Sunday, 2 October 2011

Oktoberfest: Jaw-Dropping Scale but with Awe-Inspiring Quality

Nothing prepared me for the sheer grandness of the whole thing. And I don’t just mean the Fest itself. Everything about beer in Bavaria is, well, big. You can forget about Texas.

We started, as you do in these parts, with a breakfast beer. Well, breakfast Stein more like. That’s a massive, heavy, handled glass containing damn nearly two pints of beer. In my case, and to general macho mockery (even from the Brunhildegards), I chose a Dunkel Radler. That is a dark beer with lemonade – but pre-mixed in the brewery and sold on tap. It was delicious.

But the size of the glass is nothing in comparison to the size of the pub where we drank it before heading for the Fest itself. The Munich Hofbrauhaus is 11,000 square metres in size – or 100,000 square feet in old money. That is almost twenty times bigger than Le Café Anglais.
It is also a sensationally light and beautiful vaulted building dating back to 1519 (though substantially rebuilt in 1879). Us assembled pub types estimated annual takings at somewhere not a million miles shy of £50 million. Over 7,000 customers a day spending £20, in other words. It also proves that a government can run a piss-up in a brewery. The Bavarian State has owned the place since the monarchy departed power.

And the sheer joy of the menu. Eight mains, all pork or porcine. We didn’t eat but the kitchen (itself the size of Le Café Anglais with a wash-up area the size of Draft House Tower Bridge) was spotless and the food looked immaculately executed.

The Munich Hofbrauhaus is a game-changer and must-visit for any human.

An hour or so and a Dunkel Radler, a Weisse Helles, a Dunkelbier and a Dunkel Weiss later we headed off for the Oktoberfest.

Once again I was overwhelmed. The festival ferris wheel you see from the entrance must be a mile away and looks like a toy. In between are tents, more funfair rides, food stands and thousands, nay hundreds of thousands, of happy drunks.

We were fortunate enough to be in the Augustiner tent, one of the great family-owned breweries of Munich.

Their Oktoberfest Beer (at 9 Euros per Stein) was effectively an oak-aged cask lager, poured from giant 200L wooden barrels. The pressure of the beer emerging from the barrel is such that each litre-Stein takes less than two seconds to pour (a lesson from the middle ages for the cooking lager brewers?). The beer is fresh and frothy and belies its 7% ABV. It is also one of the finest drinks I have ever had the good fortune to drink. No wonder festival beer is also known as Wiesenbier, or beer of the meadows. (Footage of a similar cask being tapped is at the bottom of this post from a sister Augustiner bar in town)

And the tent itself held a mere 11,000 seated guests. Each table is bedecked in an array of German pork products, wafer-thin Kohlrabi, and huge platters of grilled chicken.

I confess to having found it all a tad over-whelming and after two hours and an Easter Island full of mysterious, once full but now empty Steins, we decamped for Munich Old Town and a small pub, Augustiner am Platz, also owned by Augustiner. Here the world was set to rights and – due to studiously avoiding any Schnapps – I found myself in bed at 22-hundred hours.

Here's a video of the barman tapping a 32L cask of Oktoberfestbier (the equivalent 200L casks were being tapped every few minutes or so at the Augustiner tent a few km away). Thanks to John McElhinney of Windmill Taverns for lending me the footage.

The next day, back to England, full of inspiration - and beer.

Many thanks to Brian, Mark and Earl from Thwaite's for their generosity in accommodating me on this extraordinary trip. I love Nutty Black more than ever, chaps.