the world and comes with its very own range of limited edition ‘vomit proof’ sneakers crafted by Adidas?

To top it all, it is the largest open air fair in the world and beer apart; it is pretty much a family friendly affair. It also happens to be the one place that Paris Hilton is permanently banned from visiting with the restrictions stemming from her poor choice of attire at an earlier appearance.

It doesn’t get bigger or noisier or more enjoyable than the original Oktoberfest.

On October 12, 1810 Crown Prince (later to become king) Ludwig married queen Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen. In a bid to consolidate the German country and prevent animosity amongst the subjects, the banquet was thrown open and about 40,000 guests were invited for the festivities that followed.

The festivities were held in the fields that lay in front of the palace gates. In honour of their young queen, the fields were called ‘Theresienwiese’ or fields of Therese. More recently they are referred to by the shorter ‘Wies’n’.

Anyway, I think that I have strayed from my story.

When you have a week-long raucous affair with food, beer and song it is hard not to look forward to a repeat of the event. It was held over the next couple of years till finally the city of Munich decided to take over the planning and arrangements.

The city used the festivities as a very important tool to bolster up local business and employment. In the years that were to follow, food and drink were aptly supported by musicians, agricultural shows, and equestrian events. More recently an entire set of carnival rides were added which were meant to cater to the children that accompany their parents to this booze smashup.

The festival was originally held in October but then wiser folk prevailed and moved it up towards the end of September to take advantage of the warmer weather. It still spills over into October to help retain the name.

There are 14 tents on the grounds with the largest being able to seat more than 11,000 people in one go. There are over 1,18,000 seats but most of them are used for dancing upon. Each tent is decked in a separate traditional manner and contains a wide range of activities within. Some may hold archery contests while others may showcase a particular genre of music.

In the 200 plus years since the festival started, it has been called off only about 24 times. The reasons for cancellations have always been major calamities like wars or epidemics like cholera that were sweeping the nation. In every other situation, the partying just doesn’t stop.

It is a total immersion into Bavarian culture with local pride taking precedent over everything else.

The only beers that are allowed for the festival are those made from the six breweries that lie within the Munich city limits. The beers are to adhere to Bavarian beer purity laws which stipulate that only three ingredients which are barley, hops and water are to be used in the making of the beer.

There is a lot of pomp and ceremony involved. It begins with beautifully decorated horses pulling in kegs of beer, the mayor, a couple of serving staff and tent owners. The mayor taps a beer keg and declares the festival open.

The beer is specially made for the occasion with the process beginning sometime in April. The beer tends to be stronger than your regular supermarket purchase which also makes it necessary for a Red Cross tent to be present on the grounds.

Each year, this fortnightly affair sees anything between 600 to 800 folks getting treatment for alcohol poisoning. This is apart from the 8,000 people seeking treatment for other issues including having your face introduced to someone else’s knuckles during the course of a brawl. It is not surprising considering that the place was packed with approximately 6 million visitors that consumed over 8 million litres of beer apart from wine and other not so legal intoxicants.

Luckily the police are spot on and they have logged over 2,000 infractions within the span of the festival.

Although this festival has spectacular international appeal, the majority of the visitors are locals.

The food offerings are rustic but spectacular. There are a wide variety of fish sold which are impaled on a stick and then grilled. These fish sticks although hugely popular are no match for the amazing variety of sausages on display along with pretzels, roasted chicken and pork knuckles. The schnitzel sandwiches and candied apples are definitely a universally appealing draw.

Although we are too late for the recently concluded festival, I aim to be prepared for the next one with my limited edition Adidas vomit-proof sneakers!

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