40 Years in Beer, Part Twenty-Three: Beery Copenhagen days and Oktoberfest nights in Munich

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Copenhagen waterside scene, 1991.

Previously: 40 Years in Beer, Part Twenty-Two: A placid traditional Danish lunch in Copenhagen, 1989.

Among my proudest moments as an American abroad was the time in November of 1989, when I returned to Copenhagen for my flight home, and while there, introduced the Three Danes of the Apocalypse to the delights of Nyhavns Færgekro (Ferry Inn), of which they’d been previously unaware.

For me, it was unalloyed nirvana, and to my utter delight, they liked it.

To this very day the daily herring buffet at Færgekro remains an undisputed highlight of western civilization. At least ten varieties of pickled herring (with sour cream, curry and Madeira sauce, among others) are offered, along with dense dark bread, butter, and garnishes like raw egg, onion and caper berry. Whole smoked herrings are displayed for carving straight from the bone.

Beer is available, as well as akvavit (Scandinavian schnapps), honoring the wonderful northern European custom of providing house-made infusions of herbs and spices for flavoring the firewater and washing down the tasty pickled and smoked morsels.

A visit to the herring buffet years later, in 2009. Three immaculate herring nibbles and one shaggy Publican.

A guy could spend a whole day in a delicious and principled joint like this, and at the conclusion of Euro ’89 in November, that’s exactly what we did, first assembling an impromptu fish mob, then gathering at Færgekro for lunch, and finally finding the room unusually difficult to leave.

Seeing as we were putting the owners’ children through school, management graciously allowed us to continue consuming drinks even during the eatery’s midday break. The dinner shift was inaugurated in like fashion before at last adjourning at closing time to a friend-of-a-friend’s flat for nightcaps.

A taxicab brought us home well past midnight amid a pea soup fog choking both city streets and the inner recesses of my cranium. Next day I was tempted to do my best W.C. Fields impersonation and return to Færgekro with an important question.

Me: “Was I here last night, and did I spend $300?”

Them: “Ja du gjorde.”

Me: (wiping brow) “That’s fine. I was afraid I lost it.”

Recalling Arthur Frommer’s influential Europe on $25 a Day, it broke the budget to fund generous quantities of fishies, akvavit and Tuborg. I might have chosen to light cigars with Danish Kroner, but the trip’s end was imminent, and money no longer mattered as much. Besides, there was a good chance the day was memorable, if only I could … you know, remember.

Where to begin? (2009).

The raucous and debilitating “Danish lunch” episode recounted previously proved to be an outlier amid a succession of peaceful, idyllic September days in beautiful Copenhagen. I spent three weeks at Allan’s place, devoting blissfully sunny late summer days to aimless wandering, studying a few beers, and sleeping them off atop the master’s legendary orange couch.

The plan was to conserve funds as much as possible for the revels to come, so I ate and drank at home most of those days, stocking Allan’s fridge with store-bought herring and dense, dark bread fully suitable for three daily squares. My rent was coffee and beer for the beneficent landlord.

Eating out generally meant hot dogs, as they’re another unrivaled glory of Denmark. During my 1985 stay in Copenhagen, I remember being famished and spotting a pølsevogn (hot dog stand) perched on a corner of Kongens Nytorv, the plaza at the gateway to Nyhavn. I’d seen others, and it was time to investigate.

Photo credit: David Atkinson, who can tell you a lot more about hot dogs.

The pølsevogn was no mere weenie wagon, but more of a food truck. It was so long ago that the worker wasn’t tattooed. As a devotee of John Kennedy Toole’s hilarious novel A Confederacy of Dunces, I promptly imagined the Danish words pølsevogn translating as Paradise Vending, or at the very least, “mogul of meat.”

Then again, Nyhavn wasn’t New Orleans. Nary a pirate was visible, although a great many people, locals and visitors alike, were queuing for rødpølser, the long and thin red-skinned wieners. Many of these same sidewalk epicures toted bottles of beer, as there were no rules against public consumption.

For a Hoosier hick in constant conflict with the Bible Belt’s intrinsic foolishness, the reality of walking around a major European city with a rødpølser in one hand and a Tuborg in the other was utterly liberating, especially when friendly buses stood waiting to cart me home if I drank too many.

Civilized institutions, and a world-class, sausage-eating and beer-drinking town. How could a sane person willingly return to L’America for Coors Light and Oscar Meyer?

(Spoiler alert: He did, repeatedly.)

Beer foraging in Copenhagen was a constant consideration. I’d haul bottles of different Danish beers for sampling up the stairs at Allan’s, and take the empties back to one of the grocery stores in the neighborhood.

At the time, those deposits actually amounted to something, because from the 1970s until 2002, Denmark buttressed its highly successful recycling requirements by regulating drinks packaging, which in effect meant cans of beer were unavailable for purchase inside the country.

Label removing machine at the Carlsberg brewery in Copenhagen.

Tour guides at the Carlsberg and Tuborg breweries never failed to mention that upwards of 90% of beer bottles were dutifully returned, to be used 30 times or more before being deemed no longer suitable for filling. Retail outlets were outfitted to effortlessly handle the return transactions, just as we’d done back home in olden times, but in America by 1981 only 12% of beer was shipped in returnable bottles, declining to negligibility by 2007.

In 1987 it had dawned on me that returnable beer bottles were the ideal vehicle for beer label collecting. Since the labels would need to be removed for cleaning and reuse, they were not affixed with gorilla glue. They’d slide off after a minute’s soaking in the sink. Conversely, labels used with non-returnable bottles were a pain to harvest.

Interestingly, Carlsberg, Tuborg and other Danish breweries readily produced cans when slated for shipment outside Denmark, hence the export-grade canned Carlsberg we enjoyed in Moscow. These were adjunct-free recipes brewed to suit the dictates of the Reinheitsgebot beer purity law.

The United Breweries of Carlsberg and Tuborg controlled 80% of the Danish beer market during the 1980s, and obviously their beers were easiest to find (read: on every street corner). However, there were other breweries in Denmark, among them Ceres, Wiibroe, Faxe, Thor, and Albani. Their product lines mimicked the Big Two in most instances, and could be uncovered with a bit of snooping.

Danish beers were classified according to their alcohol content. Hvidtøl (white beer) and Skibsøl (ship’s beer) were below the tax threshold at around 2% abv. Both were dark, even the “white” one. The Tuborg and Carlsberg everyday flagship pilsners were Tuborg Grøn (green) and Carlsberg Hof (referring to the Danish royal court), both at 4.6% alcohol by volume.  Next came a pair of meatier 5.8% golden lagers, Tuborg Export Guld (gold) and Carlsberg Sort Guld (black gold), and then two at 7.5%, Tuborg Fine Festival and Carlsberg’s famous Elephant Beer.

Tuborg and Carlsberg each brewed a tasty though costlier Porter, also referred to as Imperial Stout, bottom-fermented and arriving at just under 8.0%. Tuborg didn’t bottle its Porter, which would be glimpsed on draft here and there, often combined with Grøn to make a lethal half-and-half. My favorite venue for Tuborg’s Porter was the London Pub, just down the street from Allan’s.

As the conclusion of my Danish stay approached, I took the bus to the airport to greet Amy, my then-girlfriend and subsequently (first) wife and business partner. It was her inaugural journey abroad, and after a few days of acclimatizing, our tents were struck for the next phase: Oktoberfest, 1989.

The Imbiss at Gleis 16 in 1987.

We stocked up on beer, salami, beer, cheese, beer, bread and still more beer for the overnight journey to Munich, where reservations had been made at the Pension Hungaria, a smallish, inexpensive family-run guesthouse near the Hauptbahnhof (central train station). Our friend Jeff P. would be arriving from Bulgaria later in the day.

Before anything else, we made a pilgrimage to the famous Imbiss at the foot of Gleis (track) 16, where brunch was a foregone conclusion.

The Imbiss disappeared shortly thereafter, victim of extensive remodeling, modernization and gentrification, and in truth it wasn’t all that much even in its heyday, yet during the 1980s this simple, functional train station vendor was a genuine Munich destination for budget travelers the world over.

There were two long windows with outside counter space, plentiful tile and stainless steel, utilitarian beer taps, kitchen equipment for preparing basic snacks, and two or three brutally efficient employees.

Standing at the tables from 6:00 a.m. to midnight were locals, tourists, commuters, vagrants and assorted hangers-on, the majority of them savoring the Imbiss’s true specialties: Cool Löwenbräu golden lager at a surprisingly reasonable price, and a portion of Leberkäse, a high-quality form of all-meat bologna cut from a warm deli-sized square loaf, weighed and priced, and served with a crusty roll and plenty of mustard.

Decades later, I can still taste them. The Imbiss at Gleis 16 never disappointed, and duly fortified, it was time to claim our rooms and prepare for the main event.

The plan was to kick off the Munich stay with a short evening visit to Theresienwiese (fest grounds) for the Wies’n, as the Bavarians refer to Oktoberfest. However both my travel companions eventually begged off, citing fatigue.

I was not deterred. With Deutschmarks in hand and harboring a powerful thirst, fast and easy public transportation connections brought me to the purposefully overbuilt U-Bahn station that opens on the Theresienwiese, where scores of policemen assisted in the packing and unpacking of subway trains.

In the cool dampness, there it gleamed: Oktoberfest, crowded with carnival rides, arcades, food vendors of every stripe and prefabricated beer halls, some huge and others smaller, representing Munich’s six major breweries: Späten, Augustiner, Paulaner, Hacker-Pschorr, Hofbräu and Löwenbräu. Then as now, they have every appearance of being permanent structures, but are completely dismantled and stored away at the end of the festivities, which can last for up to 18 days depending on the calendar.

Thousands of people of all colors, creeds and nationalities milled before me. My favorites were the natives dressed in folkloric Dirndls and Lederhosen. I plunged into the throng and was carried through the midway by the crowded current, past bumper car arenas and target-shooting booths that wouldn’t be out of place at an American state fair, and toward beer halls that assuredly would.

Soon the mass of people parted in near Biblical fashion to reveal the majesty of the Paulaner hall. Gaping at this vision, I dove off-tackle and bulled ahead. From fifty yards away, the interior was visible through several sets of opened double doors; trance-like, my eyes focused on the octagonal bandstand in the center, where an oompah orchestra twice the size of any I’d ever seen held forth to the undisguised delight of hundreds of glass-wielding drinkers.

The temporary structure rocked and rolled, with half the people inside dancing and singing atop the heavy wooden tables, which surely had been constructed with precisely that sort of punishment in mind. Obviously, considerations of decorum — those restraints on behavior customarily observed by polite society — had been temporarily forgotten, to the obvious edification of the attendees.

I stopped at one of those outer doors. Just yards away, absurdly long rows of whole chickens were being roasted on spits. Signs decreed the price of the liter-sized Masses; I can’t remember exactly how many Deutschmarks were required, although likely it was around $7 or $8 for 33.8 fluid ounces. Servers toting anywhere from two to ten of the deliciously full Masses rushed past. Pretzels the size of large plates were being eaten.

Still standing at the door, I beheld this veritable city of beer, and as I started to enter, a greenish-hued man staggered past me and began vomiting violently next to a steel support beam.

Finally, it seemed that I’d found home.

Im Himmel gibt es kein bier! Darum trinken wir es hier! – In heaven there is no beer! That’s why we drink it here!

Oktoberfest, 1989.
Yes, Jeff made it to Oktoberfest eventually (1989).

15 years later there came a follow-up Oktoberfest visit, part of a motorcoach tour I’d planned and led myself. We convened in midweek at midday and found ourselves surrounded by hundreds of Münchners, with hardly any other tourists in sight. They’d come to eat (and drink) their lunch before returning to work, and the scene seemed weirdly normal compared with the typical nighttime revelry. Yet all the elements remained the same as before.

I contemplated how Oktoberfest could felt so very different in 2004, ultimately realizing that there was a difference inside of me. But we’ll get to that.

Next: 1989 travels conclude, and it’s back to beer work. Here’s a series of Carlsberg Hof posters from the 1980s by artist Joe Petagno; freely translated, the gist is “everyone needs a Carlsberg Hof at some point.” Only a few of them depict the beer itself. 

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