Raise a stein to celebrate Oktoberfest

PUBLISHED : Monday, 03 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 03 October, 2011, 12:00am

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From the German-themed beer displays in the city's 7-Eleven stores to traditional festivities at the Marco Polo Hongkong Hotel, local enthusiasm for Oktoberfest is hard to escape.

What began as a wedding celebration in a Bavarian city 200 years ago, has gone on to inspire a season of parties around the world, with Hong Kong joining the fun since the early 1990s.

In October 1810, long before Germany existed as a unified country, Crown Prince Ludwig invited the citizens of Munich to help mark his marriage to Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen. At the end of the festivities, which took place in the fields outside the city gates, horse races were held. It was the decision to repeat these races in subsequent years - up to 1960 - that established the tradition of the Oktoberfest.

Over the decades, the festival site has been absorbed into the city centre, the original entertainment booths have been transformed into beer halls, and the numbers celebrating have soared to more than 6 million.

Today, Germany is famed for its hi-tech industries, luxury car production and sophisticated culture. However, the ever-popular Oktoberfest also still links the country with oom-pah bands, huge steins of beer, and traditional Bavarian costumes of lederhosen breeches for men and dirndl dresses for women, in the global imagination.

The Marco Polo German Bierfest first brought a little bit of Munich to Tsim Sha Tsui 20 years ago. This year, from October 21 to November 12, the Notenhobler band from Germany will entertain thousands of revellers with music, competitions and games in a marquee overlooking Victoria Harbour. 'The number of participants keeps increasing from previous years,' says Simon Chan, the hotel's director of food and beverage.

Along with the traditional food on offer, the Bierfest also offers a more tangible link to the original event. It 'features a special edition beer from Lowenbrau, the iconic Munich-based brewery with a history that dates back to 1383', Chan says. 'Lowenbrau, which means 'lion's beer', has been served in every Oktoberfest since 1810.'

Happy Valley racecourse has been saying 'prost!' - or 'cheers!' - to Oktoberfest since 2008, and this year's festivities began last Wednesday. The fun continues on the 6th, 19th and 26th of this month, when racegoers will be entertained with German music and dance, a speed-drinking game and other, non-alcoholic, contests. Visitors will also be able to down their beers at a more leisurely rate, while munching on sausages and other traditional dishes. 'More local people have participated in our Happy Valley racecourse Oktoberfest in the last two years,' says Wallace Li, Hong Kong Jockey Club's general manager, racecourse catering operations.

Restoring the original connection between Oktoberfest and horse racing also makes good commercial sense.

'The attendance increases by 40 per cent during Oktoberfest and the food and beverage revenue by 60 per cent,' Li says.

German-style drinking and dining is clearly growing in popularity throughout the year in Hong Kong.

The King Parrot Group now runs four King Ludwig Beerhalls - in Tsim Sha Tsui, Stanley, Wan Chai and Yuen Long - and the Cafe Deco Group opened its second Berliner bar and restaurant in August, only nine months after the first.

The wood-lined King Ludwig bars and restaurants - which pull out all the stops to live up to the popular image of traditional Bavarian decor - will be celebrating Oktoberfest with traditional music and drinking competitions, while the Berliner chain will be offering drinkers a chance to sample a variety of German beers.