Fans of classic Märzen lagers, giant pretzels, and plenty of obatzda know that Oktoberfest was cancelled in Munich this year — but that’s only part of the story. Yes, the massive beer festival on the city’s Theresienwiese meadow, more commonly known as the Wiesn, is not going to happen in 2020 due to the coronavirus, as announced by Munich Mayor Dieter Reiter on April 21. But locals are planning plenty of other activities in an attempt to keep the spirit of Oktoberfest alive.
From Sept. 19 through Oct. 4, during what would have been Oktoberfest’s usual period of celebration, special events will take over the beer halls of the six Munich breweries that normally fill the festival tents: Augustiner, Hacker-Pschorr, Hofbräu, Löwenbräu, Paulaner, and Spaten. Each brewery will set up its own “Wirtshaus-Wiesn” at its respective Wirtshaus, or local tavern, in an attempt to salvage at least some of the fun of Oktoberfest — as well as some of its economic benefits.
“Now that the Wiesn is not taking place, there will be numerous other events under the title ‘Wirtshaus-Wiesn,’” says Stefan Hempl, a spokesperson for Hofbräu. “In the center of Munich, restaurateurs will decorate their pubs with Oktoberfest decorations during the festival’s timeframe, offer Oktoberfest delicacies, and, of course, serve Oktoberfest beer in a Maßkrug [the festival’s traditional one-liter mug],” he says. “It is not meant to be a ‘substitute Oktoberfest,’ but more of an homage to the origins of the festival, with a cheerful, untroubled atmosphere in our taverns and beer gardens — while observing, of course, all hygiene and safety regulations.”
With 6.3 million visitors, Oktoberfest contributed €1.23 billion — about $1.45 billion — and an estimated 13,000 jobs to the local economy in 2018. Oktoberfest visitors consumed about 15 percent of the 42,000 barrels of the Oktoberfest lager Hofbräu brewed in 2019, Hempl says, and the event also brought large numbers of visitors to the Hofbräuhaus tavern in the city. While exports, retail sales, and the various “Wirtshaus-Wiesn” events can make up a bit of difference, there’s clearly going to be a big loss to the regional economy, like the €505 million ($595 million) that was spent at area hotels during last year’s festival.
Although 2020 would mark the 210th anniversary of the event, it would have only been the 187th Oktoberfest, with some 25 incarnations cancelled due to various wars, hyperinflation in the years 1923 and 1924, and cholera epidemics in 1854 and 1873.
For some beer-loving locals, skipping a year of Oktoberfest might not be such a big deal — especially for fans of small and independent breweries. Of the six big Munich beer makers, only Augustiner and Hofbräu are not owned by international giants. AB InBev owns Spaten and Löwenbräu, while Paulaner and Hacker-Pschorr are part of Brau Holding International, 49.9 percent of which is held by Heineken.
“I can’t say I feel particularly bad for the event itself or the big tent owners, but I can see that the owners of rides and smaller Oktoberfest venues are in a difficult situation,” says Jonas Haase, a beer lover in Munich. For Haase, a much greater loss than Oktoberfest was the cancellation of this year’s Fränkisches Bierfest, which normally brings over a hundred cult Franconian breweries to Bavaria’s second city of Nuremberg in mid-June.
As part of the efforts to find substitute roles for some of the smaller festival vendors, the city of Munich announced a program called Summer in the City, which has brought Ferris wheels and other rides, as well as booths, sports, and concerts, to various locations safely spread out across the city. Instead of the 16 days of Oktoberfest at the Wiesn, Summer in the City is scheduled to last for six weeks, though like Oktoberfest it will conclude on Oct. 4. Safety measures at small beer gardens around the city include registration and a smartphone app to aid contact tracing in the event of an outbreak.
As Mayor Reiter noted in April, the world’s largest beer festival could be extremely dangerous as a potential infection site for the entire planet. “The risk that people could become infected with the virus at the Oktoberfest, with its some 6 million visitors, is just too great,” he said. “Hopefully we will have got over the health crisis for the most part by the end of September, which means it would be even more irresponsible to risk a new wave of transmission.”
For now, beer-loving locals will find other ways to invoke the festival’s traditional feeling of gemütlichkeit, or “coziness,” possibly with a wider variety of beer than in normal years. “I have talked with friends about taking a crate of beer or a keg of homebrew to the Theresienwiese in September,” Haase says. “I suspect we are not the only ones with that idea, and there might be a spontaneous mass picnic happening on the opening weekend.” Or to put it another way: Everything happens for a Wiesn.