hard for us to know the
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
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 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
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.
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
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.
For example, adding
lemon during the brewing process is prohibited. Yet interestingly, it’s
perfectly acceptable – even
encouraged by my tablemates – to start
the night with a radler, a 50/50
mixture of beer and lemonade.
In fact radler –
which means “cyclists litre”, an ode to a legendary story involving an 1920’s innkeeper
on a popular bike trail inventing the concoction so cyclists could avoid
getting too drunk to pedal home – is one of
only three beverage options available at the volksfest (the third being spezi, a pre-made mixture of cola, lemonade
and beer much loved by Bavarians).
I refused to drink radler, and was
thankful for the seemingly endless supply of the pure beer that Bavarians have
been making such a fuss over since 1516.
I kept a steady pace throughout the night
and kept my belly full of roast chicken, incredibly delicious schweinshaxe (roast pork knuckle) and pretzels.
It is a true
feat of endurance to make it through a whole night in the beer tent; apart from
a small carnival outside there is not much to
do but drink. Testing your endurance is the fact that a litre of beer costs
less than five euros – half the price of Oktoberfest – and happens to be delicious. Then
there’s the prosting. Every time
anyone wants to make a toast, which is roughly every 43 seconds, the entire
table clanks glasses and makes individual eye contact in a big shout of “prost!” before taking another gulp. Prosting – like
all other matters involving beer – is taken seriously; you do not want to deny a German man with a carefully groomed moustache
and 150-year old lederhosen a clank of the
I prosted with the
Zeimans to celebrate our reunion, with their father for letting me stay at his
house, the guy at the table next to me because he had cool lederhosen, and the
girl across from me because her beer was getting heavy and she wanted to make
Of course, just in
case your table of roughly 10 people runs out of reasons to prost, the massive oompah
band that intersperses drinking songs between traditional Bavarian tunes and 1980s
American pop hits will make sure you’re keeping an admirable pace..
Really, the only thing stopping you from
drinking more beer is avoiding the lengthy bathroom lines. So after hours
of prosting, pretzel eating and singing, you have four choices:
drink a radler, stop drinking, order another
beer or hit the carnival.
As a person who is morally opposed to
radler and physically opposed to things that spin me in circles for minutes at
a time, I opted for another beer. I drank with old friends and new, celebrating
that I’d finally made it here, had my first real Oktoberfestbier and reunited
with friends I met years earlier.
It was about 40 prosts later that I got
into the conversation with Freuzich about her heritage. My heart-wrenching day
had mostly faded into the background of a celebratory night, and this place
would soon be a distant memory for me. But, after our talk, I couldn’t help think
that for the people who grew up here, that electric fence
was always somewhere in the background.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the year that the Dachau concentration camp was built. It has been corrected.