by Mikhail Alexeev. Alexeev is a Biology major in the South Carolina Honors College at USC. This paper was written for the Spring 2009 class "Folklore and Film."
“If you attempt to drink this much, YOU WILL DIE” is the first line to the opening credits of “Beerfest” (2006), an alcohol-inspired comedy starring Erik Stolhanske and Paul Soter as the characters Todd and Jan Wolfhouse, two brothers on a mission to uphold an ancient family tradition of spreading their dead family member’s ashes in Germany during the famous Oktoberfest festival. While in Germany, the brothers discover a secret traditional festival appropriately named Beerfest. Run by the Von Wolfhausens, their distant relatives who believe that Todd and Jan’s grandfather stole the family’s secret recipe to the best German beer ever created, Beerfest is a massive drinking competition involving the consumption of ridiculous amounts of beer. Todd and Jan are humiliated by their German cousins, and go back to America with a desire to return to Beerfest and win the competition. In the following year, they recruit a team of beer drinkers and train vigorously in order to put on a more impressive performance at next year’s Beerfest.
While at first glance “Beerfest” appears to be a strictly alcoholic comedy, a more detailed analysis reveals a bounty of folkloric value hidden behind a veil of alcohol. As a matter of fact, the opening scene of the movie is a scene where the grandmother of the two brothers explains the family tradition of spreading the ashes of the deceased family members. She mentions that this has been a family tradition for centuries, describing that each family member’s ashes must be taken to Munich, Germany, and scattered in a special location during the traditional German festival of Oktoberfest. Clearly, this family tradition is a strong example of folklore, considering that it is a customary family tradition which is informally passed on from generation to generation. The directors of this movie did a good job incorporating this folkloric element, basically using it as the first building block on which they base the entire plot of the movie.
Upon arrival at Oktoberfest, the brothers encounter various national groups who alternate singing drinking songs while drinking beer out of traditional 1-liter Oktoberfest beer mugs. Considering that drinking songs generally have anonymous origins and are learned through informal oral means, they are perfect examples of folksongs. When it becomes the brothers’ turn to sing their country’s favorite drinking song, they cannot think of anything to sing, and begin to sing “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.” “99 Bottles of Beer” is a legitimate folksong, adapted from the United Kingdom’s “10 Green Bottles,” a popular song that small children typically sing. As with any true example of folk music, the origins of these songs are unknown, and they are taught informally. Unfortunately for the Wolfhouse brothers, the Englishmen singing their national drinking songs interpret the singing of “99 Bottles of Beer” as a personal insult, believing that the Wolfhouse brothers we mocking their own national drinking songs. This scene eventually leads to a complex situation of chaos, in which the brothers manage to knock over the entire Oktoberfest tent and get attacked by a drunken mob of Englishmen. In this scene, the directors of the movie ingeniously used folksongs to create a very humorous and entertaining sequence, adding to the comedic aspect of the movie, as well as satisfying folklore enthusiasts.
At this point in the movie, the Wolfhouse brothers discover Beerfest, an ancient beer drinking competition which has apparently been going on for centuries in a secret underground location during Oktoberfest. In this “beer drinking Olympics,” teams from numerous countries compete in various drinking events to determine the champions. The actual competition of Beerfest is an example of an exotic type of calendar event passed down among the great beer drinkers of each nation. These individuals comprise a folk group, formed due to a common interest, which in this case, is obviously beer drinking. In this traditional event, the Germans (the hosts of the event) are universally recognized as the best beer drinkers, and by folkloric standards, can even be considered to be the tradition bearers of this event. Once again, the script writers use folklore to further build on the initial plot mentioned earlier in the review. Wolfgang Von Wolfhousen tells the story of how he believes the grandfather of the Wolfhouses stole the family’s secret beer recipe, and proceeds to disgrace their grandfather’s ashes by breaking the urn and scattering the ashes across the floor in front of a jeering crowd. This scene solidifies the plot for the remainder of the movie, sparking the Wolfhouse brothers’ desire to return to the following Beerfest and redeem the family name. However, the movie could have gone much more in depth about the history of the actual event of Beerfest. It is mentioned that Beerfest is an extremely old event which has been going on for centuries, but the directors neglected to specifically mention the origins and early history of Beerfest. This was clearly a missed opportunity to create another humorous scene, as well as further educate viewers on the tradition of Beerfest itself. It would have been very interesting to watch a comedic scene depicting what the competition was like centuries ago.
The drinking games featured in Beerfest are examples of informal traditions and skills which are present in many contemporary cultures. Featured are numerous variations of beer pong, quarters, and many chugging contests. Drinking games are great examples of folklore, and one may even consider them as customs which are preformed while consuming alcohol. These customs are obviously not taught in any formal institution, and are more of a communal tradition exhibited by drinkers. The origins of these games are unknown, and there is never a set table of rules. A drinking game can be invented by any one; however, it is nearly impossible for this person to take credit for the invention of the game. This is due primarily to the fact that drinking games are passed down informally; usually in party settings, and once someone learns the drinking game and teaches it to someone else, the knowledge of the game will keep spreading until no one knows where the game actually originated. One important folkloric aspect of drinking games is that just as any tradition which is passed down from one group to another, it will slowly change and adapt to fit each group’s specific desires and requirements. As a consequence, there are often dozens of variations of one drinking game, each with slightly different rules, allowing it adapt to nearly every situation. In the movie, there is a traditional drinking challenge named “Das Boot,” where in the final round of the chugging competition, the contestants must chug beer out of a huge (2 liter) boot. Due to the traditional aspect of this final round, it is a very popular and well known event among the usual competitors of Beerfest. There is even a secret method of drinking from the boot, which is passed down among the experienced beer drinkers, which involves tilting the boot sideways in order to avoid “the bubble” or a bubble of air that causes beer to spill out of the boot.
While the drinking games certainly added to the overall entertainment value of the movie, an increased variety of games featured would have been a worthy addition. While at a college party, one of the members of the Wolfhouses’ drinking team takes a “strike out,” a combination which consists of taking a hit of a bong filled with marijuana smoke, chugging a beer, taking a shot, and then exhaling the smoke. The individual trying this feat proceeded to pass out after completing this task, adding to the come