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In Germany, Oktoberfest is about more than beer

MUNICH, Germany — There was a time Magnus Wohlfart wouldn’t be caught dead in Lederhosen.
After a traditional upbringing, with appropriate exposure to folk music and that most conspicuous of European get-ups, Wohlfart rebelled.
“I didn’t wear Led

MUNICH, Germany — There was a time Magnus Wohlfart wouldn’t be caught dead in Lederhosen.

After a traditional upbringing, with appropriate exposure to folk music and that most conspicuous of European get-ups, Wohlfart rebelled.

“I didn’t wear Lederhosen for more than 10 years,” said the 30-year-old, who works at the Texas Instruments plant in Freising, outside Munich. “Then I became a husband and a father and I realized this is my heritage and that’s part of who I am.”

Now, he owns Lederhosen handed down to him by his grandfather via his father (made from the traditional deerskin, not the cheaper cowhide that some manufacturers use today), and has bought Lederhosen for his 6-year-old son.

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So was he going be upending one-liter beer mugs and doing the thigh-slapping Schuhplattler dance when the 200th anniversary Oktoberfest kicked off Saturday?

Not for all the beer in Bavaria.

Like many Bavarians, Wohlfart regards the world’s biggest beer festival in the state capital Munich as “a big money machine and a big tourist trap” with “outrageously priced beer.”

The 6 million visitors expected at this year’s Oktoberfest will drink about 7 million liters of beer at a cost of up to 8.90 euros ($11.70) a liter. In Germany, where beer is sometimes cheaper than water, that’s expensive.

As with most cultural festivals that go global, Oktoberfest has branded, packaged and exported Bavaria’s culture of drinking beer at long trestle tables, playing oompah music, eating pretzls and pork-knuckle, and wearing Lederhosen and Dirnln, the frilly women’s dresses.

These festivities are, of course, based on tradition. But Germany is a country where regional loyalties — and rivalries — run deep, and nowhere more so that the great southern state of Bavaria, which takes its distinct culture seriously.

Predominantly Catholic (as opposed to the more Protestant north) socially conservative, historically independent and unashamedly Romanticist in its love of the rolling hills and Alpine forests, Bavaria is, as Wohlfart points out, closer to Austria than to the rest of Germany.

The stereotype is of a proud, stubborn, slightly archaic people who are cool toward outsiders.

But then, as Munich anaesthetist Philipp Lakatos, 30, points out, Bavarians have the same impression of Germans from the far north.

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“It’s like this all over Germany — arguing about stupid things,” he said. “Even Dusseldorf and Cologne hate each other and they are right next to each other.”

His fiancee, nurse Nadine Schneider, 30, who comes from Saxony, adds that, “Germany is the only place where you could have a serious fight about sausages and beer.”

“Bavarians have the reputation for being difficult and not open-minded,” she said. “But if you get to know them they are warm people — they just need some time.”

Lakatos and Schneider will play a leading role in the Oktoberfest 200th anniversary celebrations. Along with two other couples, they will be married by Munich’s mayor, Christian Ude, in commemoration of the wedding in 1810 of Bavaria’s Crown Prince Ludwig and Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen, which was the reason for the original Oktoberfest.

They agree that Oktoberfest has become a commercialised caricature of Bavarian culture. While working in emergency medicine, they’ve had to deal with the aftermath of the binge drinking and say the problem is getting worse and the drinkers younger and younger.

Binge drinking might seem inevitable at a festival based around beer, but Lakatos stresses that falling down drunk really isn’t the Bavarian way.

“Bavarians drink as part of their culture,” Lakatos said. “Beer isn’t alcohol; it’s more like food. It’s part of the life here.”

To say Oktoberfest is “only” about the drinking misses the point: Here, beer is an extremely serious business, brewed according to a 500-year-old “purity law” that means it must contain nothing but barley, hops and water.

At a recent lunch gathering at the Hofbräukeller, one of Munich’s leading breweries, another of the couples to be wed at Oktoberfest were doing their duty as part of the pre-festival publicity. Markus Huttner, a Bavarian mounted policeman, and Christin Berger, a dentist from Saxony, are to play the roles of Ludwig and Therese.

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“We were going to get married this year anyway,” said the friendly Huttner, 29. “My family are proudly Bavarian and we thought this would be something special. It may feel a little strange to marry in this way but also … maybe, with so many people watching, more romantic then a standard marriage.”

The guest of honor at the lunch, Prince Leopold of Bavaria from the Wittelsbach House, a descendant of Ludwig and Therese, spent the afternoon signing commemorative beer steins.

“I think he would be surprised that it has turned into such a commercial event,” the Prince said when asked what his great-great-grandfather would think of the modern-day Oktoberfest. “I actually wish there was more traditional Bavarian music still played.”

The lunch went smoothly until an argument errupted after this correspondent sat on another man’s jacket.

The man got irritable and a gallant Munich dentist leapt to the correspondent’s defense, sparking a tense exchange.

In the awkward moments that followed, the jacket’s owner, a German from outside Bavaria, told this correspondent: “I have no problem with you. You’re welcome here. But I feel sorry for you having to sit with a bunch of Bavarians.”

Put that down to a quirk of German regional rivalry.

The young groom-to-be, Huttner, says that Bavarians can be best summed up as “gemutlich” — a word that doesn’t have a direct translation to English but that describes the feeling of kicking back at long trestle tables, drinking beer, talking to neighbors (either friends or strangers) and not worrying about the time.

It’s hard to describe a modern Oktoberfest as “gemutlich,” but Huttner stresses that the same principle applies even when one’s drinking neighbor might be from the other side of the world.

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“Oktoberfest now does not have much to do with Oktoberfest 200 years ago,” he said. “But the world changes. Now we have people from all over the world coming to party here, sit together and learn from each other. It’s a tradition I’m very proud of.”