The rain falling here Sept. 22 might have compounded people's desire to squeeze into elaborate tents away from the downtown hubbub. But it's more likely that the search for a particular beverage was the culprit.
This, after all, was the beginning of Oktoberfest, which organizers describe as the world's largest folk festival. The event celebrates German beer, food, music and other customs. And while Bend has its share of local craft breweries, roundabouts and other cultural attractions, they lack the name recognition and immensity of Oktoberfest, which drew nearly 7 million people last year.
At the Löwenbräu beer tent, one of 14 huge structures set up on festival grounds, locals — women in low-cut white shirts and colorful dresses called dirndls, men in plaid with rolled-up suede pants and suspenders — sat and talked on benches set up at long tables. Tourists crammed into the crowded aisles and held up cellphones in camera mode to capture a sense of the scene.
No one appeared concerned about filling the big room beyond legal capacity. There were altogether perhaps 6,000 people in that tent alone. At all 14 tents, there are 104,000 seats.
Musicians on an elevated stage in the middle of the tent played a few bars communicating achievement — ta-da!
Then, from the perimeter of the tent, came indecipherable shrill calls. The crowd pushed forward. There were more calls. Then it became clear what was going on. Beer was coming.
“Vorsicht!" — watch out! — screamed a waitress, as she made her way to the middle of the room, with 10 one-liter steins full of beer in her hands. “Vorsicht! Vorsicht!"
As the band played, waitresses slammed beer onto the benches for the people with seats. Others looked on and wondered how they, too, could get some beer. Should they wait for a vacant bench? Or should they ask people already sitting to order on their behalf?
It took me an hour to explore the place and go for the second option. Two sweet older women from the Munich suburbs persuaded a woman at a bench next to them to order a liter, or Mass, of beer on my behalf. Just one kind was available. It cost 9.50 euros, roughly equal to $12.25. (A liter measures out to a bit more than two pints.)
The cold, light-yellow beer went down quickly, leaving a slightly sweet aftertaste. It was far from the hoppy Northwest India pale ales I've grown accustomed to. But what a delight those first gulps were. I had no lederhosen like the Bavarian men, but at least I had managed to get some beer at Oktoberfest.
Unlike festivals for beer in Bend and other parts of Oregon, which go back no further than about 25 years, Oktoberfest is a veritable tradition, established because of a royal wedding in 1810 and held this year for the 179th time. (According to the Munich tourism office, cholera epidemics and other concerns have prompted organizers to cancel Oktoberfest 24 times.)
The festival lasts for more than two weeks.
And even though Munich residents comprise 60 percent of event attendees, it's a major tourist draw and an economic powerhouse for Munich. The city puts on the event; the person in charge is the head of the city council.
Is Oktoberfest important for business in the German state of Bavaria? I asked one of the women who helped me get a beer.
“Sehr wichtig," she said — very important.
Indeed, last year, 6.9 million people came and bought 7.9 million liters of beer. That's at least 70 million euros in beer revenue.
The Bend Brew Fest, by comparison, is held over three days and has never drawn more than 25,000 people, even if there are more beer varieties available than at Oktoberfest.
The scale of Oktoberfest is immense. The event takes up 26 acres this time around, not the usual 42, because it shares space with an agricultural convention. Horses, food stands, souvenir shops, theme-park rides and a big crowd take up the space around the beer tents.
It can be a lot to take in at once. The sight of the spinning-teacup ride a short walk from beer tents is enough to bring on nausea.
Going in a group
At least for me, Oktoberfest seems to be more enjoyable in a group than as a solo activity.
Finding a bench for your two- or four-person party is not as intimidating as giving strangers money to buy you beer. And it's less stressful if you're not the only one at your bench in anything other than traditional Oktoberfest attire. During the first weekend, at least half of the people at two of the large tents were wearing lederhosen or dirndls.
On Sunday, I went with three fellow Americans from the hotel where I was staying. Once we'd secured a bench inside the Augustiner brewery's tent, we made fast friends with delegations from Serbia and Mexico.
Sure, foreigners were plentiful at Oktoberfest — the largest group comes from Italy — but with German being spoken in just about every direction, it's hard to see the event as a tourist trap.
The musicians played many songs with German lyrics, although there was a notable exception: John Denver's “Take Me Home, Country Roads." The song “Ein Prosit," or “A Toast," typifies the selections, with a big rhythm that demands toasting at every chorus.
Our group stayed at the Augustiner tent for six or more hours. Often we were standing on the bench. Despite being surrounded by around 6,000 strangers, it was easy to feel comfortable. After hearing “Ein Prosit" about 10 times, I could follow along whenever the band decided to play it again.
Packed on a weekday
Monday was a regular workday in Munich. But at the Oktoberfest grounds, known as Theresienwiese, or Wiesn (pronounced VEE-sin) for short, almost all the tents were packed. The crowd was filled with more children and parents than it was over the weekend. And fewer people were wearing dirndls or lederhosen, which was a relief.
Because it was a weekday, I'd expected the tents to have empty benches for guests to sit without having to wait around. But that was the case at just one tent I visited.
A few hours later, while wandering around a neighborhood not far from the Munich city center, I passed a lederhosen-clad man carrying on a conversation on a cellphone.
The sight reminded me of how, although some aspects of Oktoberfest change, the essence still carries on, more than 200 years after it began. The clothing, the beer and the six main Munich breweries take on a sense of timelessness. The act of descending on and celebrating in one place together, year after year, is a tradition. And people the world over have taken note.
I wonder if Bend could ever have some tradition spanning centuries. For one thing, the city wouldn't need to look far for beer.