Welcome to Oktoberfest!
- 460,000 roast chickens. 400,000 sausages. 70,000 pork knuckles. 116 oxen.
- Dirndls, lederhosen, gingerbread cookies, oompah bands, beer chants and pretzels, and heaving breasts as far as the eye can see.
- Six and a half million people drinking nearly 7 million litres of beer.
This year, the Opening Ceremony officially kicked off at noon when the Mayor of Munich tapped the first keg in the Schottenhammel tent and declared “O’zapft is!”: “It is tapped.”
But the day actually begins at 9am, with the opening of the tent doors and the mad dash to find a table; one of the only rules at Oktoberfest is that you must be sitting down to order a beer, so it’s important to grab a seat.
This is where my friends and I made our first mistake. We arrived early enough to the Lowenbrau tent, but spent too much time mingling, taking photos and exploring, distracted by all of the smells and colours and costumes.
The images that spring to mind when you imagine Oktoberfest – frilly dresses, green alpine hats with feathers, blue and white checks, sausages and beer – are not exactly German; they are Bavarian. Barvaria is the largest and most traditional state in Germany. You wouldn’t find a woman wearing a dirndl in Berlin or Hamburg, for example, unless she’s off to a costume party. But in Bavaria – of which Munich is the capital – the locals all have their own ‘tracht’ (a traditional national costume), which they proudly display during the 16-days of Oktoberfest.
The men wear lederhosen: brown leather breeches that are not the sexiest outfit ever designed, but are sturdy and reliable for working-class men. The women wear dirndls, the most feminine outfit imaginable with a full skirt, apron and corset top. Tourists are invited to don the tracht, and you fill silly if you don’t. It’s good fun to play dress-up, and Oktoberfest is the only time of the year when you can adjust your breasts in public and compare them with your friends and it’s not considered strange.
At noon, the band started to play, the beer began to flow, and the waitresses came barrelling through the crowds, holding up to ten steins in their arms. Some of them use whistles to clear a path before them, others just push. Oktoberfest is serious business for these ladies; they purchase the beers from the till first, and then collect the money from the customer, so the beer essentially belongs to them. This means that if they drop a stein, they pay for it. They earn around 10 percent of the revenue from the beer they sell, plus tips, which can add up to thousands of euros over the festival. This year, steins cost 9.50 euros, and if you didn’t round up to at least ten, you likely wouldn’t see that waitress again anytime soon.
By 1pm, we had searched the tent but could not find seats anywhere. We were tired, grouchy and thirsty. In the real world, we probably wouldn’t have noticed if we didn’t have a beer by midday; at Oktoberfest, it was downright insulting.
We left the Lowenbrau, hoping for better luck in another of the 14 big tents. They range in capacity from 3000-8000 people, with space for an additional 2000 outside in the beer gardens. Some of the most popular tents are the Hippodrome, a local and international favourite with its sparkling wine bar, bright red décor and racetrack theme. There’s the Hacker Festzelt, where the ceiling is painted in beautiful clouds, or the Hofbrau Festhalle, the counterpart to Munich’s famous Hofbrauhaus. There’s a tent specializing in different varieties of oxen, and even a wine tent for those who don’t like beer.
We preferred the Lowenbrau, not only because of the 15-foot lion atop the main entrance that roars and takes a drink from his stein as you enter, but because we got to know a couple of the waitresses, Dina and Nadia, who started to recognize us by the end of the week and held tables for us when they could.
But on Opening Day, there was nothing they, or anyone, could do for us. When we left, it was cold, pouring rain, and when we saw the queues outside every other tent, we decided to cut our losses. Oktoberfest, ironically enough, was proving to be the most difficult place on Earth to get a beer.
The second day of the festival, we arrived early and determined. We played cards until the beer was served at 10am, and our much-anticipated first stein was delicious. There were fewer people in the tent than the day before, so with a little more space, we were able to try the traditional food. I opted for a half roast chicken and chips, the others tried pork knuckle, and we each had a giant pretzel. Later, we would try the traditional gingerbread cookies for dessert, which have messages painted on them in icing such as “Ich Liebe Dich”: “I love you.”
A day at Oktoberfest is fun, but when you finish your first litre of beer before noon, it is not destined to be a long one, especially when the beer you’re drinking is Bavarian.
Beer is one of the most important elements in Bavaria, and the history of beer in the region goes back millennia. The oldest archeological evidence of beer-making in Europe – an earthenware fermentation vessel dating back to 800B.C – was found in a Bavarian town, and the monks, after whom Munich was named, began brewing at their monasteries hundreds of years ago. There are over 600 breweries in Bavaria – twice as many as the rest of the European Union combined.
All beer served at Oktoberfest comes from six breweries around Munich, thus it must adhere to the 1516 Bavarian Purity Law – the oldest law regulating food or drink in the world – which states that all beer must contain only three ingredients: water, barley and hops. It is supposedly “hangover-proof”, but, by that afternoon, we had proven that, at 6.5 percent alcohol, it is definitely not drunk-proof. I recall fearlessly drinking 10 litres of beer that day but it was probably closer to five.
Long before the sun went down, we stumbled out, weisswurst in hand, joyful as a German beer song.
Of course, there is much more to Oktoberfest than just drinking; in fact, the original party had nothing to do with beer at all.
Oktoberfest started on October 12, 1810, with the celebration of the marriage of King Ludwig I – grandfather to crazy King Ludwig II who built the Neuschwanstein Castle – and Therese. Six thousand citizens of Munich were invited to celebrate in the fields just inside the city gate; they are the same grounds where Oktoberfest is still held, which have been renamed Theresienwiese, meaning “grasslands for Therese”. The party lasted five days, featured a horse race and a parade, and everyone had such a great time that they decided to do it again the following year. Thus, the annual festival was born.
Over the years, it has been lengthened to 16 days, moved to September to ensure better weather, and the breweries were invited to take part. At the end of the 19th century, the original booths were expanded into the giant beer tents of today, which take three months to erect, and are so elaborate that it’s difficult to imagine that they aren’t permanent structures.
Oktoberfest is the largest fair in the world. The Theresienwiese stretches across 42 hectares – more than 80 football fields – and is full of games, Ferris wheels, shops, cafés, and 80 rides, some of which have been around since the beginning of the 20th-century, and others that are cutting-edge, such as the 5-Loop Olympic Roller Coaster. Every four years – 2012 being one – there is an agricultural fair, which began in 1811 to promote local agriculture and features live animals and exhibits.
Above all, Oktoberfest is great fun. During the day, the oompah bands play traditional brass music, and you hear the song “Ein Prosit”, which translates roughly to “A toast,” every twenty minutes. After 6pm, the traditional music is replaced by modern songs, and some tents even switch to rock bands. It is strictly forbidden to dance on the tables, so everyone stands on the benches, hoisting their steins, singing along.
We spent a week at the festival, dividing our time between the tents, the rides and the spectacular city itself.
One afternoon, we chatted with a couple of locals. One was Bavarian-born, the other had moved there from England twenty years prior. Both spoke to us of the wonders of living in Munich, frequently named the most livable city in the world.
“Munich is a city that grabs you and never let’s go,” said the Brit, growing emotional with beer and pride.
We looked each other in the eyes, clanked our heavy steins together, and offered a ‘prost’ to the city, and to one of the greatest parties in the world.
Written by Andrea MacDonald for EuropeUpClose.com.