Oktoberfest Now Has Its Culture War. It Isn’t About the Beer.
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Oktoberfest Now Has Its Culture War. It Isn’t About the Beer.

Traditionalists criticise moves to modernise the Munich celebration as ‘woke’

By JIMMY VIELKIND
Tue, Sep 19, 2023 8:37amGrey Clock 4 min

MUNICH—Oktoberfest is usually all about the beer. This year, it is about chicken.

A decision by the Paulaner festival tent to serve all-organic hens at its marquee venue is stoking a debate between advocates of a sustainable Oktoberfest against traditionalists wary of a “Woke Wiesn”—a play on the short form of the name of the Bavarian celebration.

“It’s an experiment,” said Arabella Schörghuber, who runs the Paulaner Festzelt. “It’s more expensive, but the quality is higher. We want to make sure that the animal has a good life. We’ll see what happens.”

On Saturday, she helped hand out the first beers from the middle of the giant festival tent after thousands of people counted down to the tapping of the first keg. Waiters each toting a dozen glasses with a liter of beer wove through the crowds as huge rotisserie ovens cooked hens in a side kitchen, five on each spit.

Andrea Koerner, 56 years old, comes to Oktoberfest each year and usually orders the chicken, the most popular festival food. Not this time. When she saw that an organic half hen cost 20.50 euros, the equivalent of $22, about 50% more than the nonorganic hens, she opted for pretzels and a cheese spread instead.

“We don’t know the taste because it costs too much to try,” Koerner said.

Other guests said the chicken was good and worth the price. “I don’t care at all,” said Jake Williams, a 32-year-old guest. “I guess it is good if people care about the chickens.”

The price hike is among other inflation-related markups. The cost of a litre—or “mass”—of beer in most big tents increased this year by 6% to €14.50, according to a survey done by the city. That is after prices rose sharply last year following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Oktoberfest was canceled in 2020 and 2021 because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The menu shift follows a pressure campaign by a coalition of groups, demanding that the Bavarian festival of hearty food and enormous beers should turn into a vehicle promoting organic farming.

The activists held a public exhibition in the city’s central square showing a carousel of imitation bloody chicken heads to denounce industrial slaughtering. The group secured a meeting between activists, officials and Oktoberfest tent owners in the spring.

“There’s already a lot going on. But my perspective is from an organic local farming business, and there’s not enough,” said Susanne Kiehl, a board member of the Munich Food Council.

She and Anja Berger, an Oktoberfest official and a Green Party member, said the changes are important to meet the city’s goal of becoming climate-neutral by 2035.

In other matters, Berger’s party this year also secured four free water fountains on the festival grounds.

During a tour of the grounds last week, Mayor Dieter Reiter admired the new taps and joked of what might come next. “A free beer fountain!” he said. “I just haven’t found anyone who will do it yet.”

Activists have sought gastronomic mandates at the festival, but the city has not imposed them. An association of Munich’s innkeepers have pushed back at such rules, saying people should be allowed to live—and eat—as they see fit. “I don’t think anyone really wants a planned economy in which a small group decides what is good for the people and what is not,” said Thomas Geppert, head of the Bavarian Hotel and Restaurant Association.

Schörghuber, who is a vegetarian, said she received a mixed reaction to her chicken initiative from the other tents, with some concerned that they would be pressured to follow suit.

For many visitors, locals and overseas tourists, Oktoberfest is a freewheeling carnival—a chance to let loose and drink (often to excess) beer served by waitresses clad in revealing Dirndl dresses. Many guests also don the traditional Bavarian outfits and tie the ribbon of their aprons on a different side to indicate whether they are single or taken.

“It must stay a traditional volksfest, because otherwise it wouldn’t be attractive,” said Clemens Baumgärtner, an official who oversees the festival and a member of the conservative CSU. “If you talk about being woke on the other 340 days a year, nobody really listens to that. But if you talk about being woke on the Oktoberfest, you get lots of media attention.”

The first Oktoberfest was celebrated in 1810 to commemorate a royal marriage and build support for the budding Bavarian monarchy. It was so popular that it became an annual tradition, adding agricultural displays, vaudeville shows and eventually thrill rides. Despite its name, the festival now mostly takes place in September. Around seven million people are expected to visit the Theresienwiese grounds in Munich during an 18-day run that started Saturday.

“Wiesn will have to change as it has changed always over the decades,” said Lukas Bulka, who started working at an Oktoberfest tent as a teenager and now runs the city’s Beer and Oktoberfest Museum.

The festival already uses electricity generated from renewable sources, Baumgärtner said, and single-use dishes and utensils are banned.

An association of the 15 largest festival tents—which have seats for about 100,000 people—committed to becoming climate-neutral by 2028, mostly through projects that offset their energy use. Four tents, including the Paulaner venue, already meet the targets and built systems to recycle some wastewater.

But when it comes to farming practices, it isn’t feasible to rely on only organic hops and barley for the roughly seven million liters of beer that will be consumed, Schörghuber said. Hofbräu, one of the six Oktoberfest breweries, estimated that the production and transportation of festival beer in 2019 created 66 metric tons of carbon dioxide. Munich has an organic brewery, Haderner, but it doesn’t have one of the coveted slots at the festival.

Schörghuber said she focused on chicken because it is so sought after—the city estimated that around 500,000 chickens were consumed at Oktoberfest in 2019—and a change was feasible. She found a farm in Austria that raised the organic birds for this year’s festival and spent a year speaking with her cooking staff about what changes were needed to grill what are larger than conventional hens.

Kiehl said that while her group was happy with the Paulaner tent’s chicken change, it would be more difficult to convince the public that the brewers should be forced to tweak their recipes.

“That’s not an easy point in Munich,” she said. “That’s almost like religion.”



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Why Prices of the World’s Most Expensive Handbags Keep Rising

Designers are charging more for their most recognisable bags to maintain the appearance of exclusivity as the industry balloons

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The price of a basic Hermès Birkin handbag has jumped $1,000. This first-world problem for fashionistas is a sign that luxury brands are playing harder to get with their most sought-after products.

Hermès recently raised the cost of a basic Birkin 25-centimeter handbag in its U.S. stores by 10% to $11,400 before sales tax, according to data from luxury handbag forum PurseBop. Rarer Birkins made with exotic skins such as crocodile have jumped more than 20%. The Paris brand says it only increases prices to offset higher manufacturing costs, but this year’s increase is its largest in at least a decade.

The brand may feel under pressure to defend its reputation as the maker of the world’s most expensive handbags. The “Birkin premium”—the price difference between the Hermès bag and its closest competitor , the Chanel Classic Flap in medium—shrank from 70% in 2019 to 2% last year, according to PurseBop founder Monika Arora. Privately owned Chanel has jacked up the price of its most popular handbag by 75% since before the pandemic.

Eye-watering price increases on luxury brands’ benchmark products are a wider trend. Prada ’s Galleria bag will set shoppers back a cool $4,600—85% more than in 2019, according to the Wayback Machine internet archive. Christian Dior ’s Lady Dior bag and the Louis Vuitton Neverfull are both 45% more expensive, PurseBop data show.

With the U.S. consumer-price index up a fifth since 2019, luxury brands do need to offset higher wage and materials costs. But the inflation-beating increases are also a way to manage the challenge presented by their own success: how to maintain an aura of exclusivity at the same time as strong sales.

Luxury brands have grown enormously in recent years, helped by the Covid-19 lockdowns, when consumers had fewer outlets for spending. LVMH ’s fashion and leather goods division alone has almost doubled in size since 2019, with €42.2 billion in sales last year, equivalent to $45.8 billion at current exchange rates. Gucci, Chanel and Hermès all make more than $10 billion in sales a year. One way to avoid overexposure is to sell fewer items at much higher prices.

Many aspirational shoppers can no longer afford the handbags, but luxury brands can’t risk alienating them altogether. This may explain why labels such as Hermès and Prada have launched makeup lines and Gucci’s owner Kering is pushing deeper into eyewear. These cheaper categories can be a kind of consolation prize. They can also be sold in the tens of millions without saturating the market.

“Cosmetics are invisible—unless you catch someone applying lipstick and see the logo, you can’t tell the brand,” says Luca Solca, luxury analyst at Bernstein.

Most of the luxury industry’s growth in 2024 will come from price increases. Sales are expected to rise by 7% this year, according to Bernstein estimates, even as brands only sell 1% to 2% more stuff.

Limiting volume growth this way only works if a brand is so popular that shoppers won’t balk at climbing prices and defect to another label. Some companies may have pushed prices beyond what consumers think they are worth. Sales of Prada’s handbags rose a meagre 1% in its last quarter and the group’s cheaper sister label Miu Miu is growing faster.

Ramping up prices can invite unflattering comparisons. At more than $2,000, Burberry ’s small Lola bag is around 40% more expensive today than it was a few years ago. Luxury shoppers may decide that tried and tested styles such as Louis Vuitton’s Neverfull bag, which is now a little cheaper than the Burberry bag, are a better buy—especially as Louis Vuitton bags hold their value better in the resale market.

Aggressive price increases can also drive shoppers to secondhand websites. If a barely used Prada Galleria bag in excellent condition can be picked up for $1,500 on luxury resale website The Real Real, it is less appealing to pay three times that amount for the bag brand new.

The strategy won’t help everyone, but for the best luxury brands, stretching the price spectrum can keep the risks of growth in check.

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