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OKTOBERFEST – MUNICH

“Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy”
Benjamin Franklin

A current theory in archaeology holds that mankind cultivated grain not to bake bread, but to brew beer, and that this useful fluid is the original “Staff of Life”. The contribution made by beer to human nourishment and happiness is acknowledged and celebrated, by drinking it in immense quantities over a sixteen day festival held in Munich, the capital of the German province of Bavaria. The Oktoberfest, as this event is known, in addition to offering beer galore, presents its participants with the opportunity to feast on a variety of animals that have been fattened up for their delectation, and also provides a giant fun fair to assist them with their digestion. It is held on a dedicated piece of ground within Munich, forming a city within a city for its duration. Vast crowds, many dressed in traditional costume, gather in its brightly coloured beer tents, to drink, to sing and to gorge themselves. This simple formula of entertainment has led to the Oktoberfest becoming the most popular annual festival on the planet. Around six million people visit it each year, and indulge in a frenzy of feasting, which, in turn, generates an orgy of statistics. At the millennial event, for example, 6.2 million litres of beer, 3/4 of a million chickens, 300,000 sausages, 81,000 pork knuckles and 73 oxen, all of them fat, vanished down the throats of celebrants.

The principal attractions of the Oktoberfest are its Festhallen, or giant beer tents. Each Festhalle has a reputation for attracting a different type of clientele. The Lowenbrau tent, for example, is a favourite amongst visitors from the southern hemisphere. Australians, New Zealanders and South Africans gather in its mock Arcadian confines to observe the antipodean ritual of a “cleansing ale” in which beer is employed as an emetic. The Schottenhamel Festhalle, in contrast, is reckoned to be the most traditional of the Oktoberfest's tents. A majority of its clientele are Bavarian and do their drinking in Volkstrachten. Bench sharing is the operative etiquette at all the Festhallen, for communal eating and drinking is customary in Bavaria. Restaurants in Munich are as likely to sport benches as chairs, and diners prefer to join onto tables that are already colonised, rather than open up new territory. This philosophy is encapsulated in a Bavarian saying, “Nur ein schwein Drinkt Allein” - “Only a pig drinks alone”, and newcomers to a bench at the Oktoberfest are welcomed on arrival, are addressed as “Herr Nachbar” (Dear Neighbour) and are encouraged to contribute to the revelry in progress.

The ambition of the commensal drinkers at the festival is to achieve a particular state of mind known as Gemutlichkeit which the dictionary translates as "comfortable, snug, cosy, pleasant". Their weapon of choice is a beer called Marzen, so named because it is brewed in March, and matured for six months before the festival commences. Marzen is cool, amber in colour, and very delicately flavoured, blending an initial bitterness with a sweet finish. Its bubbles are soft and it foams like champagne. Its aroma is a hundred faint scents mingled – like those of a spring meadow. It is reputed not to cause a hangover, a reputation that it does not deserve. Marzen is drunk by the Mas, or stein, whose official measure is a litre, although a good quarter of its volume may be taken up by the beer's head. Upon the arrival of a fresh glass it is customary to toast one's neighbours on the bench with song.

Although Marzen only contains 5.5% ABV, that is nonetheless 5.5cl of pure alcohol per glass, and whilst alcohol taken daily in small quantities has been proven to prolong the human life-span, its effect in large doses over a short period of time is not so beneficial. The heartbeat begins to speed, the senses to blur, co-ordination vanishes, and emotions become unstable. Alcohol switches off that part of the brain that controls judgement, and hence its consumption makes its drinkers uninhibited. This can result in uncontrollable rages, unrestrained self pity, or overwhelming friendliness. The usual form of uninhibited behaviour on display at the Oktoberfest is of the amicable kind, Gemutlichkeit, in a word. Life, in the drinker's mind, is pleasant and uncomplicated, and these properties, once perceived, are worthy of articulation and repetition. It is also the type of drunkenness that handicaps the tongue, so that such splendid sentiments are hard to express, and dissipate themselves like the froth of bubbles on a head of beer. Should festival goers be overcome by Gemutlichkeit, they may avail themselves of the Bierleichenzelt (“Beer-corpse-tent”), located to the rear of the Festhallen, which acts as a sanctuary for fallen drinkers.