The first thing I noticed when I walked into the beer hall was that the floor was sticky. Stout middle-aged women dressed in dirndl dresses clutched multiple massive mugs in each hand as they pushed their way through the crowd to the tables (what strong wrists!). A little of the beer in each mug found its way to the floor during the trip from the tap to the drinker. The air was stiflingly hot and humid from the crush of thousands of revelers. The band was loud as it cranked through what must be Bavarian oldies. Most people were standing on the benches lining the sides of each table, swinging to the music and singing to the top of their lungs.
This was my first experience at the Starkbierfest – the Strong Beer Festival – at the Paulaner brewery in Munich, Germany. It was a Thursday night and the place was packed. Friday and Saturday nights are sold out months in advance. I had forgotten to get my friend Iris’ cell phone number so that I could text her to find out where she was in the crowd. She had reserved a table of ten. I wandered through the giant room, trying to find my friends and colleagues. It was a lost cause; there were simply too many people there to find a particular individual.
I finally went to the lobby and tried to get a beer from the bartender. She said I had to be at a table to be served any draft beer. I explained that I couldn’t find my table and I hadn’t even had anything to drink yet. She pointed to the wall across the lobby where there were lists of table holders. Aaahh! Of course, this is German efficiency at work, even in the beer hall.
I finally found the right table. It was near the front of the hall not far from the band. Iris was dressed in a fancy dirndl and standing on the bench. Surrounding her were her friends and new acquaintances, all standing on the benches, swaying, drinking, and singing. It was now about 8pm and some of them had been there since 4pm. It’s easy to meet new people and make friends in this situation. Everyone is there to be friendly and have a good time. Most of the women were dress in dirndls, a traditional Bavarian costume. Most of the men were in lederhosen (leather pants) with white shirts and suspenders. Some even had on the traditional mountain hats.
One guy at our table had on lederhosen but they were split down both inseams and hung on his legs like chaps.
“Dude!” I screamed over the music. “What happened to your pants?”
“I don’t know!” he yelled. “I bent over to pick up a beer mug.” He shrugged his shoulders and smiled. He didn’t care about his pants or the fact that his blue underwear was showing.
We got the waitress’s attention to order a beer. The beer is called strong beer because it has a 9% alcohol level, instead of 5% for typical German beers and 3.2% for common American beers. The beer comes in heavy clay mugs holding one liter (about 33 ounces – almost three cans or bottles). So drinking a mug is like drinking eight or nine cans of Budweiser. Hhhhmmmm. It tasted like a heavy ale, full of body and flavor.
I hoisted my mug, stood on the bench to watch the band, and tried not to fall over as the guy at the table behind me kept leaning over to talk to someone while sticking his butt out and bumping me.
The band had finished their medley of German oldies and segued into some well-known American rock and pop songs. The crowd loved it. Everyone sang along and pumped their fists into the air at the right times. I slowly drained my mug. I ordered another.
As I worked my way through the second mug, things started changing. It was getting later, the crowd was getting wilder, and the band was getting louder. I was enjoying myself. I even sang along to several songs on my personal banned song list, such as “I Will Survive,” “We Are Family,” and “American Pie.” I knew I had had enough when I found myself nodding my head to the beat and doing the arm motions to “YMCA.”
I couldn’t finish the second mug. It was too much for me. The band was done and the crowd headed for the exits. I stumbled to the U-bahn station hoping I would get on the right train and not end up in Austria.
There was no way I was making it to work by 8am the next day.