If you read my post on Oktober Fest last year, you’ll know I wasn’t the biggest fan of the Beer Fest. Just to prove I’m not a complete Ba-Humbug against drinking affairs, I thought I’d share with you the Other Bavarian Beer Fest. This is the Better Bavarian Beer Fest, local to me, and not so little at all.
Every year the Berg Kirchweih, the church festival on the ‘mountain’ rocks the little city of Erlangen for a full 12 days around Witsun time. Being Nuremberg’s little sister Erlangen doesn’t have a huge amount of things to recommend it that Nuremberg can’t offer you – except one. This is the beer festival on Bergburg (the town’s only hill which is affectionately called the ‘mountain’) which attracts over 100,000 guests every year and brings the whole town to a grinding halt in a wave of beer and Breze (pretzel) that is wholly unrivalled.
You start to see the Fest goers as soon as you get to the main town, anywhere from the train station to the Berg they are they, lugging crates and bags of beer, queuing for cash points and toilets that are still free, basking in the sunshine as much as one can when one is head to foot in Trachten. Previously, apparently, barely anybody wore their Dirndls and Lederhosen up to the Berg, you certainly still see plenty of people without, but now it’s become trendy to be got up in the ‘traditional’ dress. There are of course, varying stages of traditional. You can see the more expensive Dirndls, with silk and satin dancing in the sunlight, often traditional handbags with deer on as an accessory, and then you can see those, like me, who’ve grabbed their Dirndl off Amazon and it’s very clearly made of cheap cotton. There are maxi Dirndls which are almost floor length, varying degrees of knees can be seen with the midis, and then there are the modern mini dirndls too – no length is too short.
You get towards the foot of the berg and the people get denser as they sit to finish their alcohol in piece before they head up to the official area, where your own beer is not allowed. The food and souvenir stands begin; official Berg post cards, Pretzels the size of your upper body, colourful stands wafting out the scents of smelly cheese and smoked sausage. Traditional Bavarian food stalls next to fish shops, everything sold by buxom, jolly women or gruff, stubble-decked men in lederhosen. There is colour everywhere; in the trees, glowing and dancing as the lantern strings rock in the breeze, a sea of blue and red and white checkers dancing around at ground level serenaded by the hearty clunking of stone beer Krug-s being raised in Prost. You are in a cave of noise if you’re grabbing your own beer from a keller entrance; you form a rough sort of queue, eight people wide and stumble your way just under the entrance to trade money for an alarmingly large, Mass of beer to be slid towards you at some speed and then fight your way out. Somewhere above the throng as you bumble your way up the hill you can hear bands playing, renditions of modern tunes, things from the 70s and good old oom-pah-pah German style. It’s unlikely you’ll find a table but standing is good, or if a table is only half full, ask if you can share, ‘tis the German way.
It’s a little sweaty, in the dappled shade or in the sun puddles but you may as well embrace it, no one is cool in lederhosen or a dress so tight you feel you may pull A Kiera Knightely. Everything is for dancing on too, at the end of the year the weary bar keepers will haul all the slightly rickety, old wooden tables upside down and wrench their bolts all tighter ready for another raucous year. If you happen to pause on the street on your way off Berg at 10-11pm and order food, or another beer, you should take a moment to appreciate the sheer number of people pouring off the seemingly small hill. I couldn’t get my head round it, where had they all been hiding? Thousands of people in one slow moving wave all marching their way into Erlangen to hit the clubs or go home.
Opening and closing nights are particularly wild, in a very good natured, beer sloshing and foot stamping kind of way, as are Saturdays and Fridays; what else is there? I hear you ask. Well the week nights are a little quieter and, although it’s quite child-friendly and there are amusement rides and a big wheel, I hear there’s a children’s day too. There is even a church service, in full traditional get-up, on the Sundays.
“What do you call it where you get up in the morning and drink before, say, 10am?” One of my German house mates asked me once. “Alcoholic” I replied, naturally; she just said, “Oh, here we call that Frueh Schoppen”. And Frueh Schoppen they do go. If you have the strength, drag yourself down one morning to the shady little hill and you’ll find a slightly quieter affair, although it is still immensely popular. It is more than acceptable to order yourself a litre of beer as you treat yourself to a Pretzel, a few sausages crammed in a bun or a full on Weiss Wurst experience; this is a sausage which is white, you remove the skin with your knife and munch on it with some nice tart mustard and a salty Brezel. Now in my family, we’d call that ‘damn civilised’… and that is Bavarian heaven.