Bavaria’s Dachau Volksfest, a more intimate version of Munich's Oktoberfest, is where the real Bavarians go to party.
“It’s hard for us to know the truth 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 camp?”
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 far 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 Bavarian party.
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.
As experienced 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 years old).
Germans are 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 glass.
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 it lighter.
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.