MUNICH, GERMANY — Call it “The Great German Get-Together,” or perhaps “The Great Get-Together of People From Around the World Who Love Beer, Pretzels and Women in Dirndls.” As Minnesota recovers from its 12 days of State Fair debauchery, Munich is gearing up for 16 days of Oktoberfest, when the city revolves around the most Bavarian of celebrations, and more than 6 million people descend on the city to take part.
The mayor of Munich will tap the first beer barrel at noon Saturday, yelling “O´zapft is!” – It’s tapped! Oktoberfest is all anyone in the city can talk about. Tourists are already beginning to pack the streets: Americans in lederhosen and Italians in motor homes, camping alongside the festival grounds.
Colleagues in my office ask three to four times a day whether I’ll attend Oktoberfest (in what world would I say no?). They follow up with a discussion about how many Maß – the liter quantity that beer is served in at Oktoberfest – an American woman should drink at Oktoberfest (general consensus: one to two). Then they warn me, again, to make sure I get my work done early so I can be out of the office and at the festival by 10 or 11 a.m., have my beer, pretzel and pork, and be gone before the crowds of drunken tourists arrive. The locals, I have learned, drink before noon.
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Like the State Fair in Minnesota, Oktoberfest is a crucial part of Munich’s history. The festival emerged from a five-day celebration of the marriage of Prince Ludwig to Princess Therese of Sachsen-Hildburghausen in 1810, and with a few exceptions for war and cholera epidemics, it’s been going strong ever since. And like Minnesotans, Müncheners are proud of their yearly bash.
So how to compare these two massive festivals?
This year the Minnesota State Fair had 1.7 million visitors in its 320-acre space. Oktoberfest covers a mere 42 acres, confined to an area known as The Wiesn, a special festival ground reserved for the event in the heart of the city.
But in that space, more than 6 million people will gather to consume more than 7.4 million liters of beer. That’s 1.9 million gallons, and by tradition it comes only from the six original Munich breweries – Augustiner, Paulaner, Spaten, Hacker-Pschorr, Hofbräu and Löwenbräu.
And in Minnesota? Even with the fair’s all-you-can-drink option, we consume only 25,000 gallons of milk.
But what about food? Minnesotans can eat! At the State Fair we manage to take down close to 500,000 corn dogs, more than 300,000 mini-donuts and more than 100,000 pounds of cheese curds. At Oktoberfest, the menu is a bit more meat-focused. Last year, more than 500,000 roast chickens were consumed, plus nearly 60,000 pork knuckles, 116 oxen and 85 calves.
And don’t forget the rides. Oktoberfest boasts around 175 amusement rides in the park. And all of this brings in more than a billion euros for the city.
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Prepping this kind of event takes time. Construction for Oktoberfest began in July in order to build the 14 large and 20 small tents that will serve beer and food to guests who reserved spots at the long wooden tables beginning back in January. And dancing on those wooden tables? Absolutely allowed. Last week, the 16 tons of hops arrived to decorate the ceiling of the Hofbräu tent. The wooden kegs used in Augustiner are starting to pile up.
Perhaps my favorite tidbit about Oktoberfest is the special lost-and-found bureau set up especially for the event. Last year it recovered 4,500 items, including wedding rings, hearing aids, license plates and more than 300 pairs of glasses. The losers have six months to reclaim their goods; after that, it’s public auction time.
So with all of this in mind, I’ve been preparing myself for the festival for weeks. The closer it gets, the more I hear about the importance of my participation and the greater pressure I feel to make sure I do Oktoberfest correctly – the same way I make a list of the foods I have to eat at the State Fair each year. My 80-year-old German flat mate has lent me a dirndl. I’m practicing singing at the top of my lungs in German while doing research in the local Biergartens, and I hope my yoga classes are preparing me to lift a five-and-a-half-pound mug of beer. I want to do my part to reach the 7.6 million-liter number.
Can a Minnesotan who grew up on the State Fair, the dairy barn and cheese curds really turn her allegiances to another festival? One with no gigantic heads of beauty queens carved in butter? Ask me Saturday, after my first Maß, but before I get too far into the second.
(Maddy Mahon, an assistant producer for The Daily Circuit, is working for Bavarian public radio as a 2013 journalism fellow with the Arthur F. Burns Fellowship program.)