The cheapest stein in Germany
“It’s hard for us to know the truth about our history," said my new friend Franzi Freuzich. "How can we believe that people here knew nothing of what was going on at the concentration camp?”
We were nearing the end of a long night of drinking at Germany's annual Dachau Volksfest, a more intimate version of Munich's Oktoberfest that also happens to take place just outside of one of Europe’s most notorious concentration camps. All around us, Bavarians were clanking glasses and singing boisterously.
”At the same time, it bothers me to see so many tourists coming here every day and seeing nothing of this town except for those horrors,” Freuzich continued. “They come on the bus, look at the concentration camp, leave. But Dachau is a beautiful town with good people.”
I had spent the day at the Dachau concentration camp, the first the Nazis built in 1933. After stepping inside the horrific gas chambers, I stared at the inescapable electric fence that the brave would run toward in order to defiantly choose their end. Most died by firing squad; the lucky ones made it all the way to the barrier. Just on the other side of that fence is the town of Dachau, where I would spend the night celebrating Bavarian heritage.
As far as I could tell, my new friend was right – the town was quite lovely, full of great people and amazing hospitality. But I couldn’t escape the knowledge that less than 70 years earlier I probably would have been on the other side of that fence, and it made me appreciate each sip of beer a little more that night.
I had been eagerly anticipating the Dachau Volksfest since the Zieman sisters – Tatjana and Verena – regaled me with tales of their hometown beer festival when we met in the Philippines almost three years earlier. Tatjana was taking the entire week off of work to fully enjoy the 10-day festival, which, they had assured me, is the real Bavarian party.
About 25km northwest of Munich, the Dachau Volksfest takes place every August in the weeks leading up to Oktoberfest, and is famous for having the cheapest steins of any festival in Germany. It has the traditional Bavarian music and costumes of Oktoberfest, without the high prices or throngs of tourists – and there is no shortage of beer.
Oktoberfestbier – a slightly sweet and malty brew also called märzen since it is traditionally brewed in March – is stronger than average German beer (roughly 6% by volume). But the reason Bavarians drink extra-strength beer during a festival where you have no choice but to guzzle it down by the litre has nothing to do with wanting to feel extra festive.
The tradition goes back almost 500 years, when Bavarians had trouble brewing beer that wouldn’t go sour as the air warmed up between March and October. As winter ended brewers started making huge supplies of beer with extra hops and a higher alcohol content to preserve the beer throughout the summer. This beer actually improved as summer turned to autumn, and by October the Bavarians needed to polish off all the remaining märzen to empty out the barrels for the new brews.
As experienced drinkers of these extra-strength beers, my friends warned me to go slow, which is always an advisable plan when imbibing commences before sundown. But going slow is easier said then done when munching on cartoonishly large, thirst-inducing pretzels and watching waitresses pass by carrying six to eight beers (an impressive feat considering each weighs more than 2kg and some waitresses were approaching 70 years old).
Germans are obsessive, and at times misguided, about their feelings toward beer, as evidenced by the German Purity Law – or Reinheitsgebot – that dates back to 1516. Originally created as a food safety regulation, it stipulated that beer could only contain three ingredients: barley, hops and water. It has since been modified to allow hops and yeast, but it strictly prohibits spices, sugar and unmalted grains – all used in a huge variety of Belgian, American and British beers to add flavour and complexity. The Reinheitsgebot ensures quality in virtually any German brew, but squashes imagination.