When people find out I spent my student placement year in Bavaria they invariably ask me if I went to Oktoberfest, wanting to know what it's like as they've always wanted to go. It is the world's most famous beer festival after all.
Well, I did make that pilgrimage to Munich. And I did have a good time. But am I in a hurry to go back? No. And I will tell you for why.
Biggest does not mean best. I went to Oktoberfest that September some years back (yes, it's confusingly held in September) wanting a traditional German experience, good fun, great food and big beers. And I got all of that with the exception of the typical German bit. In fact, I think Germans at Oktoberfest are outnumbered by tourists. Which means that everything is made super expensive. Even getting in one of the big tents requires a hefty payout. Many of these tourists were from India and Japan and didn't look like they were used to binge-drinking on beer. Especially beer that is over 7% ABV. And is sold by the litre.
The result was carnage. I spent most of my time there tripping over collapsed asians, relieved when I saw they were vomiting because it at least meant they weren't dead. It was messy to say the least.
I fell very lucky in my placement year, however, as it turned out that the town of Erlangen I had been posted to happened to host the second largest beer fest in Bavaria, and in my opinion, the best.
Bergkirchweih (or Berg for short) is everything I wanted from a German beer fest. For a start, there were Germans! Tens of thousands of them, mostly locals, flock every day during the celebration to the hill at the end of the town in which beer was kept back in the olden days. For a couple of weeks in May the cellar doors along the hill are opened and each Keller (cellar) serves its own strong beer, brewed especially for the occasion, to thirsty punters lining the hill in their lederhosen and Dirndls (the traditional dress for the ladies).
Being mostly Germans they have a pretty good constitution for their beer, thus avoiding the casualties that were strewn about in Munich. The food is great, the oompa music pumps out and everyone has an awesome time, whether having a chilled drink on a bench under the trees or dancing on the tables, it's brilliant.
So, when Zoe and I ended up on the continent I promised I would make an overdue return to 'Berg' some 6 years after it had rocked my little world the first time.
After a 5 hour drive across the border, with an unexpected detour through Austria (thanks TomTom) we made it to Erlangen where we met up with my old pal Norm.
Norm is the uber German. Having helped me make the most of my year in Germany by introducing me to Bundesliga football, his huge group of friends and the beer fest culture, we've stayed in regular touch ever since. There could be no better chaperone for my return to Berg and Zoe's inaugural beer fest.
We kicked things off with a traditional 'Frankonian' feast - Franconia being the county within Bavaria in which Erlangen lies, just north of Nuremberg. We met up with my friend Andy, who used to be my boss during my placement internship at Siemens, in the village he lives in on the outskirts of Erlangen. A dish of Schaeufele (slow cooked pork shoulder) and a Kloss (dumpling) was the perfect stomach lining fare before tackling the fest.
We started our festival experience with the 'Anstich' - the grand opening of the event by the town's mayor, the head of the local brewery 'Kitzmann' and, amongst other dignitaries, the beer festival queen!
The ceremony began with a speech in which we were advised to savour the first sip of beer at the festival as it would be the best. This proved correct. The same gentleman also advised caution and to know your drinking limits. This is also very sound advice. I sensed this man was a veteran of many festivals. He had earned his stripes and with it the right to open the fest. As he tapped the first barrel to huge cheers from the assembled masses I asked Norm if one day he will be the nobe townsman giving beer fest advice and opening the party. He assures me he's working on it.
As the pic at the top of this post shows, the beer from the first barrel is given out free by the beer queen and her army of associates. This causes young strapping lads in lederhosen to fight over each other for each jug, most of which they just seem to end up pouring on each other's heads in the melee. Each to their own I suppose, but we decided that rather than get half filled jugs of beer that people had stuck their fingers in, we'd pay the 7.5 Euros it costs for a 'Mass' (litre sized Krug). You can barely get half a pint for that much in Switzerland so we were in our element.
Before the first beer we ventured onto the 'RiesenRad' (giant ferris wheel) which afforded us a beautiful few of the town. It also nearly provided a second viewing of my stodgy lunch too, as our basket (for want of a better term) rocked and spun in a less than convincing way for the whole ride. As our jelly legs stepped off at the end we were all in need of a stiff drink. Thankfully, with festival beer strong enough to put hairs on your chest, we were in the right place.
We met up with some of Norm's friends and had an absolutely brilliant time. It was nice for me to hear German I could understand without too much trouble so I got to practice my Deutsch. Just as my foreign language skills seem to improve when I drink beer from litre sized receptacles, so did the Germans' willingness to speak English so Zoe could join in with the chatter. This was just as well as Zoe loves to chat, even without litres of booze!
The Keller we were at had a live band and soon enough everyone was dancing on the tables and singing along to a mix of modern hits, golden oldies and beer fest classics. I even got to astound some of our drinking buddies with my knowledge of FC Nuremberg football chants (if only Norman had actually taught me something useful!).
As the beer fest came to an end for the night around 11pm we headed back with the huge hoardes into town to the English pub. Alas this is not the same one I frequented in my placement days - that is now a latin bar - but a new equivalent with a few familiar faces. Erlangen also has an awesome kebab shop, crucial if you are to be in a state to tackle the beer fest again the next day, which of course we did! However, the rain the following day was unfortunately as strong as the beer so we didnt last long before we took shelter in the pub again, though we still had a cracking time.
All in all it was a great weekend, it was great to show Zoe the beautiful little corner of Germany that was home for me whilst she was completing her placement in Luton (which has a slightly different vibe!). In the day time I was able to show her the town's beautiful botanic gardens and the pavement cafes in the town's squares which I used to frequent. Now we're within driving distance I'm sure we'll be back to see Norm and co soon, and we won't need the beer fest as an excuse.
Well, all that furious typing has made me thirsty - just as well I bought a little bit of the festival home with me. Prost!
Mike Stuart moved to Switzerland in 2013 when his better half Zoë landed a job in Zurich.