Gangs of drunken English-speaking men stand on tables stripped to the waist and bawling out drinking songs to the beat of a Lederhosen-clad Bavarian brass band. As they clink foaming tankards, their similarly beer-bloated girlfriends slip out for a quick pee on the grass outside – welcome to Munich’s legendary Oktoberfest.
The familiar scenes occur every year at the world-famous beer drinking festival with all the main action happening at the 6,000-seat Hofbräuhaus beer tent which has become a Mecca for foreign visitors – especially youthful Brits, Australians, Americans and New Zealanders.
Backpacker websites put the Oktoberfest, which is currently under way in Bavaria, at the top of their to-do list and offer round-trips from London to Munich for just over €260 (£217) a head to Antipodeans doing a European tour. “You can really let your hair down in Munich,” claims one.
Most German beer drinkers rarely attempt to match the excesses of their English-speaking festival guests. But organisers and staff at the Oktoberfest have for decades tolerated, if not encouraged, maximum-volume drinking among foreigners because it earns money and enhances the festival’s reputation for wicked debauchery.
However, staff at this year’s event, which draws to a close on Sunday, say the fortnight-long drinking marathon is being overrun by too many young, drink-obsessed foreign tourists who are driving traditional local festival-goers away.
A survey conducted by Munich’s Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper at the Oktoberfest found that staff complained that this year’s festival seemed to have attracted “only tourists”. Gabi, an Oktoberfest waitress for the past 13 years, told the paper that the “ever younger” crowd of visitors hardly ever ordered a traditional meal of half a roast chicken or roast pork and appeared to be solely interested in beer.
“I sold just 10 meals on the first day of the festival and last Tuesday I sold only three during a whole day of serving,” she said. “Local Oktoberfest visitors from Munich used to come here in the old days, but they don’t come any more,” she added.
Her verdict was borne out by Michael Möller, chief brewer at Hofbräuhaus, which runs the Oktoberfest tent most visited by foreigners. He confirmed that ever more young people were visiting and said they tended to hog the beer tables. “The young people are happy if they manage to grab a seat and then they stay put,” he said.
Critics have attributed the rise in the number of foreign tourists to new rules at the Oktoberfest, which have cut the number of tables that can be reserved to provide more space for casual visitors.
Too many tourists is not the event’s only problem. A survey conducted last year concluded that in four out of five cases the Oktoberfest’s beer tents were serving short measures to customers who pay almost €10 per litre mug of beer. This year the breweries and staff face sanctions if caught. Whether this year’s festival-goers can stay sober enough to notice being short-served is another matter.