The Pilgrimage to Oktoberfest,
Bamberg, Aying, and Andechs
I have wanted to go to Germany to drink
their fine beer for years. Others pine for the real ale of England, the
wild beers of Belgium: call me dull, but the pure beauty of lagers calls
to me. I finally got my chance to go on a press junket to Oktoberfest,
courtesy of the lovely and talented Sheryl Barto, who was handling
publicity for PNA at the time. I took advantage of the offer and ran off
to Bamberg, Aying, and Andechs on my own, with a pilgrimage to the
Augustinerkellar while I was in Munich. It was a great, landmark trip,
and so deserves its own page.
I left my house at 12:40 PM. A friend gave me a ride to the train
station, where I caught the R3 to Suburban Station in Philly. My sister
met me there and we had drinks while I waited for the R1 to the airport.
I was packed in a small backpack and a carry-on rollie suitcase, easy to
handle. The R1 got me to the airport at 3:45, I breezed through
security, checked in at Lufthansa, and read the paper till boarding
I was flying Business class, courtesy of Lufthansa, set up by
Paulaner North America (which is now pretty much out of the German beer
business, so I'm not sure whose butt I'm supposed to kiss anymore, and
that suits me just fine): just so everyone knows who’s licking who here.
Business class has much to recommend it, like bigger seats for my bigger
arse, more legroom for my long legs, and much better food for my hungry
gut. On this flight to Frankfurt I got the crab salad appetizer and the
gnocchi with sun-dried tomato entrée, followed by a selection of
cheeses with a glass of fairly decent port. The food was good, even
though the utensils and plates were silly, served on silly fold-out
tables. I got a bottle of Warsteiner Pils to go with dinner.
After dinner I sat back and watched "The Scorpion King"
(not bad at all, but I never did get why they named it that), then
settled in with a new paperback. Long flight, no excitement, very little
turbulence, and then it was hot towels and breakfast time as we cruised
We landed 15 minutes early, at 8:00 AM local time, and by 8:30 I was sitting by the
tracks waiting for the ICE train to Wurzburg. The ICE train is
wonderfully airplane-like, except for the slowdowns through urban areas
and the marvelous trainy level-ness of it all. Oh, and the lack of
seat-pressing acceleration. We smoothly whooshed up to 200 kph once we
got out into farm country that looked amazingly like my home in
Pennsylvania...which is actually not so amazing, considering it was
settled by German immigrants. I dozed off a while when we hit a long
patch of fog. Once in Wurzburg I made a quick change to a regional line
to Bamberg, not really that much of a downgrade in comfort or speed, and
we zoomed off. With the change, I was still in Bamberg at 11:20 AM, not bad
I checked into Brauerei Fässla with a few embarrassing problems,
following the manager into his living apartment on the second floor by
accident. But we got that all sorted out, and I settled down for a beer
downstairs. I had two half-liters of a pleasant but unexceptional
pilsner, and spent most of my time convincing my tablemates that I was
American, not Irish. I mean, really, I’m much too fat to be an
Irishman. After that I took my bags up to my small single room (with private
bathroom and shower, only E34, not bad), donned my butt-bag with camera,
passport, and notebook, and headed out for some beerhunting.
I didn't get very far: right across the street is the
Spezial brewery. Spezial has a really old look to it, more so than
Fässla, but it’s a common look in Bamberg: flagstone floors, dark
wood, simple decor, and wooden trestle tables. I hooked out a bench and
took a seat at a table beside three older men. The waiter came by and I
ordered lunch (jaegerschnitzel, a veal cutlet with an earthy
mushroom gravy, and sides of pickled vegetables) and half a liter of ungespündetr,
the unfiltered pils. It was delicious, but not mind-blowing, fresh, a
nice hoppily floral nose, the kind of off-handed, "oh, this
little thing? Had it for years" everyday perfection I was so looking
forward to finding, and now had.
I started talking to the older gents, Schubert, Paul, and Georg.
Mostly, as would be the case on this trip, we talked about 9/11 and
beer. They all very much wanted to express deep sympathies about 9/11,
which I found touching. They also wanted to know why I wanted to try all
the beers: didn't I know what I liked? I did, I told them: I liked all
the beers. This got a laugh, but it had the edge of a laugh you
give when you aren't really sure the person's in their right mind. So be
Next beer was a smoked märzen, and it was plenty smoked, too, my
first real Bamberger rauchbier in Bamberg. It was a moment I'd promised
myself for years, and here it was. I wrote in my notes as I drank it: "I
don't know if I'm wired, or... I sure don't feel like I've been up for
26 hours. I guess it's like getting off the plane in Kentucky when I've
come for distillery visits: I don't have to worry about loving this
stuff anymore. I'm with my people."
People or no, I had to relieve myself. Why do I mention this?
Well, because to do it, I had to get up, get a key at the counter (a key
attached to a big stick!), and go outside and in towards the courtyard.
Spezial is a streetfront building, but there is an arched entranceway
just wide enough for a car or small truck that leads into a cobbled
courtyard. The bathroom was just off it, clean as a whistle, but a bit
cold. I returned to the bar and had a weizen, dark and delicious, not a
hint of smoke, and a bit more bitter than I'm used to in the style,
which I found made it very drinkable. When I was done with that I paid
my check, said goodbye to the boys, and hit
Let's Go For a Stroll
Have I mentioned what an absolutely glorious day it was? I hate
to do this, but I'll have to put a picture in:
me, standing on a wooden footbridge over the Regnitz, just upstream from
the Rathaus. Note the blue sky and the shirtsleeves. It was fantastic,
and the big grin on my face has nothing to do with the three
young women who were taking my picture, I swear.
There was one thing that sucked about this day: it was Tuesday. This
is the day of rest in Bavaria, and I found Schlenkerla closed. Hosed!
(Wasn't the only one, either: Mahr's: closed! Damn it.) So I walked across the street from
Schlenkerla's central Bamberg taproom to Biergarten Alt-Ringlein and had
a Schlenkerla there instead. Hats off to the people who have always
told me, 'you have to have it there.' It's just fresher. The
rauchbier was fully satisfying, full-bodied and beautifully drinkable,
without the smoked Gouda overtones of bottled imported Schlenkerla, and
it had a brighter edge to it.
Again, the bright blue overhead, and again, trestle table seating,
and I parked across from a guy eating a big plate of roast pork. We
managed to understand each other with some German and some English (my
German's a bit more than rudimentary, but mostly it was just enough to
frustrate me!). We talked about brewery mergers and consolidation,
and agreed that they were bad things. We also agreed that the best way
to combat the trend was to drink good beer!
I came out of Alt-Ringlein and leaned up against a building to
consult my map of beer spots. It was getting on toward sundown. As I'm
looking at the map, an old fellow comes up, pats me on the shoulder, and
says, in pretty good English, "You didn't bomb it down during the
War, don't try to push it over now!" I was startled, but he began
to laugh, so I laughed with him. "Where do you want to go?" he
asked, and I told him, I'm looking for the next place to go for a beer.
"Klosterbrau!" he said. "You must have braunbier."
Okay, and he points the direction, and I'm off.
Well, I liked it! I've heard so-so reviews of the brewery (Bamberg's
oldest, dating from 1533), but I never went inside but to use the
I sat outside and enjoyed the last of the daylight...and the braunbier.
Wonderfully fresh stuff, it actually tasted fresher than Spezial's Ungespundet.
The aroma wasn't much, but the flavor was absolutely alive, zinging
with bready malt and noble hop in abundance. I liked it a lot, but in the name
of full experience, ordered a dunkles: very nice, just a hint of roasted
malt, "goot old trinken," I have in my notes. It was getting
kind of cool by then, so I put on my jacket, and headed back to Fässla
to get directions to Keesman, the source of Herren Pils.
Heh. I got to my room, got out the phone book, found Keesman, and
made the mistake of sitting down on the bed. Next thing I know, I'm
waking up on the bed at 10:00 PM, fully clothed. Four liters-plus of beer and
jet lag had done me in. I gave in, brushed my teeth and drank about a liter of
water, and went to bed.
The alarm goes off, and I'm up. Showered, dressed,
packed, ready to roll. I've got an 8:30 train to catch at the station,
but it's time for breakfast. I had no idea what to expect from
breakfast, which came with the room. It was delish: muesli, thin-sliced ham,
delicious bread, fruit, and plenty of hot tea. I was ready for the day.
Had to go figure out an ATM to pay my bill, but got that taken care of,
took a couple minutes to call home and let them know I was okay,
got my ticket on the DB for the ICE train to Munich, and away I went. I
really loved the trains, much better than commuter air. There was more
legroom in 2nd class on the ICE than there is in Coach, and with the problems
of parking, security, etc. at airports, it's as fast as flying, and it's
weather-proof. It ruled. The distance was about the same as Philly to
Pittsburgh, fare was $42. Bus fare in America is more than that, you
couldn't touch it on airfare. Why can't we do trains?
Anyway, the train got into Hauptbahnhof Munich, and I
till I got on the S-bahn to Aying. It's about 45 minutes, and a pretty
ride. I had set up a visit with the estimable Joe Lipa, east coast rep
for Merchant du Vin, Ayinger's U.S. importer. I got off the train, my
luggage and I, and found myself on the edge of a quiet little town
surrounded by fields. I could see the brewery across the town soccer
field, and Joe had told me the gasthaus was past that, so I
started walking down a long, tree-lined street towards town. Long story
short, I got lost, and asked directions. A very nice gentleman not only
took me on a shortcut through his neighbor's hedge, he walked me to
within sight of the gasthaus and shook my hand. "Welcome to Aying,"
The Inselkammer family owns the brewery and the gasthaus,
which is beside the old Ayinger brewery. I checked in and was greeted by
Frau Angela Inselkammer, wife of patriarch Franz Inselkammer. I got my
room key, went upstairs, and collapsed on the bed. The room was
beautiful, a deep mattress with big feather comforters, all blonde wood,
and the bathroom was all red granite (with a towel warmer, oh
luxury). "We wanted the rooms to be personal," Angela
told me, "not with every lamp in the same place in every
It was another gorgeous day
outside, so I opened the windows out onto the little platz in
front of the gasthaus, opened a bottle of mineral water, and read
for about ten minutes, at which point I dozed off again, for about an
hour. When I woke up, I was essentially de-lagged, and ready to go. I
took notes on Bamberg for a while, read the press kit on the brewery,
and showered and changed for my 5:00 brewery tour.
I walked down to the brewery, about a ten minute stroll,
and met the tour guide, Heinz Meixenberger, a friendly gentleman dressed
in traditional Bavarian clothing (at least, it looked traditional to me,
I can't imagine why anyone would wear what he was wearing without a good
reason). We were joined by the Dickersons, Gary, Paul, and Kevin (hi,
guys!), three guys from a beer wholesale business in
Bellingham, WA, a likely enough crew, and we took off on the tour.
Aying's brewery is extremely high-tech but built in a
semi-rustic, traditional style that makes it look like it belongs right
in the town. It is the newest brewery in Germany (built in 1999). It is
100% privately owned by the Inselkammer family. The Liebhard family had
founded the brewery, and still own the beergarden across the platz from
the gasthaus. The Liebhards were farmers, who also had a tavern
and started brewing beer for it (naturally enough: they were barley
farmers). The old original brewery, which is half a block from the gasthaus,
had a pipeline to the bottling words on the edge of town. It's all
consolidated at the new plant now.
Heinz made a point of Herr Inselkammer's determination
to be a regional brewery. "We are in the region, from
the region, and for the region," he said. They buy brewing
materials in the region when they can, and 80% of the brewery's output
is sold in the region. Not all of that output is beer, by the way:
Ayinger has a thriving soft drink business, and bottles water from their
176 m. deep wells, too. Heinz gave us a sample of the water right off
the well tap. It tasted like water.
Then we went to the brewhouse. It's a classic
four-vessel German-style decoction brewhouse, fully automated, a two-man
operation. They use hopbacks, which surprised me. They also do their own
yeast propagation and do in-line pitching, blending the yeast into the
wort as it flows to the fermentation tanks. That's where we went next:
fermentation hall. It's a long hallway, immaculately clean and lined
with tall stainless steel tanks, with a mirror-wall at the end that
makes it look even longer.
"Here," said Heinz, "is where we add the
fifth element to our beer: Time." Ayinger does a minimum of 6 weeks
lagering at 0-2°C for all their lager beer. (Heinz was dead on
with all the technical details of brewing, by the way, one of the most
in-depth brewery tours I've ever received.) The time is the magic
element, he said. That's how you can take "blue water, green hops,
brown grain, and white yeast...and get golden beer," he said with a
Then he did something I've never seen on a commercial
tour. I mean, the wholesalers and I were VIPs, but Heinz confirmed that
this is part of the regular tour. He pulled out a cart with a pitcher
and glasses, and proceeded to tap a pitcher of their flagship
Jahr-Hundert beer (a kind of über-helles) right out of the lager
tank. He poured us each a glass of the cloudy, unfiltered beer...it was
superb, much more hop character, a liveliness to it that was stunning.
Not very carbonated, of course, but not flat either. It was great. There
has GOT to be a market for cask lager!
Then we went up to the theater for a 3-D movie on the
brewing process, followed by a light show in the overhead space of the
fermentation hall. Sounds goofy, maybe, but it was pretty neat. It was
all colored lights and classical music with a stirring speech in the
background about the semi-mystic process of barley to beer, and up there
in the dark attic of the brewery, it was impressive.
Then we went to the hospitality room, and that
was impressive. Taps of all the Ayinger beers, and they insisted that we
try them all... Darn. So we did! They were uniformly delicious,
including the Winter Bock that we never see in America. The boys from
Bellingham and I worked very hard to convince them that we should be
getting this in the states. Celebrator was excellent, beautifully fresh,
and the Brau-Weisse was outstanding. Herr Inselkammer showed up, looking
pretty good for an older man who'd had a stroke the year before. The
stroke had robbed him of the ability to speak English, although, in that
weird way strokes can be selective, he still understood it. I joked with
him that he was lucky, it could have been his ability to speak German.
He got a chuckle out of that, which in retrospect surprises me.
I went out on the balcony to admire the long sunset, and
Angela Inselkammer joined me. She pointed out the family fields right
across the street from the brewery. "We buy barley from the family
farm," she said, "but only when the barley is of a sufficient
quality." The area is evidently right on the southern edge of the
prime barley-growing area of Bavaria. "It makes a nice increase in
the year's profits when we do," she continued, "but if it's
not good enough, we would hurt the beer's quality if we used it. It took
us some years to realize that, but in the long term it's better for the
The Not-so-ugly American
It was getting dark, and a bit cooler, so we went back
to the gasthaus for dinner. The restaurant, Frau Inselkammer's
realm, is very nice; very nice. Not stuffy, very informal, but
the food was delicious and far from simple country fare. I let
Angela order for me. First course was fresh water fish in weissbier
aspic. The aspic melted to a beautifully rich broth, while the fish was
perfectly done, flaky and tender. The soup was Schwabian brotsuppe
("bread soup"), a dark, rich, toasty soup heavy with broken
down dark bread and flecked with bits of smoky ham. The main course was
venison with mushrooms, red cabbage, and spätzel. The mushrooms were in
a cream sauce, but the venison was quite plain and grilled: perfect, and
easy to taste the good, rich flavor of the meat (though it was also good
with a schmear of the cream sauce on it). Dessert was coffee and "beeramisu,"
dusted with cocoa powder: exquisite. I have in my notes: "It's not
just Ayinger that's mad about perfection and deliciousness, it's the
Well, we finally pushed back from the table, replete,
shook hands and went up to our rooms. I got there, sat down, started to
take notes...and realized I had no desire to sit in my room. So I just
followed my bliss and went back downstairs and took a small table near
the door. Shortly I was enjoying a Cuban Monte Cristo and another glass
of unfiltered Jahr-Hundertbier, the kellarbier. Life was very
There was a long table about 15 feet away where about a
dozen people, obviously friends, were discussing politics, which is to
say, America, Iraq, and Germany. It sounded like they were split
somewhat evenly between "America assumes we will agree with
whatever they say" and "Why aren't we doing this with
them?!" I found myself wishing I knew enough German to join them.
Then suddenly one of the women from the table, on her way back from the
restroom, sat down across from me at my table, looked me right in the
(rather surprised) eye, and asked, "Are you an American?" Yes.
"Are you from the East Coast?" Yes! "Would you like to
come talk with us?" Ha! Yes! We talked a moment more, and it turns
out that she was a foreign exchange student in 1971 at a school district
in my home country in PA, not 20 miles from where I was going to middle
school at the time. Amazing.
Well, of course I went, and we drank and we talked and
we took pictures of each other for three hours (this is a picture Volker
sent me about a week after I got back). They had all gone to
school together and were from Köln (Cologne) originally. This couple
had moved down to Bavaria for the husband's, Volker's, work: he worked for IBM for 28 years,
and spoke perfect English. We talked politics, American and German, we
did talk about beer (German beer is "way better than Belgium beer,
we have a longer history of beer," and Köln beer is better than
Dusseldorf beer "It's more honest beer, and more excited!"
whatever that meant), and it was wonderful. A couple tough moments when
the firebrand blond guy said "Well? Do you think we should go to
Iraq? Yes?" I don't know, I said, and he jeered, and I asked him
what his rush was: I was finding out more about the subject so I could
make up my own mind instead of letting the politicians make it up for
me. That got some sage nods around the table.
But mostly, we talked about 9/11, as I always wound up
talking about in Germany. They all wanted to express how terribly sorry
they were, and it humbled me to hear it, and it felt good to have their
sympathy. One disturbing moment came in the midst of that, when Volker said, "You know, we saw you all put out your flags when the
tragedy happened. We didn't really understand, most Germans. Because we
would not have done that." Why, I asked, somewhat insensitively,
but he had brought it up. "Because," he said, and paused
before going on, "because we have had pride in our flag beaten out
of us. You saw the war monument up in the square?" He referred to a
simple monument to German war dead from the Franco-Prussian War and the
two World Wars, which I had indeed noted. "There aren't that many
of them in Germany," Volker said. "We aren't proud anymore."
Hard moment, and we solemnly clinked glasses, raised them to each other,
We finally broke up around 1:00, shaking hands all
round. What a great time, and what a lot of excellent beer.
The next morning was Re-Unification Day, a national holiday
celebrating the reunion of East and West Germany. It was a low-key
holiday: didn't see one parade. Heh. Meanwhile, I had a decision to
make: Andechs or Forschungsbrauerei, famous doppelbock or vaunted
blonderbock? I debated with myself while packing (and regretfully
leaving behind some beers they had forced on me: I just didn't have the
room, and I damn near cried. I kept the Celebrator, though), but didn't
come to a decision. I walked the half-mile back to the S-bahn station,
where I saw that Perlach, the stop near Forschungsbrauerei, was only 5
stops up the route, while Andechs was probably 40 miles on the other
side of Munich. Turn off brain, buy farecard for Perlach, thank you!
After a short train ride, and a bit of a meander around Perlach to
find an ATM, I opened Forschungsbrauerei at 11:30. And they were ready, too, I
had a super-attentive waiter, and right quickly after that I had a liter of St.
Jakobus blonderbock. It was (to quote my notes at length (remember,
it was early in the day)) "dark gold in color, heavy enough to
block a bit of light. Aroma is pure malt with a bit of alcohol. That's
pretty much the taste, too, which sounds too simple... All these beers
sound simple! Not so. It's just that they are so plain,
no...honest, no...pure in their presentation. It's like drinking
water. There's no hitch, no "damn, if only it was X." They
simply pour down the throat. Beautiful. The only astounding thing about
St. Jakobus is the touted 'malt dryness.' There is not a hint of sweet
here: it is malt, not sugar, and not a hint of pull or cloy in the
finish. That's talent, and not even Victory can pull it off this well --
yet, or perhaps they choose not to."
I figured I better have something to go with this big boy, and
ordered one of the huge soft pretzels that are so much better
than any soft pretzel I've ever had in the States...yes, even in Philly.
I munched and sipped, and enjoyed the tree-curtained spread of the
garden. Much is made of Forshungsbrauerei's bauhaus-y look:
Jackson says it looks like an airport control tower. Well, he's right,
it does, much as I would have liked to dispute that. But it misses the
point of how beautiful the beergarden is beside that building. It's
quiet, even though a main street runs beside it, it's green, it's
well-kept. It's a nice place, it's a beer garden.
It was so nice, I had another, the Pilsissimus. Yes, a pilsner. It
was bitter, and lighter in body, though damn near the same color as the
bock. I thought it was more like an Export than a pils, but who am I to
discourage a German brewer from a little style-straddling?
Eventually I had to go, and hopped back on the S-bahn to a stop
within about a block of my hotel...er, PNA's hotel, the Sheraton
Westpark. I checked in, stashed my stuff with the clerk, and made tracks
to the one place I wanted to go more than anywhere else in Munich, more
than the Oktoberfest, truth be told. As I hiked up the
Arnulfstrasse, I started walking faster and humming to myself, a
long-time goal was about to be achieved. There, just past Hopfen Strasse,
was the Augustinerkeller.
The Germans have a saying to express complete benign content:
"like God in Paris." That's how I felt. Oh, my.
Augustinerbräu Edelstof is probably my gun-to-the-head favorite German
lager, and here I was, getting it from a wooden barrel (vom holzfass),
right in the Augustinerkeller. I'm not given to emotion about
beer, but this was damn near overwhelming. I stuck my paw in the grip of
the liter stein (mass), and hoisted it. Pale gold, as clear as
air, and it tasted like the heavy beer-laden air in a spotlessly clean
lager ferment hall, so light and dry and yet jammed full with
malt flavor: magic. Only thing was, as I wrote, "This is just not
as good with no one around to say "Damn!" to.
Still...drinking Edelstof under these century-old chestnut trees...Herr
Gott can have Paris, I'll take München."
When the waitress came round for my next mass, I got a plate
of schweinwürstl with sauerkraut, a delicious pair of long, thin
pork sausages with well-cooked kraut. They were delicious with the beer,
and the beer tasted better as I ate. Well, you know, kraut, sausage, the
beer's in its natural habitat! Which led me to wonder...with all this
beer and sausages being consumed, why doesn't Munich smell like a
To the Wies'n!
It was time to go, and
I packed up my notes and my camera and headed back to the hotel. That's
where I met the rest of the Paulaner North America group, shepherded by
PNA head Jeff Coleman (my little press group was herded by PR ace Sheryl
Barto, and included Boston beer guy Kerry Byrne, a unique individual I
got to know a little better while I was there: good guy). Hey, there was
the whole crew from Stone
Brewing (the Arrogant Bastard guys) including head Bastard Greg
Koch: Stone distributes as well as brews, and PNA was one of their
suppliers. We all hit the U-bahn and headed over to Oktoberfest.
We found out right away
what we were in for, before we even came up (the Fest has its own U-bahn
stop). Remember, six million people visit Oktoberfest every year,
and most of them take the subway. CROWDED! And they're wearing big goofy
hats, and gingerbread hearts around their necks, and glowing
jewelry...the ones coming FROM the Fest, that is, and they're all happy
drunks. Cool, I think, soon I'm going to be like them!
Because dig it, folks:
you don't go to Ofest for the food (though it's great), for the rides
(though they're fun), or the music (though it's...ummm ... er... loud),
you go for the beer, and you drink a lot of it because it's
really good and there's kind of an atmosphere of
drink-drink-drink-drink, and...you get drunk. It's not about responsible
consumption at this point, you're here to get a buzz on. Not falling
down, puke-on-your-shoes drunk, because that's frowned on, but buzzed, a
bit sloppy, that's cool, if only because you'd have to be insane to
drive to this thing. And you know what? It's good to have a load
on with 100,000 happy Germans (and Kiwis, and Ozzies, and Irish, and
Brits, because they come from all over the world for this).
So our groaning, packed
subway train went to the Theresienwiese stop: the Oktoberfest! The Fest
is held on this long open area in Munich called the Theresienwiese,
colloquially known as the Wies'n, pronounced "VEEZ-zin."
This is where the original Ofest was held, celebrating the marriage of
Joseph Maximilian, king of Bavaria, to Theresa of Saxony: hence, Theresienwiese.
The Wies'n is home to what are called "the tents," only
they're not big circus canvases, oh no! These are wooden frame buildings
they throw up each year, parceled out to the Munich breweries: Hacker-Pschorr,
Paulaner, Löwenbräu, Hofbräuhaus, Augustinerbräu, and Spaten.
There's a wine tent, too, but... well, you know.
The Wies'n was
astonishing. Imagine a bustling midway from a big state fair, lots of
food stands (with roast chickens, sausages, roast oxen, pork shanks, and
something called steckerlfisch, which was a roasted mackerel with a
skewer shoved up its ass that you munched like a corn dog), lights,
rides, and lots and lots of beer. The whole thing's really about beer,
which was just so damned wonderful. Everyone knew it was about
beer, and that was just so comfortable.
Get. Me. A. BEEEEEER!!!!
I was following the
lead of Kerry Byrne, an Ofest veteran, as he ducked and dodged through
the crowds. We were headed for the Hacker tent, and man, when we got
there, it was astounding. There are expansive decks all around the
building for drinking: full. There were broad hallways around the main
floor: full. And there was the main floor itself: completely full. And
everyone was drinking, huge liter mugs of beautiful beer. I wanted
Luckily for my mild
tendency to claustrophobia, we were VIPs, which meant we got to go up in
the balconies overlooking each end. Once we got everything straightened
out with security (not obtrusive at all), up we went, and bedamned if we
didn't get big whopping mugs of our own. Hot damn! I got my hand
in that thing, put it up to my mouth (you don't bring a mug like this to
your lips, you gotta use your whole mouth), and got it
in me. I had a powerful thirst by this time, propelled by the long
day of travel, two beers, travel, one beer, more travel, and then
pants-dancing frustration when I couldn't get stuck right into a beer
as soon as I got to the Wies'n...honest to God, some people
just don't understand how bad a guy needs a beer sometimes. But it was all
Look. I could go on and
on about this beer, the noise, the craziness. But I'll tear it down to
one paragraph. The beer: smoother than greased glass. It was not
the "classic" amber Ofest we enjoy here when we open those big
half-liter bottles of Hacker-Pschorr Märzen, it was lighter in color
and heft: all the rumors you've heard are true. I didn't give a damn.
It ruled. The atmosphere: there is no more oompah music, the big brass
bands now play crappy British pop songs. Which sucks, because I really
wanted to hear that thumping oompah music. But you know what? I
didn't give a damn.
That's right, I
didn't give a damn, because I was at Oktoberfest! The world
was my friend, and all the notes, all the detachment, all the talking to
Germans about politics and Iraq, all the objectivity and, uh...my job
were out the window. I was at Oktoberfest, and all I wanted was another
beer, some of that chicken, another lashing of snuff (Germans are big on
snuff, and I was a pretty heavy user for a while in college, so I showed
the PNA boys what it was all about, and we were all sneezing like mad
and laughing our asses off), and to howl out the few songs I knew with
all my new best friends. I know, I'm bad, I should have been taking page
after page of notes on what people were singing, how big the place was,
exactly what the beer tasted like, but to hell with all that. I was
having a blast, and not a little of it was nothing more than drinking
Hours flew by. Beers
came. We drank them; what else were we going to do? Kerry told me I had
six liters. Okay, maybe I did, I'm a big guy. I do know that they
stopped serving beer at 10:30, and at 11:00 they turned off the lights.
And bless their toe-the-line little German butts, everyone was out of
the hall at 11:03. No kidding, I have a time-stamped photo of an empty
hall. I was amazed.
Out into the night,
into the U-bahn to the hotel -- hey! I was one of those people now!
Yup. Smiling, leaning on each other, funny hats (I was wearing a soft
pretzel on my head at one point: I know because Sheryl Barto was good
enough to take this picture of it. Thanks, darlin!), and maybe a little
Up into the hotel...look, a bar, and we kept going. I
know Greg Koch and I drank a lot at this point, and we were a bit
sloppy. But that's about all, so let's draw a curtain on the rest of the
night. I made it to my room, I drank a lot of water, I hit the mattress
like a ton of sauerkraut.
Too cruelly early ( I think around 9:00), we had to get up for a tour
of the Paulaner brewery. I was fine once I'd brushed my eyes and combed
It was a brewery
tour. You've seen 'em. Paulaner is highly automated, the lagering
cellars are four stories deep beneath street level and they are madly
immaculate. Salvator spends 12 weeks there, lagering, sleeping, resting
up so it's ready to give you a good ass-kicking when you open the bottle.
There was a stream, the "Eisbach," that ran through the
brewery campus. It was pleasantly jarring in the city heart: rushing,
clear, defiant. The brewery's water comes from 900 ft. deep wells
drilled into a big clay bubble.
One cool thing was a
bit of industrial history. Paulaner has Linde Eismaschin No. 22, one of
the world's first refrigeration units...and it's in working order. I
won't say I was awed, but I was a bit disappointed that no one else
thought this was cool. I am a geek.
Enough. We board the
bus (no samples? Come on!) to go to Paulaner's
"brewpub" downtown. Much of Munich looks old, but, um,
it's only about 50 years old. Urban renewal by B-24, I guess. Paulaner's
brewpub is an example. Inside and out, it looks old, centuries old. I
can't imagine how much this cost, but Munich did it back in the 1950s. I
understand Warsaw did the same thing.
Paulaner laid on a
great feed: cold cuts, those delicious pretzels, roast pork: damn, it
was good. There was a gypsy band strolling around, with a guy who sang
and played the panpipes. I'd put in a picture, but every time I snapped
one, he turned around. I was ready to throw the camera at him.
I was stuffed, I was
sated, I was drinking freely. We got back on the bus, went back to the
hotel, and I took a nap. Professional trick, we do it all the time.
Couple hours, and I was ready for more. Good thing, too, because there
was lots of evening to come.
They Follow Me Everywhere
I headed downstairs to
the bar, and ran into our little press clique. How odd, to find them
there. We were gearing up for dinner with Jeff Coleman, the head honcho
at PNA. He took us to a place he knew that looked fantastic. We ordered
beers (Paulaner hefe, for me, wasn't getting enough of this wonderfully
fresh stuff) and ordered food, and talked and talked and talked....
....and talked and
drank and talked and drank and... it gradually became obvious that
something had gone very wrong in the kitchen. Nothing we'd ordered after
the apps was arriving, and we were being pieced off with little amusee
pieces and free rounds of drinks. I hate to sound like a true press
whore here, but look, pal: they're ALL free drinks, so you're not
impressing us, and this "no dinner" shite was rapidly
wearing thin, particularly with us not being at the Wies'n.
Kerry, Sheryl, and I decided to bolt. We thanked Jeff, who was very good
about it, and ran for the U-bahn. Ten minutes later (we got lucky on
catching a train) we were coming up into the Wies'n, from a different
station this time, and a different angle.
Into the Paulaner tent
tonight, and this time we didn't need any training, didn't need any
showing of the ropes, and there was no pretense that we were in any
way...working. We grabbed roasted chickens and crammed them in our
mouths (well, Kerry and I did, Sheryl was a bit more refined), and
started trying to catch up on our beer intake, which was dangerously
There was a definite
difference in the air at the Paulaner tent, a rawer, more emotional
mood. Not nasty, but more earthy than the Hacker tent. Like the drunken
redhead two tables down. She was completely passed out, head down on the
table. She was so drunk, people (not me) were grabbing the hair
on the back of her head, pulling her head up just long enough for their
friends to take a picture with her, and then dropping her head back onto
the table. Classy.
So there I was, minding
my own business (which, at the time, was drinking liters of Paulaner),
and talking to Kerry. I'm on the west balcony of the Paulaner tent, in
Munich. I turned away from Kerry...and there, smack-dab in front of me,
not three feet away, is Paul Ohlivier, partner, chef, and bon
freaking vivant of Ludwig's Garten, the fabulous German watering
hole in Center City Philadelphia. We were both stunned, then bellowed
each other's name, and embraced in that manly drunken embrace drunken
men embrace in. Damn, he was sweaty.
we'd finished bellowing, he grabbed my arm and dragged me about eight
tables down the balcony, and there, along with other Philly-volk, are Matt
"Beer Yard" Guyer and Jim "Still Trying to Keep my
Red Bell Stock Afloat" Cancro, two of my very favorite Philly
beer scene people. Unreal! I was astonished, I was elated, I was moved
to have another beer. Again. (The picture is Paul, me, and Matt.)
This was wonderful, in
a very Oktoberfest way. Now I had true drinking buddies with me, men I'd
shared beer with before, and proceeded to share more with. We got a
little cross-fertilization going between our two groups, and drank that
lucid beer (as I heard someone call it back in college, an accidental
construction that has stuck with me) and roared out that insipid pop
Sooner than we hoped,
it all came to an end. It was 11:00, and Munich largely shuts down
around midnight. But Matt knew an after-hours kind of place, The
Galway Hooker, and he talked me into going along, and I talked Kerry
and the guys from Stone Brewing into going along. But first, we had to
What a madhouse! I
never had to wait more than three minutes in line to pee at the 'Fest,
they know how things work when guys are drinking lots of beer.
But people were racing around the men's room, drunk and in a hurry to
get somewhere else where there was more beer. I saw a guy
pounding on the door of a stall, howling for his friend to finish up and
come out. Then he chinned himself on the door to holler at the guy
directly. Then the guy pushed himself up on the door and flipped over
into the stall, headfirst! I expected screams, but about
fifteen seconds later they both walked out, laughing.
We walked out of the
'Fest, chatting up girls as we went, and got out into the streets where
we did a little of what the Germans call wildes Bieseln' (hey,
you wanna know, look it up), got hold of a couple taxis and headed for the Hooker.
"Hooker," by the way, refers to a type of fishing ship. What
were you thinking? It turned out to be right across the street
from the HofbräuHaus, which made it easy to locate.
The rush hadn't started
when we got there, and Matt was able to make some time with a bartender
he was mooning over. The place was hot and smoky, but still bearable,
and had a surprisingly large selection of beers, including Timothy
Taylor, of all things. I had one, decided I'd better stick to the local
stuff, and started slurping down Augustiner. That's when Matt made me
want to shoot him by telling me about having just run into a brewer from
Augustiner by accident in a bar. "He had just gotten off
shift around midnight, but we got to talking and he took me on a
tour," Matt said.
morning?" I asked.
then!" Matt laughed. "He had a key, and we went through the
brewery at 2:00 in the morning." Holy Lord, a private Augustiner tour
at 2 in the morning with a drunk brewer? I could drink free for a
month off a story like that!
I was depressed, but I
got over it by drinking another Augustiner. Then I asked Matt where the
men's room was, and he pointed, then said, "You won't want to come
out." Hah? He was right! It was
about 15 degrees cooler and the air was fresh! I stuck my head out the
door and yelled at him "Step into my office, and bring my
beer!" So we hung out in the men's room for a while, just shooting
the breeze and cooling off, then had to go back out for more beer.
Everyone was getting on well, the Stone folks had taken over a snug and
Kerry was circulating, talking to every German he could find
about...hell, I dunno what he was saying, we were both pretty well in
the bag at this point.
Finally it was time to
go, and we called a cab to take myself and the Stone folks back to the
hotel; Kerry wanted to stay longer. We got in the cab and off we went. I
don't remember a lot about that trip, but I do remember that we all
smelled like we'd been hung in a smoker for a week. One of the Stone
guys, can't remember for sure who it was, we'll say it was Chris, said,
"Man, that place was smoky." I thought for a second, and
responded "Don't you smoke?" The quick reply: "Well,
yeah...but not like that!" It would take two weeks to get
the smoke smell out of my jacket.
Saturday morning. This was it, my last
chance to make the pilgrimage to Andechs. I was not at my
perkiest when I dragged my sorry butt out of bed Saturday morning, but I
knew I had to do this. I showered...then showered again to get that
smoke off me, got dressed and slid downstairs to the hotel buffet for
breakfast. After a lot of OJ and a soft pretzel I felt better, after
some fruit and ham I felt pretty good. To Andechs!
I furdled around the
Hauptbahnhof until I finally figured out how to get on the S5 to
Herrsching, and settled in. The fruit and ham were memories by this time
and the beer exertions of the night before were demanding my attention.
I was sweating like a pig and woozy. But I held it together by
eavesdropping on the four twenty-somethings next to me. They were
chattering away in German except for two words they kept saying in
English: "Beer Mountain." I knew they were talking about
Andechs, and it made me chuckle as I remembered an interview I'd done
with Ray Deter of d.b.a., the Manhattan beer bar.
Where do you get all
these rare beers, Ray, I asked. "I climb up Beer Mountain," he
said, "and it’s not easy to climb Beer Mountain! Winding
roads…thick mud…and deep waters. On top of Beer Mountain, I pluck
the beers, and I carry them down on my back and bring them to d.b.a. Let’s
climb Beer Mountain, Lew! If you want the beer, you’ve got to climb.
Anybody can do it, all you gotta do is get the boots!" It still
makes me laugh, picturing both of us (and Tom Peters of Monk's as well)
in this mad interview, as Ray clonked his big boots right up on the bar
at d.b.a. It made me laugh in the train, too, and I got over the sweats.
I was going up Beer Mountain.
And I didn't have to
climb, Ray: there's a bus. The bus wound up the hills and deposited me
at the stop for the monastery. I shouldered my pack and climbed the
walkway, past the outdoor cafe (special on steckerlfisch
today!), and finally up the ramp to the beergarden (past a sign in
German that translated roughly to "No loud laughing or singing,
please."). I made it. After years of hearing about Andechs, after
so many people telling me how wonderful this beer was that never made it
to the States, after feeling this itch that just cannot be scratched...
I was on Beer Mountain.
And it was gorgeous. A
crisp, piercingly clear Fall day with a light breeze and big clouds. I
could see the Alps in the distance, and the Ammersee, just to the east a
placidly green meadow with reddish-brown cows grazing, and all around me
were smiling people eating and drinking and talking. I scarcely needed a
beer right then, all I wanted was time to soak in all the beauty. I know
this scene, with the beer and the church and the placid beauty, screams
of middle-class contentedness, but I've never had a problem with
contentment, myself. I found myself wishing I'd come here my first day
in-country, and just stayed.
I went into the taproom
and got in line. Quickly I found myself at the counter, where I put down
E20 and asked for two half-liter souvenir steins (Kerry had asked me to
get him one, he was running around Munich buying sausages to take home,
what a nightmare for a Customs agent!) and a liter of doppelbock. Mama!
There it was, my very own liter of Andechs (E5.40! What a steal!). I
quickly stowed the steins in my pack, cradled the liter in both hands,
and went back out to the beergarden.
I sank down onto a
folding chair by a trestle table on the meadow side, nodding to my
tablemates, who smiled and nodded back. One of them was playing with his
dachshund, teasing it with a pork chop bone. I felt in place, I
felt like this was the kind of place that I would most enjoy having at
home of all the places I'd been since I landed in Frankfurt, and I wrote
this about gemütlichkeit, that elusive German word that I felt
is translated, poorly, as "atmosphere." It is a word that
resists one-word translations. It is not "quaint," or
"cozy." You cannot build it into a place. It is not oompah and
beer, although beer helps. Spezial had it, but, to a degree, so do the
fest tents on the Wies'n. It's conviviality, a smile and a nod.
And then I drank the
beer. "Deep ruddy brown, like a freshly shucked chestnut, still
glistening from its prickly shell. A quick swirl brings back plenty of
creamy head. The mouth is full, but not heavy, and this is the closest
thing to a sweet beer I've had since I got here. Wagner Valley's Sled
Dog compares favorably. It's malty, natch, but has something of the
Baltic porter to it. There's a surprising malt finish that lingers, not
sticky, not cloying. Just a hint, almost a suggestion, of anise."
It was delicious, and evaporatively drinkable.
breathed deeply and tried to suck it all in: the day, the garden,
the beer, the flock of pigeons flying round the beergarden in a clatter
of wings, the whimsical sculpture, the cows in the meadow, the relaxed
and happy people. I wanted this moment, this all-too-short moment to
last, or at least to be carved deep on my life, something I could replay
at will, and be content with.
Because I had to go. I
wanted to be back to Munich by sundown to get ready for the Fest. I was
going to hit the Fest on my own tonight, not coddled by VIP treatment,
and see what it was really like. So I handed in my mug, shouldered my
pack, and headed back down Beer Mountain.
Rudi the Ringleader
I got to the bus stop
in plenty of time for the next bus, and sat on the bench to await its
arrival. After a bit, an older German man, about 60, came down the hill
and walked across to the stop. He looked at the schedule, then asked me,
auf Deutsch, when the bus came. "Zehn minuten,"
I told him: ten minutes. He grunted, and sat down with me to wait. Three
of his friends arrived a minute later, and shortly they had discovered I
was an American and we were all talking. They were from Berlin, and this
was their 21st Oktoberfest together. They take a week off, go to the
'Fest, and go drink in the outlying areas as well. "It's usually
less crowded now!" confided the ringleader, a tall, slender
gray-haired man, Rudi. My man at the bus stop was named Detlef, I can't
recall the names of the other two.
Rudi decided we should
go in the little inn at the bus stop for a quick beer before the bus
came. Okay. We drank our half-liters, pounding the last third and
throwing coins on the table when the bus pulled up. All the way down the
hill Rudi told me about various places they'd been and, apparently,
drunk heavily: Hawaii, Jamaica, Tennessee, Majorca...these guys got
drunk all over the world.
We got to the end of
the line and hopped on the train to go back to Munich. Well, it was the
last stop, so the train sat there for about twenty minutes. Suddenly
Detlef got off the train and headed for the gasthaus.
"Where's he going?" I asked Rudi.
"Oh, he probably
wants one more beer," Rudi laughed.
The joke was on him:
Detlef came chugging out about two minutes later with a case of
Löwenbräu in cans! Yee-ha! He started passing them out, and I was
included; we were beer brothers now. Rudi talked the whole way back to
Munich, and it was entertaining: they were definitely a good grade of
"then we got drunk" stories. Two cans, three cans, five cans
of Löwenbräu later, Detlef suddenly lurched off the train. "Now
where's he going?" I asked Rudi.
"Oh, he probably
wants to take a piss!" Rudi laughed. "Detlef is getting old
and can't hold his water like we can."
Hmmmm... Hold your
water. Uh-oh. This suddenly became a huge burden on my mind. I fidgeted,
I squeezed, but when the doors hissed open at the next stop, I yelled,
"Good meeting you, Rudi, have a nice life!" and bolted for the
bushes. Thank God we were in a fairly deserted area, must have been a
commuter stop during the week. I let fly (and that is wildes
Bieseln', my friends: "wild pissing"), and very calmly
got back on the next train.
Whew. I realized I was
inebriated. Rather than get worried about being drunk in a foreign city,
I decided that since it was Oktoberfest season, I was in Munich,
it was the middle of a Saturday afternoon, and I wasn't driving, that I
should just relax and enjoy my buzz. And I did. I bought trinkets for
the kids, chocolate bars for everyone, and jewelry for my wife, then
went back to the hotel, and...
Okay, I fell asleep. I
slept right through the last night of the Fest. But when I woke
up at 10:00 and realized what I had done, I actually felt a lot better
when I looked out the window and saw that it was raining in buckets. Not
a night to be wandering the Wies'n, maybe. So I went downstairs, had a
few beers in the bar with everyone else (most of whom, it turned out,
hadn't gone to the Fest either), and went upstairs to pack.
Not much left to
report, actually. I got up, feeling good, finished packing, took the
U-bahn to the airport, checked my luggage (I had to, some over-efficient
redcap asked me if he could weigh my carry-on and I was busted), and
eventually boarded the commuter flight to Frankfurt. Tight, but a
delicious ham sandwich for breakfast. We came into Frankfurt, squeezed
off, and transferred planes. I relaxed in the big business class seat in
the Lufthansa Airbus, 20,000 feet over France. I let the attendant pour
me a glass of Warsteiner (because Lufthansa doesn’t wait, they get you
beer right away, when the plane’s still climbing. Germans, I
love ‘em). As I watched her pour, I suddenly flashed back on the
pilsner I'd had at Fässla. It had been clear and bright, it was malty
and somewhat bitter. It was good.
But now, as the big
jet sped me westward, I realized that glass of pilsner was the worst
beer I had while in this ancestral home of lager beer. Good as the
Fässla was, every other beer I had was better. The rauchbier and
weissbier across the street at Spezial, the braunbier at the
Klosterbrauerei down by the river, all the myriad wonderful beers at
Ayinger. The fresh Augustiner helles was an exaltation, the liters of
Hacker-Pschorr in the Oktoberfest tent were stunning, the Paulaner
hefe-weizen was absolutely divine, the liter of Andechs doublebock was
fantastic, and even those not-so-cold cans of Löwenbräu I shared on
the train back from Andechs were better than that pretty good pilsner at
Fässla…which, by the way, I would love to have another glass of right
I hoisted the
Warsteiner and smiled. It was all good in Germany. It was all extremely
good. Like Arnold said: I'll be back.