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Sept. 19, 2008 | Munich & Philly pour it on for Oktoberfest


"The cafes and beer gardens were crowded to suffocation, the theaters put forth their most attractive performances, music and dancing echoed every night from a thousand halls."

- The New York Times, Dec. 7, 1859, describing one of Munich's early Oktoberfests

 

THERE IS NOTHING else on the planet like Munich's Oktoberfest.

We're talking about 6 million people massed on a 100-acre field over 16 days, for the sole purpose of drinking beer.

The party, which begins tomorrow and stretches till Oct. 5, dwarfs anything we have in America - NASCAR, the Kentucky Derby, the parking lot at the Linc an hour before kick-Roll out the barrelsoff.

Six million people: Think about it.

That's four times the population of Philadelphia. That's a bigger crowd than the Hajj in Mecca, Mardi Gras in New Orleans and Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, combined.

Just try to get your head around these numbers:

 

100,000: That's the size of the crowd that can be seated at any one time in the festival halls, the equivalent of five Wachovia Centers full of beer drinkers.

500,000: That's the flock of chickens served to hungry attendees. Toss in 140,000 pairs of sausage links and 58,000 pork knuckles - a caloric intake that puts the Wing Bowl to shame.

1.8 million: That's gallons of beer consumed. If Yards, Flying Fish, Sly Fox, Philly Brewing, Iron Hill, Nodding Head, Triumph and Weyerbacher stacked up all the beer they make in a year, it would not be enough to quench the thirst of Oktoberfest.

For me, what's most outstanding is that the world's largest festival is devoted not to religion or sports or music, but to beer - glorious, unapologetic beer.

This madness began as a wedding. Bavarian Crown Prince Ludwig and Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen did the deed on Oct. 12, 1810, celebrating their union with a spectacular horse race. They had so much fun, they did it again the next year, adding carnivals, food and beer. And again the next year, and the next. Before long, the event became less about a royal coupling and more about beer.

By the end of the 1800s, massive beer tents would be erected. Bavaria's proud brewers would create an entirely new beer style, Oktoberfest or maerzen, for the festival. (I'll write about it next week.) Even the delivery of the beer became an excuse to celebrate, with the casks loaded onto lavishly decorated wagons pulled by huge teams of horses.

Only war (and the infrequent cholera epidemic) kept Munich from its beer festival. This year's Oktoberfest is the 175th.

A Philly-style 'fest

All those details are making me thirsty.

The good news: Next week, Oktoberfest is coming to Philadelphia. It won't be quite as big as Bavaria's, but I'm betting the beer will be just as good.

Philly Oktoberfest '08 is set to tap the kegs on Sept. 27 at the 23rd Street Armory (22 S. 23rd St., Center City), a historic, castlelike fortification that is home to the First City Troop of the Pennsylvania National Guard.

The festival, which benefits breast cancer research and Philly Beer Week, features German-style food, music and beer, beer, beer - more than 50 fall brews from America and Germany, including Spaten, the original Oktoberfestbier of Munich. Other draft highlights:

Ayinger, Dock Street, Erie, Franziskaner, a one-off from Oskar Blues and a selection of rare Franconian brews from Shelton Brothers, the Massachusetts boutique importer.

Beer pours at 1 p.m., with a one-hour VIP session that starts at noon. Tix are $45 ($75 VIP). Info and tickets, www.phillybeerfests.com.

The event kicks off a week of German festivals throughout the city as Philadelphia gears up for German-American Day on Oct. 6. It's the 325th anniversary of the arrival of the first German immigrants in the city, the ones who would go on to found Germantown. (Details at www.germanamericanday.org.)

And there are other several other Oktoberfests coming:

 

Oct. 3: Midtown Village holds its third annual fall festival, closing streets around 13th and Sansom from noon till 8 p.m. Fergie's Pub, McGillin's, Vintage and Time will be pouring beer. Info: www.midtownvillage.org.

Oct. 11-12: Oktoberfest at River Horse Brewery (80 Lambert Lane, Lambertville, N.J.) with music, food and River Horse beer. Noon-5 p.m. Pay as you go. Info: www.riverhorse.com.

Oct. 25: Finnigan's Wake (3rd and Spring Garden streets, Northern Liberties) hosts its Octoberfest with five German beers, German food and music. Info: www.finnigans.com.

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