Oktoberfest: Larger than Life
Text and Photography
Picture six million drinkers quaffing more than five million liters of beer, devouring 600,000 chickens, 400,000 sausages, 92,000 pork knuckles and 157 tons of fish. That was the official count from the 2000 Oktoberfest, which extended from mid-September to the first Sunday in October.
The logistical challenges of Oktoberfest are equally mammoth. For over two months, construction workers labor to raise 14 wood-frame, circus-sized beer tents, representing six beer brands. (Along with all these gallons and pounds, think marks, as well: visitors churned $650 million into the Germany economy during Oktoberfest.)
Workers bring in tables and chairs, install bathrooms, kitchens, lighting, bandstands and more into these canvas-clad airline hangers, some of which seat nearly 10,000 stein-slugging celebrators. The midway surrounding the tent area is equally astounding, featuring a dazzling neon display of death-defying rides plus a couple of hundred vendors hawking grilled fish-on-a-stick, sausages, ice cream, french fries, souvenirs and more. There’s even a flea circus (yes, trained fleas) and a strong man booth (swing the hammer, ring the bell, get the prize). It’s probably best to partake of these attractions before you visit the beer tents, because once inside, the beer takes over.
For some in the beer industry, attending Oktoberfest has become one of the most important events. Only breweries located inside the city limits of Munich are permitted to erect tents at Oktoberfest. These six breweries are Augustiner, Hofbrau, Paulaner, Hacker-Pschorr (a division of Paulaner), Spaten and Lowenbrau. (In Germany, Lowenbrau and Spaten are operated by the same company.)
Each company runs things differently. Augustiner runs two tents, seating 8500 each. Hofbrau operates a tent with room for about 9000 visitors, many of them tourists who come to hear the traditional Bavarian brass bands play. Paulaner/Hacker-Pschorr sponsors a whooping six tents, including one wine tent, where beer is merely a sideline. Spaten commands three facilities, including one with a popular champagne bar. Lowenbrau sponsors two tents. The larger one (8500 capacity) featuring the brand’s famous trademark 15-feet-high lion who drinks and roars every 60 seconds. It costs $1.8 million to assemble and tear down this tent.
Enter a beer tent at Oktoberfest and you enter another world. The air is smokey, the ceiling as tall as a giant. Music pounds the air and the tables stretch long and invitingly through the tents, lined with bench-dancing lads in lederhosen clutching liters of golden Oktoberfest beer. First-timers are well advised to grab a seat and protect it with their lives. Luckily, when the tents fill up, the doors are locked against the waiting masses outside. Signal a dirndl-clad waitresses who’ll scratch down your shouts and minutes later, deliver foaming liters of amber-gold Oktoberfest Marzenbier, lagered long and highly drinkable. Down your liter (33.80 ounces), then order another, along with half a spit-roasted chicken, crispy and salty, and an oversized pretzel or two. Need to visit the Little Herr’s room? Get a friend to save your seat from “scootchers,” then brave the butt-grabbing, hand-holding, cheek-kissing crowd. It’s an unforgettable experience, one that helps fuel the worldwide beer market.
Big Bad Waitresses
For tourists, Oktoberfest is just great fun. For the waitresses, it’s big business. Though each tent is run by a proprietor who makes a profit and hires the staff, the waitress are independent contractors who actually buy the beer. According to Steve Ward, marketing director of European brands for Labatt USA, an waitress can clear about $8,000 to $10,000 during Oktoberfest. Not bad work if you can get it, which is hard to do, of course. Ward says that most waitresses come from the traditional beer halls in Munich, and many times the job is handed down through the family. And yes, before you ask, there is a record for most steins carried: 18 at once, nine on the bottom and nine stacked on top, or so the legend goes. Don’t try this at home; a full stein weighs well over five pounds.
“This year was a test, a scouting expedition for next year,” says Geoff Blanck, Lowenbrau brand manager at Labatt USA, which sponsored contests that awarded trips to Oktoberfest to consumers. Planning for the September 20 to September 24 Munich adventure actually began in May. Blanck says. “In May we approached the sales force and asked them to poll a few chains in the area to assess their interest. We then developed some simple POS materials and made them available in June. The contest ended August 15.” A fulfillment house gathered the entries and picked the 14 consumer winners, from New York, Philadelphia, D.C. and Florida.
On the plane home from Munich’s Oktoberfest 2000, Jay is busily entering another contest, this one to create the cleverest caption for a photo of two pipe-smoking walruses, wearing fezzes and sitting in leather-bound chairs. To win this year’s trip for two to Oktoberfest, all Jay did was fill out the entry form at his local beer store in New Jersey and mail it in, nine days before the deadline. New Yorkers David and Susan, sitting across the aisle, won their trip the same way, while a radio promotion lured Laura and Josie to a local restaurant in Southampton, Pennsylvania, where winners needed to be present to win; Laura’s was the second name they drew. Robert and Mary were the ninth callers to a D.C. radio station. No matter how they made the cut, all were thrilled to be part of the Labatt USA/Lowenbrau first ever Win a Trip To Oktoberfest promotion this September.
“Next year will be bigger,” promises Blanck, pending budget approval,of course. In 2001, Labatt USA/Lowenbrau hope to send at least 100 people to Oktoberfest, a mix of wholesalers, retailers, consumers and writers. “This kind of trip is very powerful in the beer community,” says Blanck, as a relationship builder, sales incentive and PR tool. To generate fun and winners, Blanck says they’re brainstorming now on how to approach next year’s Oktoberfest promotion. He visualizes interactive events, such as a beer-stein-carrying contest. “We want to offer something unique, not just a ‘me-too’ sweepstakes.”
1810 marked the first Oktoberfest, held to celebrate the wedding of Crown-Prince Ludwig of Bavaria and Princess Therese of Sachsen-Hildburghausen. Today, Oktoberfest traditionally runs 16 days, from mid-September to the first Sunday in October.
In 1830, 60,000 people visited Oktoberfest.
By 1860, the numbers exceeded 100,000 (Munich’s population was only 121,000)
1890 saw the building of the first beer palace; the first brass band was introduced in 1897.
In 1985, Germany celebrated the 175th anniversary of Oktoberfest.
In 2000, Oktoberfest was extended for two days, to celebrate 10 years of a unified Germany. Reunification falls on October 3, two days after the first Sunday in October.
Data courtesy of the Lowenbrau archives.