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Travel & Holiday

Raise a stein to beer

It is beer, women and song at Herbstfest, a festival where merriment and Erdinger, the star brew of Bavarian town Erding, take centrestage
The Straits Times - October 4, 2011
By: Terrence Voon
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Raise a stein to beer Enjoying the final product are revellers who drink to their hearts' content at the annual Erdinger Herbstfest in Erding. -- PHOTOS: ERDINGER WEISSBRAU

In the Bavarian town of Erding, where history lives and beer awaits, there are two rules first-timers need to be aware of.

The first is the Reinheitsgebot, or Bavarian Purity Law of 1516, which dictates that only water, barley and hops are used in the production of beer.

The second is unwritten, but becomes fairly obvious once you go into any restaurant, cafe or beer garden: Drink only Erdinger, or risk contempt from the 30,000 sons and daughters of German malt who call this town home.

In my three days in this picturesque town dominated by wheat farms and 14th-century architecture, I spotted only one bottle of beer from a rival brand, abandoned and sweating nervously in the midday heat on an outdoor table.

It is not quite beer and loathing in Erding, but they do take their brew very seriously. It is, after all, named after their home, and is their biggest export - apart from a little-known ice hockey player who was once drafted by the National Hockey League.

But the beer is the real star in this town, which, since 1886, has produced every bottle of Erdinger consumed in the world. And the best time to drink it is in early September, two weeks before the tourist hordes invade nearby Munich for the jumbo beer drinking party that is Oktoberfest.

This is when the town's ubiquitous Herbstfest, or fall festival, is held, where 24,000 litres of Erdinger find their way down the gullets of partygoers every night for 10 nights.

I have never been to Munich's famous beer tents, but I was told this traditional bash, made merrier by the occasion of Erdinger's 125th anniversary, has more fizz than Munich's finest.

It was hard to dispute this, as a giddy mix of beer, bratwursts and buxom beauties assaulted my senses on my first night in the vast tent, which seats up to 4,000 thirsty Bavarians at one go.

The first thing you notice inside is yourself. Like most of the Singaporeans in our travelling party, I had not dressed the part, with my failure to invest in a pair of tight lederhosen breeches, suspenders and a chequered shirt marking me as an outsider. For women, the dirndl, which consists of a low-cut bodice, blouse, full skirt and apron, is mandatory.

So is the ability to imbibe ridiculous amounts of food and drink. Sausages, pork knuckles, pretzels, roast ox, duck and chicken are heaped high on long tables. As you might expect, no other beer except Erdinger is served, which comes in massive 1-litre tankards, or steins.

All this is set to music provided by a versatile live band, which belts out covers of Michael Jackson hits and the odd Katy Perry single to mild acclaim. But the feast truly turns into a fiesta when German folk tunes, known otherwise as oompah or drinking music, are played.

Men and women climb on top of benches, dragging strangers along with them. Feet are stomped in time to the music. Beer is spilt. A large woman topples onto my table. Instead of trying to break her fall, I decide to save my stein from her torso.

'Prost!' everyone bellows, clashing mugs in a traditional Bavarian toast. Here, custom requires drinkers to look directly into each other's eyes, and failure to do so is said to result in seven years of unsatisfying endeavours in the bedroom.

Five steins and two chickens, a duck and a string of sausages later, I was in no shape to focus on anyone's eyes.

Thankfully, there were other pursuits outside the tent, where fairground attract- ions such as roller-coasters, bumper rides, swing carousels and hair-raising frisbee rides offer a respite from the festivities. Common sense, however, dictates that one enjoys the rides before feeding and drinking, not after.

As it was, a combination of jet lag and indigestion meant that the evening ended well before midnight. The following day would offer a more erudite look at the beer I had been drinking.

The first thing I learn at the Erdinger brewery is that the tour comes with an all-you-can-drink tasting session for just €10 (S$17.50). There is little motivation to indulge after the excesses of the evening before, but the prospect of sampling other varieties of the brew, not available yet in Singapore, was temptation enough.

For starters, there is the Pikantus, a robust dark beer that offers a spicy and sweet alternative to the fruity weissbier (white beer) sold in Singapore supermarkets and pubs. With an alcohol volume of 7.3 per cent, it serves up more bang for your beer buck than the usual Erdinger dunkel (dark brew), which contains 5.6 per cent.

Then, there is the Alkoholfrei, a seemingly blasphemous concoction that contains no alcohol, but tastes remarkably like the real thing.

The clincher is this: The drink is popular with runners and triathletes in Europe because of its isotonic benefits, and I am certain there was a spring in my step as I began the tour, with wheat beer and numbers swimming in my head.

An estimated one million bottles of beer leave the brewery each day and about 150 million litres are produced every year, making Erdinger the largest wheat beer producer in the world.

The brewing method, I am told, is not so different from that of 1886, when the construction of the first wheat beer brewery in Erding was officially recorded. With that in mind, there are several things which set the beer-making process apart from others. For instance, the water used for the brewing is drawn from a 3,000-year-old well deep beneath the brewery. Not unlike champagne, the beer matures inside its bottle, where it is enriched with carbon dioxide.

The tour ends, and the drinking begins anew at the Herbstfest for the second night in a row.

There is a twist this time. The power goes out at the height of the party, plunging the tent into darkness and silence. There is a moment's pause, and everyone raises their mugs once more, and sings as one.

In Erding, as long as the beer flows, the electricity need not.

Terrence Voon's trip was sponsored by Asia Pacific Breweries.

5 things to do

1 Do go at the right time. The Herbstfest drinking festival is held in early September when the weather is cool.

2 Do dress appropriately. If you are going to the Herbstfest, traditional Bavarian garb is a must if you want to fit in.

3 Do toast like a pro. Say 'Prost', and clink the Erdinger glass using its thicker base. This reduces the likelihood of the glass breaking.

4 Visit the Erdinger Brewery (www.erdinger.de). Guided tours cost €10 (S$17.50) and include a sampling session at the visitors' centre.

5 Do detox after drinking. Visit the Therme Erding (www.thermeerding.de), Europe's biggest spa which offers saunas and water slides for both the clothed and unclothed.

2 don'ts

1 Attempt to drink other brands of beer. The wheat brew is named after the town and it is best to leave your lagers for another day.

2 Get too drunk. Despite the large amounts of beer consumed at the Herbstfest, public drunkenness is rare and generally frowned upon.

 

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