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Globalization hits Germany's Oktoberfest
( 2003-09-22 08:47) (Agencies)

The polka bands struck up and beer started flowing at this year's Oktoberfest this weekend, even as the sale of a venerable Bavarian brewer to foreign owners injected tough global realities into the party.

Beersteins are raised by fun seekers just after the opening of the famous Oktoberfest beer festival in Munich, southern Germany, Sept. 20, 2003. [AP]
Billed as the biggest annual festival anywhere, the two-week beer bash is expected to draw more than 6 million revelers after rain last year and the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001 kept crowds smaller than usual.

A magnet for tourists and a deeply Bavarian tradition for nearly 200 years, the Oktoberfest has always adapted to the times. With many Americans still avoiding foreign trips, Italian visitors but also Russians and Chinese are filling the gaps.

Security measures were increased further this year and new amusement park rides were added.

More alarming was the news this week that some of Bavaria's most storied beer brands including Lowenbrau are being sold to Belgium's Interbrew conglomerate.

"It's sad," Munich resident Monika Heckel said Saturday, sitting in the late-summer sun in the Lowenbrau beer garden. "In Bavaria, you want to drink a Bavarian beer. I think the tourists do, too."

Though Interbrew will maintain the beers' names, the deal illustrated the struggle of German brewers to survive as the nation's beer consumption slowly but steadily declines.

"A selloff is always a shame," said waiter Gottlieb Kowatsch. "Every time, a bit of tradition does get lost."

Interbrew's $534 million takeover will make the multinational brewing giant Germany's No. 1 beer seller.

Michael Beck, Interbrew's head in Germany, blamed the bad business climate for the takeover of a series of German breweries by foreign companies.

"That so many give up is pure resignation," Beck said in an interview with the Welt am Sonntag newspaper.

Regardless, business was booming under a blazing sun Saturday as some 600,000 sweating visitors streamed to the beer tents, pretzel stands and sausage sellers on the sprawling Munich fairgrounds, where only Munich breweries are allowed to sell.

Munich Mayor Christian Ude opened the festival's 170th edition by tapping the first barrel at noon with the traditional shout of "O'zapft is," or "It's tapped."

To keep the thirst going through Oct. 5 despite Germany's lame economy, brewers refrained from raising prices for the first time since 1969, leaving the tab for a one-liter mug at $7.10-7.70.

Keeping up with the times in another way, organizers this year set up a refuge space for women who have been molested at the Oktoberfest.

"At such an event where people drink, women get sexually harassed," chief organizer Gabriele Weishaeupl said. "We have to sensitize everyone to that."

Overall security, already tight since the Sept. 11 attacks, was increased further with the addition of three more police surveillance cameras around the fairgrounds, for a total of 11.

The Oktoberfest goes back to the 1810 wedding of Bavarian Crown Prince Ludwig and Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen, which the royals turned into a street fest for all of Munich.

Nowadays, it's a massive party: Last year, visitors quaffed 1.5 million gallons of beer, munched 219,000 pairs of sausage and downed 459,000 servings of fried chicken.

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