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

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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First, the good news for office landlords: A post-Labor Day bump nudged return-to-office rates in mid-September to their highest level since the onset of the pandemic.

Now the bad: Office attendance in big cities is still barely half of what it was in 2019, and company get-tough measures are proving largely ineffective at boosting that rate much higher.

Indeed, a number of forces—from the prospect of more Covid-19 cases in the fall to a weakening economy—could push the return rate into reverse, property owners and city officials say.

More than before, chief executives at blue-chip companies are stepping up efforts to fill their workspace. Facebook parent Meta Platforms, Amazon and JPMorgan Chase are among the companies that have recently vowed to get tougher on employees who don’t show upIn August, Meta told employees they could face disciplinary action if they regularly violate new workplace rules.

But these actions haven’t yet moved the national return rate needle much, and a majority of companies remain content to allow employees to work at least part-time remotely despite the tough talk.

Most employees go into offices during the middle of the week, but floors are sparsely populated on Mondays and Fridays. In Chicago, some September days had a return rate of over 66%. But it was below 30% on Fridays. In New York, it ranges from about 25% to 65%, according to Kastle Systems, which tracks security-card swipes.

Overall, the average return rate in the 10 U.S. cities tracked by Kastle Systems matched the recent high of 50.4% of 2019 levels for the week ended Sept. 20, though it slid a little below half the following week.

The disappointing return rates are another blow to office owners who are struggling with vacancy rates near record highs. The national office average vacancy rose to 19.2% last quarter, just below the historical peak of 19.3% in 1991, according to Moody’s Analytics preliminary third-quarter data.

Business leaders in New York, Detroit, Seattle, Atlanta and Houston interviewed by The Wall Street Journal said they have seen only slight improvements in sidewalk activity and attendance in office buildings since Labor Day.

“It feels a little fuller but at the margins,” said Sandy Baruah, chief executive of the Detroit Regional Chamber, a business group.

Lax enforcement of return-to-office rules is one reason employees feel they can still work from home. At a roundtable business discussion in Houston last week, only one of the 12 companies that attended said it would enforce a return-to-office policy in performance reviews.

“It was clearly a minority opinion that the others shook their heads at,” said Kris Larson, chief executive of Central Houston Inc., a group that promotes business in the city and sponsored the meeting.

Making matters worse, business leaders and city officials say they see more forces at work that could slow the return to office than those that could accelerate it.

Covid-19 cases are up and will likely increase further in the fall and winter months. “If we have to go back to distancing and mask protocols, that really breaks the office culture,” said Kathryn Wylde, head of the business group Partnership for New York City.

Many cities are contending with an increase in homelessness and crime. San Francisco, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., which are struggling with these problems, are among the lowest return-to-office cities in the Kastle System index.

About 90% of members surveyed by the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce said that the city couldn’t recover until homelessness and public safety problems were addressed, said Rachel Smith, chief executive. That is taken into account as companies make decisions about returning to the office and how much space they need, she added.

Cuts in government services and transportation are also taking a toll. Wait times for buses run by Houston’s Park & Ride system, one of the most widely used commuter services, have increased partly because of labor shortages, according to Larson of Central Houston.

The commute “is the remaining most significant barrier” to improving return to office, Larson said.

Some landlords say that businesses will have more leverage in enforcing return-to-office mandates if the economy weakens. There are already signs of such a shift in cities that depend heavily on the technology sector, which has been seeing slowing growth and layoffs.

But a full-fledged recession could hurt office returns if it results in widespread layoffs. “Maybe you get some relief in more employees coming back,” said Dylan Burzinski, an analyst with real-estate analytics firm Green Street. “But if there are fewer of those employees, it’s still a net negative for office.”

The sluggish return-to-office rate is leading many city and business leaders to ask the federal government for help. A group from the Great Lakes Metro Chambers Coalition recently met with elected officials in Washington, D.C., lobbying for incentives for businesses that make commitments to U.S. downtowns.

Baruah, from the Detroit chamber, was among the group. He said the chances of such legislation being passed were low. “We might have to reach crisis proportions first,” he said. “But we’re trying to lay the groundwork now.”


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