An Oktoberfest survival guide

Brush up on your chicken dance, hike up your lederhosen and leave someroom for the sauerkraut - it's Oktoberfest.Robin Lynam reports

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 20 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 20 September, 2012, 12:37pm

The biggest German party of the year is only a few days away. Oktoberfest is celebrated - oddly, mostly in September - not only in Munich, where the festival was inaugurated just over 200 years ago, but in cities with expatriate German communities all over the world.

One of those is Hong Kong. Oktoberfest celebrations were pioneered here in the 1980s by the Holiday Inn Golden Mile Hotel, which at that time had a German general manager and a German flagship Western restaurant, The Baron's Table. Festivities took place in one of the hotel's ballrooms.

In 1991, the Marco Polo Hongkong Hotel raised the game by organising a much larger outdoor event - the Marco Polo German Bierfest.

The event has been repeated every year since then - growing larger in scale and longer in duration. It has become the hotel's signature event, says director of catering Cyrina Chan. In 2011, the Marco Polo German Bierfest achieved a record attendance of 50,000 guests, who between them managed to ingest an impressive 70,000 litres of beer, 7,500 metres of wurst and 30,000 pretzels.

This year's festival runs from October 19 to November 10, and Chan and her team are hoping to mark its 21st anniversary by pulling in an even bigger crowd.

So what makes Oktoberfest such a big deal? In Hong Kong it has quite a lot to do with a combination of warm weather and cold beer, but the original festival was an open air party, thrown on October 12, 1810, for the citizens of Munich, by Crown Prince Ludwig of Bavaria, to celebrate his marriage.

An agreeable time was had by all, and the event became an annual tradition. Initially, the main attractions were intended to be horse racing and an agricultural show, but, over time, beer drinking, feasting and performances of brass band music took over as Oktoberfest's main focus.

There is a certain irony in Prince Ludwig being the original sponsor of what has become the world's biggest beer party. As King Ludwig I of Bavaria in 1844, he introduced a beer tax, which led to rioting in the streets. In 1848, further civil unrest led to his abdication.

Oktoberfest, however, has proved to be a lasting legacy.

The Munich festival is now a celebration of the onset of autumn, beginning in September and finishing on the first Sunday of October. Since the reunification of East and West Germany in 1990 it has run for either 16 or 17 days, depending on which day of the week October 3, German Unity Day, falls.

The festival is Germany's biggest, attracting about five million people, but Germans who cannot make it to Bavaria - along with anybody else who likes to get into the spirit of the thing - can also attend festivities in more than a dozen other countries.

At 23 days - 27 if you count four days of private parties - the Marco Polo hotel's festival runs for far longer than the real thing in Germany, but by comparison with some of the other international celebrations is fairly modest in scale.

Some Oktoberfests held in various cities in North and South America attract between 500,000 and a million visitors each year.

Those events are enthusiastically supported by the local German population, although generally speaking they account for only a small proportion of the revellers.

Germany's Federal Foreign Office estimates that Hong Kong has between 2,000 to 3,000 German residents, so even if all of them had turned up last year they would have made up, at most, 6 per cent of the crowd.

"The German Swiss School and a lot of German companies use this event as a platform to entertain themselves and their guests. The special party atmosphere is the basis of its [broader] popular appeal," Chan says.

German national costume and traditional music are a part of this atmosphere: girls in dirndls, men in lederhosen, and the music of the Notenhobler Band - regulars since 1994 - and their ever popular chicken dance. But for most revellers the main attraction is the food and drink. And as far as drink is concerned, that means the beer.

At the Munich Oktoberfest only beers brewed within the city can be sold, which means there are six accredited breweries - all with centuries of history behind them - Spaten-Franziskaner-Bräu, Augustiner Bräu, Hofbräuhaus, Paulaner, Hacker-Pschorr and Löwenbräu.

Löwenbräu is now owned by global brewing giant Anheuser-Busch InBev, and has various arrangements to brew its signature beer internationally, which to some extent has diluted the value of the brand.

But in Munich, where the original brewery is still very much in business, it maintains its high reputation.

This year the hotel will import Löwenbräu Oktoberfestbier, which, in accordance with Munich Oktoberfest rules, is brewed in the Munich brewery in full compliance with the Reinheitsgebot brewing law of 1516. It has a higher-than-usual alcohol content, at about 6 per cent alcohol by volume. A pale Märzen-style lager, this beer will be one of the big attractions of the festival for beer connoisseurs, but they will have to be quick off the mark. Unfortunately, only 200 steins of it will be available for pouring each night.

There will be many other beers available, however, along with German wines, shots of schnapps and Jägermeister - a strong digestif made with herbs and spices - and assorted soft drinks.

As for traditional German food, according to Chan the single most popular order each year is roast pork knuckle served with braised red cabbage and potato gratin.

Other Oktoberfest favourites on offer will include pan-fried sausages Nürnberger style with sauerkraut and mashed potatoes; roast herb-marinated half chicken with carrot and potato salad; pan-fried salmon cutlet served with creamed spinach and boiled new potatoes; and roast lamb leg with garlic, served with braised red cabbage and au gratin potatoes.

That is all good hearty stuff, and filling if washed down with a few steins of beer. But for those who still have room, some traditional German desserts will also be available - apple strudel with vanilla sauce, German cheesecake with forest berry compote and Black Forest cake among them.

Chan notes an increasing interest in German food and drink among Hongkongers, as has the general manager of the Hyatt Regency Sha Tin, Robert Hamer. The Hyatt will also celebrate Oktoberfest, although in a slightly lower key.

"Our Oktoberfest is not on the same grand scale as those [festivities] in Munich; however, we still try to create a similar ambience and experience in the Tin Tin Bar and Pool Bar," says Hamer.

The Sha Tin Hyatt's Oktoberfest promotion will run from September 22 to October 31, and will feature German cuisine and two beers from the Erdinger wheat beer brewery.

Because Erdinger is not a Munich brewery - it is based, as the name implies, in Erding, which is also in Bavaria - it cannot brew Oktoberfestbier as such, but Erdinger Weissbier and Erdinger Dunkel are both enjoyed by beer connoisseurs.

The naturally cloudy Weissbier is noted for its malty sweetness, balanced by high carbonation, while the Dunkel is also a wheat beer, but in a darker style, noted for having a touch of spice.

To partner the beers the hotel will be serving nine different types of German sausage - bierwürst, ox-tongue, veal-liver, grilled Nürnberger, grilled smoky debrecener, boiled Vienna and cheese-filled knacker sausage - with a range of styles of German senf [mustard]. Also available will be German Black Forest ham and air-dried beef, a range of German cheeses and the ubiquitous pretzels.

If you choose to sit out by the pool, with its views of what pass around here for mountains, you may just be able to kid yourself that you are among the Bavarian Alps. As the Germans say when toasting each other's health - as they often do during Oktoberfest - "Prosit!"

  • Marco Polo German Bierfest, Oct 19-Nov 10, Sun-Thur 6pm-11pm, Fri and Sat 6pm-11.30pm, Viewing Platform, Level 6, Marco Polo Hongkong Hotel, Harbour City, TST
  • Oktoberfest at Hyatt Regency Hong Kong Sha Tin, Sept 22-Oct 31, Pool Bar Mon-Thur 11am-8pm, Fri-Sun 11am-10.30pm. Tin Tin Bar Sun-Thur 5pm-12am, Fri and Sat 5pm-1am. Hyatt Regency, 18 Chak Cheung St, Sha Tin