Happy  woman in a dirndl holding two pints of beer in her hands as she stands in front of a rustic woodpile

Woman holding beers ()

Beer and fair lovers delight: The oldest beer festival in the world, the Erlangen Bergkirchweih, returns this May for its 269th year. The annual festival has been held on a hill overlooking the town of Erlangen in northern Bavaria, Germany annually since 1755. That makes it over 50 years older than the Munich Oktoberfest and one of the longest-running folk festivals in the world. However, the “mountain church fest” offers more than beer. Visitors will find live music, dancing, traditional Franconian food, and all of the games and rides that accompany folk (volk) festivals in Germany from Thursday, May 16 until Monday, May 27, 2024.

Crowd at the fest under a yellow and blue banner

Crowd at the fest (Gary Brown)

A Storied Past

The Bergkirchweih owes its creation primarily to the same two things that are behind most German festivals: Catholic holidays and a love of cold beer. The first one is simple, since the heavily Catholic Bavaria takes seemingly every religious holiday they can to declare a public holiday and throw a party! Pentecost / Whitsun happens to coincide with the beginning of pleasant spring weather in Central Europe.

The second is a little more complicated. Erlangen is in the German region of Franconia (Franken), which has the highest density of breweries in the world. Before refrigeration, these breweries had to find a way to keep their beer fresh in the summer months. This was more important than you might imagine since beer was safer than water and consumed by all ages!

Gingerbread heart stand at the fest

Gingerbread heart stand at the fest (Gary Brown)

The solution most brewers came up with was to store their beer in underground beer cellars (bierkeller) where the temperature is naturally cooler. Erlangen happens to be next to a hill that was particularly easy to tunnel into, so several local breweries built beer cellars there. Eventually, they and the leaders of the town decided to hold a Pentecost market on the hill as well. That turned into a festival celebrating both the religious holiday and the first fresh beer of the summer season and has continued ever since.

Fest brand mug- tan color with blue print

Fest mug (Gary Brown)

Today, the annual festival begins on the Thursday of Pentecost with a parade and ceremonial beer barrel tapping. It concludes two weeks later on Sunday with a beer barrel funeral. The ceremonial “last keg” is provided a funeral procession and laid to rest in the cellar, not to be seen again until next year!

Blurred crowed in a vertical photo with a large white Ferris Wheel in the background

Ferris Wheel at fest (Gary Brown)

Good to Know

Erlangen is located in southeast Germany, about 20 minutes north of Nuremberg, two hours from Munich, 2.5 hours from Frankfurt or Stuttgart and3.5 from Kaiserslautern. Limited auto parking is available in garages in town, but taking public transportation from nearby Nuremberg or Bamberg is recommended. The festival is open to the public, but all visitors must enter through security checkpoints. Large bags, glass containers and any outside alcohol is strictly prohibited! The festival is open daily from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m., with the exception of a 5 p.m. opening on the first Thursday. Most vendors are cash-only. As with any volksfest, wearing trachten (traditional clothing) like lederhosen or dirndl is not required, but definitely welcome!

Food stand at fest. People crowding around and lining up to get food

Food stand at fest (Gary Brown)

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