Oktoberfest: It's Not About the Beer

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Oktoberfest is no place for beer snobs. Five massive, semi-permanent tents sit in the middle of an amusement park in Munich's Theresienwiesn, a fairground southwest of the city center. Each tent is run by one of Munich's five breweries: Löwenbräu, Augustiner, Hacker-Pschorr, Spaten, and Paulaner. And each serves precisely one kind of beer, usually the respective brewery's Oktoberfest concoction.

What? No wheat beer? No dunkel? You realize why as soon as you get inside. Each 13,000-capacity tent is stuffed with people, sitting at benches or standing in the aisles, all drinking liter mugs, or krugs, of beer. Servers, most of them late-middle-age women, trundle up and down the rows gripping full and empty glasses. Most carry six or eight at a time, though the record is 16.

Needless to say, they aren't particularly interested in small talk, and they certainly don't want to wait while you pick your favorite brew. In the center of the tent there is usually a band, and every few songs everyone in the tent stands on their bench and dances. Oktoberfest isn't about the beer. It's about the party the beer facilitates. No wonder it's the Mecca of American frat life.

They wore lederhosen--one of the sons in his grandfather's pair, which had never been washed. "The older the better," he said.

I went on opening day this year, along with my wife Joanna, my occasional but always intrepid liquor co-sampler Jeff Lewandowski, and Jeff's girlfriend Natalie. The weather outside the Augustiner tent was soft and cool, the vague beginnings of fall. But the attitude at the tent door was ice cold. An enormous, tatted-up bouncer refused to let us in, even as he let scores of people leave and small packs of his friends slip by. What was this, a nightclub?

Eventually he must have grown tired of his game, and he waved the four of us inside. The temperature was a good 10 degrees warmer, with a breath-robbing musk of smoke and sweat dampening the air. The crowd pressed in on all sides. Occasionally a server would barrel through like a cannon shot toting five or six glass krugs overflowing with suds.

After a half hour of looking for a table, we slid beside a father, his sons, and two retired men they had just met. They ordered us beers and pretzels. They smiled. We smiled. Chug. They wore lederhosen--one of the sons in his grandfather's pair, which had never been washed. "The older the better," he said. Chug chug. His father told me he was on his 35th Oktoberfest venture. Chug-a-chug. Within half a liter, we were all best friends. By the end of the night, we were practically blood brothers. We were certainly beer brothers.

For most people, Oktoberfest is a lot like learning to swim. It's awful at first--in this case, we had to overcome obnoxious bouncers, rude servers, and stale air, just so we could drink beer that, at 8.5 euros a liter, was hardly a bargain. But remember the first time you could breaststroke the length of the pool? Or play Marco Polo? Same thing. Once you're sitting down, a glass krug in one hand and a pretzel in the other, shout-talking with a drunk Bavarian about his dream vacation to North Dakota, the rest of the world falls away, and you can't imagine being anywhere else.

The next time I checked my watch, it was nearly midnight. We'd been there for six hours. Severely drunk and significantly poorer, we stumbled into the brisk night air and somehow made our way through the streets of Munich and back to our hotel. I won't lie: The next morning was painful. But it was worth it.

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Clay Risen is an editor at The New York Times, and is the author of A Nation on Fire: America in the Wake of the King Assassination. He has written for The New Republic, Smithsonian, and The New York Times Sunday Magazine.

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