|These days … these dreams.|
This essay was written in 2016, as adapted from numerous retellings of my 1989 Munich Oktoberfest story.
In 2004, an afternoon at Oktoberfest was included in the itinerary of what was destined to become the final European motorcoach beer tour of my career as travel organizer. We convened at midday, surrounded by hundreds of Germans who’d come to eat (and drink) lunch before returning to work. It seemed weirdly normal compared with the nighttime revelry.
In terms of ideal weather conditions, the Ohio Valley’s current heat and stickiness isn’t cooperating with my resolve to press forward and tap Hacker-Pschorr Original Oktoberfest at Pints&union. However, as with other obvious manifestations of climate change, it’s probably necessary to begin the process of adapting expectations to reality.
My inner romantic is looking at H-P on tap at P&u as a talisman, one capable of reversing global warming all by itself, at least in my beery dream world for one evening with the air conditioning set to hyperspace.
The seasonality of Oktoberfest in time, beer and year.
Let the record show that in 2016, our Kentuckiana (Indyucky?) weather became tolerable again by Monday, the 26th of September.
The air conditioning had run constantly from the beginning of June, and it was a pleasure to switch it off. There were no 100-degree days I can recall, although temps topped 90 for a record number of days. We also had frequent rain, contributing to a steaminess more commonly associated with Florida.
Taken together, these atmospheric variables wreaked havoc on our five tomato plants, which grew like weeds but only began yielding fruit in early September.
The point to all this is that having endured three and a half months of pain, autumn conditions arrived overnight, and with them the impulse to drink an Oktoberfest (or Märzen) beer.
Naturally, by this point they’d been on store shelves for weeks, as had a profusion of pumpkin-influenced marketing exercises. Well, to each his own. I’m seldom a fan of pumpkin-anything, even when it isn’t used as pretext to augment beers with baking spices best left in their jars, and yet if I were to crave one, 90-degree weather isn’t the time for it.
To be honest, I’ve nothing profound to add to the seasonal beer timing debate, by now a staple of poorly written click bait portals. Rather, my aim is to remark upon how wonderful it can be to enjoy seasonal beers in their appropriate season, especially when they’re well-crafted lagers.
Oktoberfest always was misleading to American ears, this being a “German” concept confined largely to Bavaria and its capital, Munich, and beginning in September, not October.
Back in the 1980s, when we first began receiving shipments of Oktoberfest beer from Bavarian breweries, these tended to be malty brown-shaded lagers. Subsequently they lightened in color, while remaining malt forward, impeccably balanced and of slightly higher alcoholic strength than the norm.
I couldn’t ever separate them from two primary influences.
The first was Michael “The Beer Hunter” Jackson’s descriptions of Oktoberfest, both as a festival and as seasonal beers, and the second was finally being there in Munich in 1989 to witness one and drink the other.
Kindly indulge a look back.
In September of 1989, after an eventful summer spent chasing history in the East Bloc, the leaves were beginning to turn in Copenhagen when it was time for the rail journey to Munich. I’d never been to Oktoberfest, and meant to redress this oversight.
We stocked up on beer, salami, beer, cheese, beer, bread and more beer before boarding for the overnight journey to the Bavarian capital, where reservations had been made at the Pension Hungaria, a small, inexpensive family-run guesthouse near the Hauptbahnhof, or central train station.
Upon arrival, it was still morning. We hurried down the platform to the famous Imbiss at the foot of Gleis (track) 16. The Imbiss is long gone, victim of extensive remodeling, modernization and gentrification, and it wasn’t all that much even in its heyday, but during the 1980’s this simple, functional train station concession stand was a genuine Munich destination for budget travelers the world over.
There were two long windows with outside counter space, plentiful tile and stainless steel, wonderful beer taps, kitchen equipment for preparing basic snacks and several customarily greasy, though by necessity efficient, employees in blue smocks.
In front of the Imbiss were a handful of tables that resembled smaller, elongated versions of the telephone wire spools that used to litter backyards in the Georgetown of my youth. Standing at the tables in morning, evening and night were locals, tourists, commuters, vagrants and assorted hangers-on, the majority of them savoring the Imbiss’s only true specialties: Cool Hacker-Pschorr golden lager at a reasonable price and a portion of Leberkäse, a high-quality form of all-meat bologna cut from a warm deli-sized square loaf, weighed and priced, and served with a crusty roll and plenty of mustard.
The Imbiss at Gleis 16 never disappointed, and with breakfast under our belts, it was time to claim the room and prepare for the main event: Oktoberfest, 1989. A few hours, unburdened of luggage, with Deutschmarks in hand and harboring a powerful thirst, a vast fairgrounds lay before me. It was crowded with carnival rides, arcades, food vendors of every stripe and giant prefabricated beer halls.
There was at least one Oktoberfest beer hall for each of Munich’s six major breweries, all having every appearance of being permanent structures, and yet they would be completely dismantled and stored away at the end of the two-week festival.
Thousands of people of all colors, creeds and nationalities were spread out before me, reveling in Bavaria’s most notorious celebration of beer as a beverage, as a foodstuff and as a way of daily life. My favorites were the natives dressed in folkloric Dirndls and Lederhosen. Later I learned that Oktoberfest is far more localized during the afternoon, yielding to foreign visitors by night.
I’d come to the grounds by way of the U-Bahn (subway), where scores of policemen assisted in the packing and unpacking of underground trains at a station built overly large for peak usage during Oktoberfest’s annual run.
Emerging into the cool dampness, I plunged into the throng and was carried through the Midway by the crowd, past bumper car arenas and target-shooting booths that wouldn’t be out of place at an American state fair, and toward beer halls that assuredly would.
Soon the mass of people parted in near Biblical fashion to reveal the majesty of the Paulaner hall. Gaping at the vision before me, I went off-tackle and bulled ahead. From fifty yards away, the interior was visible through several sets of opened double doors; trance-like, my eyes focused on the octagonal bandstand in the center, where an oom-pah orchestra twice the size of any I’d seen before held forth to the undisguised delight of hundreds of glass-wielding drinkers.
The temporary structure seemed to shake and roll, and to no surprise: Half the people inside were dancing and singing atop the heavy wooden tables, tables that surely had been constructed with precisely that sort of punishment in mind. Obviously, considerations of decorum — those restraints on behavior customarily observed by society — had been forgotten, to the obvious edification of all those present.
I stopped at one of the outer doors. Just yards away, absurdly long rows of whole chickens were being roasted on spits. Signs decreed the price of the liter-sized Masses to be six Deutschmarks, 75 pfennigs – or was it 7.10? Either way, think of it as $8.50 for 33.8 ounces.
Just like in the photos, matronly waitresses toting anywhere from two to ten of the deliciously full Masses rushed past. Pretzels the size of large plates were being eaten.
Still standing at the door, I beheld this veritable city of beer, and as I started to enter, a greenish-hued man staggered past me and began vomiting violently next to a steel support beam.
Finally, it seemed that I’d found home.
Im Himmel gibt es kein bier! Darum trinken wir es hier!
Consequently, and unsurprisingly, these sources and sensations have combined to produce an inner barometer.
To see an Oktoberfest beer on sale in mid-August is an optical illusion to me. If I buy one, it is destined to remain in my cupboard until the Ohio Valley adapts to Bavarian climatic norms. If this occurs in mid-September, that’s fine. If it doesn’t happen until October, even better.
And if I might be in Munich some sweet day to once again experience the real thing … but maybe not. Nothing can match the memory of the first time. Better to board a train for the countryside, find a weekend harvest celebration in a small town, and do it together one more time.