197 years of Oktoberfest

Annual beer festival brings millions of people, euros to Munich

October 08, 2007|By Allison Connolly | Allison Connolly,Sun reporter

MUNICH -- When one thinks of Oktoberfest, liters of beer, oversized pretzels and drunken college students might come to mind.

But it is much more than a party to the city of Munich. The 197-year-old event, which opened Sept. 22 and was expected to draw 6.5 million people by the time it closed yesterday, is a finely tuned economic engine driven by city officials who strictly control who is allowed to hawk beer, pretzels, souvenir mugs and amusement rides.

Of the 1,200 vendors who apply each year, fewer than half are accepted. Those who do must meet a lengthy set of qualifications, including being able to provide quality and service, as well as security and environmental protections. And they must be local. According to Munich law, only six city-based breweries are allowed to sell beer: Augustiner, Hacker-Pschorr, Hofbraeuhaus, Lowenbrau, Paulaner and Spaten.

But once the mayor officially announces the start of Oktoberfest with the proclamation "O'zapft is!" - which means "the keg is tapped" - euros begin flowing as easily and smoothly as the beer.

The Munich Tourist Office chooses the vendors each year with the idea that it will protect the event from being taken over by outsiders or giant corporations.

Munich officials are very proud of having kept the festival's integrity. Vendor space will always be limited because the festival is held annually on the same 104-acre site known as Theresienwiese, or "Theresa's fields."

"Our focus is to keep the tradition," said Else Gebauer, a spokeswoman for the tourist office. That includes a flea circus and 150-year-old merry-go-round.

It is difficult to imagine an event of that size, which draws that many people from the U.S., being able to keep giant corporate sponsors out. One has to look no further than Woodstock 1999, which was a far cry from the first hippie music fest 30 years earlier, with its $150 tickets, not to mention the $12 pizzas and $4 bottles of water.

Yet some feel the city goes too far in terms of regulating the event. One of the loudest critics of the process is no less than a Bavarian prince.

His Royal Highness Prince Luitpold can't understand why he is excluded each year. Located 25 miles west of Munich, his Kaltenberg Brewery is as Bavarian as it gets. Prince Luitpold, 56, is a great-great-great-grandson of King Ludwig I, who as crown prince threw the very first Oktoberfest in 1810 to celebrate his marriage to Princess Therese von Sachsen-Hildburghausen. Prince Luitpold resides at Kaltenberg Castle, where the beer has been made since 1872.

But because Kaltenberg isn't within city limits, Prince Luitpold's draughts are not allowed to be poured on the grounds.

City official Helmut Schmid told Sueddeutsche Zeitung, Munich's large daily newspaper, that there is a perfectly good reason why the fest is limited to the six city breweries.

"If we start allowing non-Munich breweries at the festival, we would have to open it to all of Europe, and there would be so much money offered by the international brewery giants that the smaller breweries in our vicinity wouldn't even have a chance," he said in German through an interpreter.

It's not just the prince's pride at stake. It's a matter of euros, too. Lots of them.

By the time this year's fest closes, the city expects to take in more than 950 million euros in revenue, with 450 million euros spent directly on the grounds. The 16-day event employs 12,000, including 4,000 temporary workers, according to the city's figures.

It is hard to measure how much profit is made by the vendors - especially the beer tent owners - because they set their own prices.

Tickets for most rides range in price from 1 to 5 euros, or between $1.42 and $7.10. A liter of bier at the Lowenbrau tent costs 7.90 euros, or $11.21. A large brezen, or pretzel, is 3 euros, or $4.25. A day of fun, food and beer can add up, especially for Americans whose dollars are at historic lows against the euro, at one point this week worth just 70 cents to the euro.

Yet the cost for vendors is also high, especially for the tent owners.

Sueddeutsche Zeitung estimates the 14 big tent owners spend a significant amount of money on overhead. To erect a tent on the grounds, they are charged a fee of between 150,000 and 180,000 euros, or as much as $255,555. It costs them about 1 million euros, or $1.4 million, to lease a tent as well as set it up and take it down, and an additional 250,000 euros, or $355,000 to hire their own security. Any tent worthy of Oktoberfest must have a traditional Bavarian band, which tacks on 150,000 euros, or nearly $213,000. And then there is the cost of hiring talented servers who can carry 12 "mass" beers at once.

Still, many vendors say Oktoberfest is so lucrative that they earn most of their annual income during the two-week event.

"It's the most expensive, but it's still the most profitable," said Andy Kunz, 35, who manages his family's haunted house, called Geister.

Many vendors are the same every year. But they walk a tightrope: If they do not perform as expected, they will not get a spot next year.

Those who have worked Oktoberfest describe it as an honor to be able to do so.

"There is only one Oktoberfest," said Baerbel Kollman, whose family has had an amusement at the event for 40 years. This year they have bumper cars.

"It's the king of all fairs," said her son, Franz, who says he will take over the business one day.

allison.connolly@baltsun.com

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