We did not plan to be in Munich for Oktoberfest. We arrived two weeks into September on a Saturday, were greeted by Eva’s uncle and promptly informed we were in time for the first day. Yes, thats right, “October”-fest starts in September. Within a few hours we were drunk, swinging liter glasses of beer, dancing and singing on long banquet tables.
Before we left on our round-the-world trip, we had been cautioned about Oktoberfest. It is massive, the crowds stifling and insane. Mobs of drunks flood the streets, destroying everything in their path, leaving a trail of debris and vomit. The city triples its costs and no one can truly enjoy this Frat-boy like devastation.
In truth, these assumptions may be partially right but are also very, very wrong. This is the world’s largest fair, with roughly 6.5 million visitors and 6.9 million liters of beer consumed. This may not seem like a lot, close to a liter a person, until you realize that many of the visitors are children and these stats don’t count the wine or schnapps consumed.
We saw lots of people slurred to the point where they curled into a ball on the street. There was a particularly entertaining fellow who, while proclaiming he was just fine, couldn’t figure out how to walk away from the medics. They eventually strapped him down to a gurney with a tent over it, vanishing him from sight like a magic act.
There are two realities of Oktoberfest. In one, we found German efficiency at its highest during the fair. Security and Medical personal are ever present, quick to deal with any situation and yet somehow never oppressive. Even the metro stop into the fest is heavily manned and geared to move people quickly and safely, no matter what state they are in.
Secondly, Oktoberfest is for the Germans, in particular proud Bavarians. The statistics claim only roughly 15% of the visitors are foreign. Just stand within the grounds of the fair and you will have perhaps the most authentic experience you can have of Bavarian Germany. These locals proudly wear their Lederhosen and Dirndl, not always just to the fair.
In case you are not too familiar with Oktoberfest (also called Wiesn) here is a quick summation of the layout. The fair grounds are called Theresienwiese, a massive area that is filled with many of the typical fair basics: funhouses, ferris wheels, roller-coasters, stalls of candy or other goodies as well as carny games like “ring toss” or “hammer bash.”
There are even less common shows like motorcycle stunts in wooden spheres, monster truck races and magic shows. We nearly tossed our cookies in one spinning carnival ride so be sure you know what you’re getting in to.
We really loved the “fair” food, a sort of focused version of the awesome Bavarian Cuisine. We ate Weisswurst (white sausages) covered with mustard, sandwiches made of Haxn (roasted pork knuckle and crackling), Knodeln (dumplings) with various sauces, none of which are healthy.
There are fish impaled on skewers grilled along long rows of coal and stalls filled with sandwiches made of every variation of pickled fish you can imagine. Diabetes nearly set in after sweets like chocolate covered marshmallows, donuts, strudels and the ever present ginger bread cookies hearts covered with messages in German like “be my treasure.”
But you have to eat the Bavarian food, it helps you to prepare for the Olympic event that is the real star of the show at Oktoberfest: the Beer tents. Each built by their respective brewery, these massive structures can hardly be called tents, and often hold over 6,000 people each. Everyone wants in. It is nearly impossible to get in during the back half of the day and sitting is even more impossible. Tables are booked months in advance. By the numbers, there are only 100,000 seats in the tents for the 6.9 million Oktoberfest visitors! However, drinking leads to disorganization and you can sometimes slip into a tent and maybe even a table (normally, tents are strictly reservation-only after 4pm) like we did.
These banquet halls fill up with Germans becoming more rowdy and boisterous than soccer fans in the UK, the whole gala not unlike some Viking war feast. Yet there are no fights, no cars being overturned and no couches set on fire. These people are happy, sloshing around with liters of excellent German beer, wolfing down rich Bavarian plates to counter the increasing effects of the alcohol and singing along with the live band.
Though this may be the largest beer-powered event in the world, the variety of beer poured is actually quite limited. Tents exclusively serve their brewery’s personal Märzen or March Beer. This lager-style beer is malty, with a medium to full body. Beers are served by Maß (1 liter) , which at Oktoberfest in 2009 ran us about €8.30 – €8.60 ($11.75).
Wiki explains Märzen as a “beer which may be brewed only between the days of Saint Michael (Michaelmas, 29 September) and Saint George (23 April). The reason for this requirement was the increased danger of fire during the warm and dry summer months.” The beer then sits in a cellar through the summer and then makes it appearance at Oktoberfest. In order to last so long in the cellars, either the original gravity and alcohol were increased or the hopping was strengthened.
Despite it’s strength, most Märzen are absurdly easy to consume. Never before have we been able to polish off and entire liter in half an hour and be ready for another. Thank god the entire even shuts down around 11pm, or else we’d become beer casualties ourselves! Even the kids were getting in on the brews.
Outside the tents, the choices multiply. The most popular brews consumed outside the tents on the fairgrounds are Weissbier and Dunkel Weissbier.
We squeezed ourselves in and they opened their arms up to give us big bear hugs. In all the world, no one was as welcoming and warm as Bavarians in a brewery tent at Oktoberfest. Thanks to this alcohol-fueled insanity, we met many people from all over the world. Some of our favorite faces from the Fest:
Hours blur by, watching the burly servers, all men and women of good size, deliver a dozen glasses of liter beers at a time (we in contrast, could barely lift 4 glasses at a time) and singing along with 6,000 others to “Time Warp” and, evidently the local favorite, every song by AC/DC.
This may be true insanity but it is also more fun than you can imagine. The city may become crowded, housing nearly impossible to acquire, and an already expensive city gets even worse, but if you can overcome the hurtles, we found that the people and the party were worth every moment. And if you need a break, but still want to enjoy everything the fest has to offer, the usually nearly-impossible to get into brewer’s restaurants in town and beer gardens in the park are much easier with everyone crammed into the tents.
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