O’zapft is!

The beer lover’s calendar has many highlights throughout the year: Christmas beer tasting, the release of the Maibock, the long summer evenings in the beer gardens, the dark winter-warmers by a log fire in the middle of winter. However, the highlight, at least for drinkers lucky enough to live in Germany, kicks off in the middle of September. I’m obviously referring to the Oktoberfest.

These days, there are many such fests in many parts of the world, but the original one is the one in Munich. First celebrated in 1810 to mark the wedding of one of the many Prince Ludwigs to the one and only Therese of Saxe-Hildeburghausen, it quickly became a tradition to gather at the Theresienwiese in central Munich to drink as many litre-glasses (known as a Maß) as possible before passing out. Today, the festival attracts about 6 million happy drinkers from all over Australia as well as some Europeans and Americans. It’s a very jolly affair, with lots of drinking, singing and thigh-slapping by people in traditional costumes such as the lederhosen worn mainly by the manly men, and the cleavage-friendly dirndl dresses donned by women, some of which are employed as waitresses able to simultaneously carry six full litre-glasses in each hand whilst taking payments from one table and throwing out bottom-pinching drunks from another.

An author and a Maß, both to scale

Personally, I’ve only been once, a couple of years ago. We turned up what we thought was suitably early, at 10am, and tried to get into one of the massive Festzelts. Not a chance – they were already packed. We ended up strolling around the festival grounds for an hour or so, just admiring the craziness of the place – a massive fun-fair with roller coasters, ghost trains and the normal fairground activities, but interspersed with enormous drinking “tents” (actually enormous structures resembling mobile sport halls with fancy facades) that accommodate up to 8500 drinkers each. We eventually managed to squeeze onto a table outside the Hacker tent, and having achieved such a success we remained there for the next 10 hours or so. The litre-glasses of beer kept coming, the Euro-notes kept vanishing, and we made friends with a merry bunch of Germans, Australians, Norwegians, Croatians and a wannabe Scot who defended his ancestral claim on his ability to say “it’s aboot fook’n time”. The atmosphere was extremely friendly, everyone simply just wanted to drink beer and have a laugh, and everyone proceeded to do exactly that.

I've certainly fallen asleep in smaller tents than this one!
Apparently, the atmosphere changes as last orders approaches at 11pm, and tends to get a bit less friendly and more overtly drunken. We therefore decided to leave the grounds around 10pm to catch a train back to the town where we stayed. My girl friend at the time carried me to the train station, put me on the right train back to the town where our hotel was, and then proceeded to marry me as soon as I had sobered up about a year later. It would have been an unforgettable day if only I had remembered a bit more of it.

What’s the beer like, I hear you cry. Well, the Oktoberfest beer is strong – about 6% - even though I’ve heard claims that it’s watered down in some of the tents (I don’t actually believe this, based on experience). We were sat at the Hacker tent, and they served the most amber version, which was malty, full-bodied and very good. The other tents have paler, but still strong, malty-sweet beers on offer. I’ve tried Paulaner and Hacker-Pschorr this year, the latter is by far the best of the two.

One of the Oktoberfest traditions is that only the “big six” Munich breweries are allowed to sell their beers at the Oktoberfest: Spaten-Franziskaner, Löwenbräu, Paulaner, Augustiner, Hofbräuhaus (HB) and Hacker-Pschorr. Nowadays, Spaten-Franziskaner and Löwenbräu are brewed in the same place and owned by the monstrously big Belgian-based InBev group. The same is true for Paulaner and Hacker-Pschorr, except that they are owned by the almost as massive Heineken group, based in the Netherlands. Therefore, if you want to drink proper German beer, you only have the choice of HB and Augustiner, the latter of which is my favourite Munich brewery.

If the Munich fest is a bit too much or a bit too far away for you – and it is, by a considerable margin, the biggest party in the world – then there are hundreds of local copies. Canada’s biggest Oktoberfest takes place in Kitchener-Waterloo in October (!), and it looks like a North American full-on celebration of every German stereotype that exists, plus some they’ve invented just for fun. I might go this year, though I suspect that Molson Canadian won’t be as satisfying a beer as the ones in Germany.

Ah, doesn't that make you thirsty?

Regardless of whether you’re planning to go to an Oktoberfest or not, this is a great time of year to pour yourself double the usual amount of beer into a massive glass, assuming you have such a glass, and if you don’t you can use a vase, and toast the Bavarians and their royal ancestors who came up with such a fine tradition. I can almost hear the crowds singing “ein Prosit, ein Prosit, in Gemütlichkeit”, which means something like “a toast, a toast, in pleasant togetherness”, something which makes a lot more sense once you’ve magically started speaking fluent German after a few Maß. Das ist alles, folks!


Summertime – and the drinking is easy

I’m looking out the window and it’s as dark as a serious porter. A few weeks ago it would have been more pils-coloured out there at this time of day. This can mean only one thing: it’s time for another blog post.

Today I thought it’d be a great idea to review the summer of 2011, in other words the very season which still hasn’t quite finished. The less said about the weather, the better, so I shan’t bore you with statistics about record levels of rainfall and the fact that even though it’s felt like a coldish summer, it’s actually been warmer than the long term average. The topic of this blog is, after all, beer.

One question which causes much debate, serious disagreements and perhaps a minor war or two every year is: what is the ultimate beery refreshment on a hot summer’s day? There are many candidates, but most people will agree that a summer beer should be light in colour, very cold, and perhaps also light in body and taste - perhaps a bit like making love in a canoe, to quote a famous Monty Python sketch. Personally, I disagree. The most refreshing summer beers are not necessarily light in colour and most certainly not light in taste, though I concede that I prefer them coldish. Another aspect of summer beers is that they probably shouldn’t be monster strong in alcohol terms, so that you can have “a few” without necessarily needing the entire autumn to recuperate. This, unfortunately, excludes most beers from Belgium, though the Belgian will no doubt disagree, albeit somewhat drunkenly.

Sometimes, a dark beer in summer is just right

Personally, I find that the Germans, as per usual when it comes to beer, have got everything about right. Their Pilsners are mostly well brewed, and a fair number of them are quite heavily hopped, at least if you compare to the average “global brands” (I’m sure you know which ones I’m talking about and if not I promise to write a severe post where I slag them off properly sometime). The hop presence in the German pilsners is very refreshing and tends to make you fancy just one more before you meander home from the warm evening in the beer garden.

Of course, there’s also the wheat beers. Nobody brews these better than the Bavarians, which probably explains why these people are so fond of their beer gardens. These are so omnipresent that it sometimes comes as a surprise to find pointless things like buildings, parks, roads and tomatoes between them. In fact, quite a few Bavarians live in the beer garden pretty much all summer, having a reserved table called a “Stammtisch” where nobody else is allowed to sit. There they quench their thirsts with the best wheat beers, most of which are wonderfully tart and über-refreshing even though they’re sometimes not particularly light in colour.

The Berlin version of the wheat beer also deserves a mention. This beer is so sour it makes lemons taste like lollipops in comparison, but with a bit of practice and some patience, you should be able to enjoy its taste even if your face may suggest otherwise. An added benefit is its surprisingly low alcohol content – at only 3% or so you can have quite a few before you lose control of your legs, though what it would do to your stomach is a different question.

Bavarian beer gardens are great places to live in summer
Less traditionally associated with summer, but nevertheless refreshing, are other well-hopped beers such as Pale Ales. You won’t find many of these in Germany, but adventurous brewers in North America and lately also in Europe, are brewing some really good examples. What could be better than watching the sunset from your terrace on a warm evening whilst enjoying a chilled pale ale?

In summary (or should that be summery?), I think it’s safe to conclude that beer, without a shadow of doubt, is the best summer drink available. Sure, beer is also the best autumn, winter and spring drink, but that’s not the point. Assuming the weather is half-decent, summer gives you great flexibility since you can be inside, outside, poolside, seaside, offside, backside, countryside or even ribonucleoside and still enjoy a cold brew. For this reason, I have no hesitation in placing the summer firmly amongst my top four favourite seasons, and encourage you all to raise a glass to the last few warm days remaining before, conveniently, the Oktoberfest kicks off.