Large gatherings have taken a serious blow as of late, from pro football games to music festivals. The world’s foremost beer festival, Oktoberfest, is certainly on that list. But thanks to some clever repositioning, the German tradition—now an international phenomenon—is still alive and kicking.
Last year, Bavaria made the major pivot of going digital, relying on platforms like Zoom to bring the beer-guzzling and lederhosen into people’s homes, in Munich and beyond. Surprisingly, it was far from the first time Oktoberfest has had to change things up or cancel altogether. Unsurprisingly, the festival did not commence during World War II. But prior to that, it had been canceled a number of other times, due to everything from cholera to hyperinflation.
What shocked many about 2020’s edited Oktoberfest was the absence of alcohol. The festival grounds, or Theresienwiese, banned hooch to keep people safe and avoid, well, what people do when they drink (which is gather). The 2021 installment brought alcohol back into the picture, much to the joy of just about everybody involved. And while it was still a tame Oktoberfest by historical standards, the city of Munich did some pretty cool things to keep the tradition afloat.
It’s no surprise that what many dub the world’s biggest festival was shut down again this year. After all, it can draw six million people from all over the globe. A host of digital Wiesn events took place in late September and early October, many curated by local experts who could field questions and illuminate the deeper cultural context of the event. In this way, it became a little more educational and a bit less of a party. Imagine if Coachella was curated by Beyoncé and you got to enjoy it from home? It’s a bit of a stretch in terms of an analogy, but it’s an interesting transition.
Fortunately, we live in a pretty powerful digital age. So, while riding the rides and drinking the beer in person is hard to beat, the official website put together a pretty mean program, all things considered. Visitors could livestream the fest, from the tapping of the beer kegs to musical performances and gun salutes. Various online tours kept small enough that you could actually interact with the guide, tackled a number of topics spanning the many Oktoberfest traditions at play. Sure, there’s a prevailing sadness that the event this year was restricted to smaller gatherings elsewhere, if at all (as this video shows), but Oktoberfest enthusiasts weren’t left entirely hanging out to dry.
There are silver linings, of course. Apparently, the festival grounds, a public green space of sorts, have returned to their lush roots thanks to much less foot traffic over the last two years. Your liver didn’t take a beating and, well, you didn’t get sick. There’s always next year.
Celebrations here at home shut down entirely in 2020. This year, they popped up here and there, held late enough in the year that the pandemic had subsided significantly. Still, many chose to stay home, convinced they could raise a stein at home while tuning into some faraway event via an official event app or livestream.
Perhaps the ultimate sign of better things to come is the fact that the country’s largest Oktoberfest, Zinzinnati in Ohio, resumed this September. The festival tends to draw more than 500,000 people and, like most Oktoberfest gatherings, is a mostly outdoors affair. Towns like Leavenworth, Washington revamped their popular festivals, setting them up more like street fairs to support the many local businesses that have been suffering since the pandemic broke. To play it safe, they took the beer and live music out of the equation, but the gesture is a good one.
Overall, 2021 has been a year of takeout, working from home, and doing pretty much everything else from home. That’s not great news for massive celebrations like Oktoberfest but with local breweries eager to deliver you a beer, German food guides a mouse click away, and zero dress codes enforced (put on the lederhosen already), you can recreate something similar in your own dwelling.
And honestly, after watching clips from this piece on the madness of the main event in Munich, maybe we’ve evolved past the traditional Oktoberfest format.
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