Munich officials resist scientists’ calls to cancel Oktoberfest

Gas expelled by revellers’ bodies accounts for about one-quarter of the methane
emitted by the Munich Oktoberfest.

Hotels continue to take bookings for two-week beer festival that draws more than 10m visitors.

Every year, the famous beer-soaked, sausage-laden Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany, produces large amounts of natural gas. Now, scientists have found that most of it comes not from drunken revelers, but from leaks in cooking and heating equipment.

A team led by Jia Chen and Florian Dietrich at the Technical University of Munich in Germany measured methane emissions while walking and biking around the 2018 Oktoberfest. Methane levels during the festival were up to 100 parts per billion higher than those after it.

Only about 22% of that extra methane would have come from partygoers’ burps and farts, the scientists calculated. The rest probably came from gas appliances used to heat the festival and cook food for Oktoberfest’s 500,000 daily visitors. The emissions peaked around morning, afternoon and evening mealtimes.

Oktoberfest methane emissions were more than ten times that of the average annual emissions of Boston, a notoriously leaky city. Inventories of urban emissions should include the effects of large temporary festivals, the authors say.

Oktoberfest, the world’s largest beer festival that takes place every autumn in Munich, will be opened in 164 days, 1 hour and 27 minutes, states the official website. Or will it? Around the world, mass events scheduled in the second half of this year have been postponed because of Covid 19 — including the Olympic Games in Japan in July and the UN climate summit in Glasgow in November.

But in Bavaria’s capital, policymakers, breweries and many residents are resisting scientific calls to cancel the two-week festival. Dubbed locally as the ‘Wiesn,’ the event draws more than 10m visitors who mingle in overcrowded tents and guzzle down Bavarian beer sold in one litre jugs for close to €12. Munich’s city council is planning to take a final decision in late May or early June. 

In the meantime, hotels are still taking reservations. “We are continuing to plan the Wiesn as usual,” said Clemens Baumgärtner, head of the city council’s department for work and economy, this week. “I would like to see that there is no need to cancel.” Medical professionals say the city’s hopeful approach is pure fantasy. “The odds to organise mass events like the Oktoberfest in 2020 are precisely zero,” Alexander Kekulé, professor of virology at the University of Halle, told the Financial Times. Mr Kekulé said that due to Oktoberfest’s global character, the pandemic needed not only to be under control in Germany and globally for the event to go ahead. “I don’t see how this will be the case by mid-September,” he said. 

Stephan Pilsinger, a Bundestag member for the conservative Christian Social Union who is a doctor in Munich, said cancellation was “inevitable” and urged the decision to be announced as soon as possible. He pointed to the Austrian ski resort Ischgl, where tourists from all across Europe got infected during the skiing season and then brought the virus to their home countries. “With visitors from around the world, the Oktoberfest could easily dwarf what happened in Ischgl,” Mr Pilsinger said. “Hot and humid beer tents with thousands of visitors are an ideal breeding place for the virus. One infected person can easily pass it on to dozens of people.” 

Since its inception in 1810, Oktoberfest has been cancelled 24 times, including twice due to cholera epidemics in 1854 and 1873. Even in normal years, family doctors in Munich each year notice a sudden spike in the common cold. In the second Oktoberfest week, doctors’ surgeries in Munich start to fill with coughing and sneezing patients. “It’s called the ‘Wiesn flu’, everyone in Munich knows it,” says Mr Pilsinger. But local business and politicians do not see it that way. “The Wiesen is part of our Bavarian culture as well as our business model,” a spokesman of state-owned Munich brewery Hofbräuhaus said, adding that “we want that it takes place as normal.

”Like other local brewers, Hofbräuhaus is brewing a special type of beer for the festival, which it puts on tap in the tents and then exports around the world. Visitors tend to stay several days, bringing a boon to local cab drivers, hotel owners and restaurants. Hotel prices more than double during the two Oktoberfest weeks. Overall, visitors spend some €1.2bn each year. “We are still taking bookings for the 2020 Oktoberfest. If the event is cancelled, everything rolls over to 2021,” said Toby Atkins, events booking co-ordinator at Texas-based agency Bucket List Events that is offering multi-day Oktoberfest tours for US visitors. A package with four nights in a four-star hotel costs $1,695 per person.