The pursuit of Gemütlichkeit

James Taylor turns away from Munich’s Oktoberfest, in search of a volksfest with soul


The runaway mainstream success of Oktoberfest in Munich has, perversely, led to a certain ambivalence towards the World’s largest volksfest in some quarters. More than six million people cram into the capital of Bavaria, Munich, to indulge in never-ending beer, bratwurst, lederhosen, not mentioning the war and incorrectly using the word Stein (it’s Maß you Neanderthals). Locals and tourists alike feel it has got out of hand; beer prices have skyrocketed, accommodation, similarly, has increased in price and dramatically decreased in availability. There’s also enormous strain on the public services, locals bemoan the increasing numbers of bierleichen (meaning “beer corpses”) covering the fields around the festival and there’s a general consensus it has lost its sense of gemütlichkeit.

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Two hours away from Munich, however, is a place not many people will associate with beer: Erlangen. Famous for its mathematical history, Lothar Matthäus and, improbably, being twinned with Stoke, Erlangen has one more trick up its sleeve. It’s home to possibly the best beer festival in Bavaria. 

The Berch boasts one of the biggest biergartens in the World with a mind-boggling 11,000 seats pleasantly sculpted around the mature elm, chestnut and oak trees. You’d best be quick, as these seats are shared by one million people every year. For some perspective, Glastonbury could only hope to manage a fifth of that number.

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To reach Erlangen, you must go through Nuremberg or Frankfurt (if you’re a cheapskate like me). Both are very accessible. I highly recommend the Frankfurt route, as it allows you to enjoy a wonderful, scenic train journey through middle-Franconia with some classic Bavarian beers – Augustiner-Bräu in this instance. While pre-drinking for a beer festival is quite literally moronic, in Erlangen it’s actively encouraged. A traditional activity (for want of a better word) is the Kastenlauf (crate walk) where the player must purchase a crate of 20 bottles. By the end of the walk the crate must be empty. This is described as a pre-gaming activity, but why would you drink so much before going to a beer festival?

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As it turns out though, a German beer festival could not be more different to the British or American style of beer festival. While festivals here could boast 200 different brewers with multiple beers each, the Germans like to focus on four or five local brewers and tell them to bring a light (usually helles), a dark (usually a dunkel) and a weizen. In the hill, we have Tucher, Steinbach Brau, Mönschof, Kitzmann and Weiherer providing the brews, having done so for as long as I could be bothered to search through the archives.

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Unlike stuffy British festivals, this is more about fun and less about all the other stuff. Shooting galleries, Ferris wheels, dodgy carnival rides, candy floss, terrible fancy dress, drunken singing and more. The Berch has roughly 16 individual bierkeller, each with their own enjoyable twists. From the enormous Henninger Keller, proudly possessing an 800 metre long cellar of sheer beer, to the stunning Fleischmann’s Biergarten with its traditional Franconian fish specialities (such as the delicious Herringbraterei Wittmann – simply roasted herring). Each keller has surprisingly high-quality music – not just the generic, repetitive oompah bands – and an incredibly warm and welcoming atmosphere. Moreover, entry is free, the beer is fairly priced (between 8-9 euros a litre) and the food is plentiful. There was even a gherkin stand, boasting 30 varieties of pickled gherkin. Unsurprisingly, an enormous pickled gherkin isn’t the best beer snack, each bite releasing a flood of horrible vinegar into my mouth, but the novelty factor more than made up for any unpleasantness. 

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Erlangen itself is a peaceful, traditional German town, divided in two parts by the winding Regnitz river. Packed with bars, cafés and parks there’s plenty to keep one busy with aside from the festival. The almost magnetic pull of the beery festivities is hard to contend with however. It’s difficult to avoid being swept up in the euphoria, finding yourself back at Entlas Keller singing “Ein Prosit”, eating a pretzel the size of a child and being conned at the shooting gallery (receiving your change in the form of chocolate coins is great if you like chocolate).

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Thankfully, fuelled mostly by Kitzmann Bergkirchweihbier and with the help of my German-speaking companion, I was able to get by relatively unscathed. While watching thousands of singing revellers, young and old, flood peacefully out of the festival gates, it’s a good time to reflect on what makes the Bergkirchweih great. It can’t be stressed enough just how German this festival really is. Of the one million visitors, I doubt more than 1% are from outside of Bavaria. From speaking to local people, there was an evident feeling of uncertainty towards groups of outsiders. Far from being zenophobic, I believe this is fuelled by what the Munich Oktoberfest has become. This festival is a celebration of Franconian traditions and family values. Gemütlichkeit reigns supreme, commercialisation is not welcome here.

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