It's hard to convey just how glad I am that I have been to the mother of all beer festivals, Oktoberfest in Munich. I had a terrific time. Here's an analogy for my U.S. readers: imagine the Texas State Fair combined with Mardi Gras. Live in or around Washington, D.C.? Imagine a carnival, with rides, plus 100,000 seats for beer drinking, covering half the National Mall. Now there's a Folklife Festival for you!
It's all in the timing, apparently. I arrived at 10:30 am on the last Friday of the festival, and found a light crowd strolling the main drag. There were 14 major beer “tents” and maybe 25 smaller ones. The major tents are multi-story temporary structures which have canvas roofs but little else to distinguish themselves as tents (see the photo gallery I posted earlier). The biggest tents seat 9,000 people! And it's all taken down and then put back up next year. Covering 103 acres, in addition to the beer tents, the festival has a Ferris Wheel, several huge roller coasters, and every carnival ride, game, and food stand you can imagine (I never did figure out how to say “Funnel Cake” in German).
I've read some other blogs about Ocktoberfest, filled with complaints about things like not being able to find a WC (restroom). Just a touch of preparation might have prevented many of those problems. For example, the Tourist Info office right at the central Munich train station hands out free, detailed maps of the Oktoberfest grounds, with WCs, ATMs, amenties for the handicapped, etc. all clearly marked. Showing up at 5pm on the last Saturday of the festival is also a formula for a) being overwhelmed by the crowd and b) not getting into a beer tent. Because you have to get into a tent or its outside beer garden to drink.
And so, at 10:30 am I went into the Augustiner Festhalle tent. Basically, the big tents are run by major breweries and I wanted to try Augustiner because their Oktoberfest brew is still stored in 200-year old wooden kegs and is highly-rated. I had no problem getting a seat. Tables can be reserved for parties of 10 or more, but most reservations don't kick-in until 4:00 pm. This seems to be little known secret, as many people bypassed tables with reserved signs on them that they could easily have sat down at. Some tents, like Augustiner, actually have areas of tables that are marked “Here is Open Seating”, which is where I sat.
Some basic Oktoberfest economics: when you reserve a table you guarantee to pay for at least two beers and a half-chicken for each reserved seat. If some of your party doesn't show up, you're still on the hook for the total amount and you'll haul in anyone who looks tolerable to fill the vacant seats. The servers actually buy the food and drink for each order (at wholesale, I'm sure) from the tent owner and then sell it to you at the posted prices. So they have a vested interest in getting as many butts into seats as possible, and will often help you find a seat if you ask.
I sat down at a table with three young Germans who waved me in. Tables have benches on either side, with no backs, so you're rubbing spines with the person at the table behind you. In no time at all, I was drinking my first “mass” or 1-litre (33 oz.) beer. That was the one and only size I saw, and it was tasty. To be designated an Oktoberfest beer, the brew must comform to the Rheinheitsgebot or “purity law” (brewed using only water, barley, and hops) and be about 6% ABV. It also has to be brewed within the Munich city limits.
My initial cold, heady stein of Augustiner was golden amber, with a light, slightly malty taste and a very light hoppy finish. It was smooth, very satisfying, and possibly fatally easy to drink. I took my time with it.
The crowd to me appeared to be 80% under 30 and easily 50% wore the traditional checked-shirt and lederhosen (men) or dirndl dress (women), and the occasional short-shorts lederhosen (hotties). In many cases “dirndl” seemed to be translated as “cleavage”. There were a lot of good-looking women, to be sure. Traditional and goofy hats abounded.
By 11:30 am the place was filling up and so were the festival goers. Occassionally someone would stand up on their bench (benches are OK, but not on table tops) and chug a stein, accompanied quickly by cheering, clapping, and pounding on tables for all corners, followed by a huge cheer when the empty stein was brandished above. Occasionally a competition between two chuggers would break out. Then again, when one fellow got the crowd going but failed to finish his stein off, oh, the booing and hissing were huge!! It's not smart to taunt the crowd!
Reasons for taking a drink were many and varied. Recognizing an old friend? Drink! Finding countrymen at the adjacent table? Drink! Someone from your table coming back from the WC? Drink! And this was BEFORE noon, when the band started playing, pouring forth endless German songs that demanded that you stand, cheer, and drink, drink, drink at the end! Who knew these Bavarians could be so much fun?
I finally finished my first stein and ordered half a roasted chicken with my second one. Must get that protein in (as if beer doesn't contain any). In typical European fashion, when you order chicken, you get chicken. And nothing else: no sides, no condiments, nothing. Still, it was seasoned nicely and hit the spot.
Speaking of countrymen, at my table we wound up with two Japanese students, five young Germans, and me. The next table over was an entire group of American guys and girls studying in Rome. In front of us, a full troupe of hilarious young German men (students, I would guess) dressed in matching shirts and lederhosen and having a ball – they were really entertaining.
At 1:00 with what I thought was my full day's quota of beer under my belt (it's good to have a plan… and not to worry too much if things don't go to plan) I spent an hour strolling around the festival grounds, buying a souvenir or two and sampling some small foods and sweets. The grounds were a lot more crowded but still easily navigable; lots of families with small children, strollers, etc. in the mix now.
At 2:00 I strolled into the Paulaner Festhalle tent and now, as a seasoned seat-finding pro, sat right down with a group of Italian and German youngsters. My third litre of beer of the day was a revelation: lightly sweet, with a citrus, malt and faintly raisin taste. Wow – it was really good! Again, an extremely smooth finish in the mouth and fatally drinkable.
The Paulaner tent was jammed and the 12-piece band, on a raised dias in the center of the room, complete with a rocking horn section (and sax-playing fraulein), cranked through endless German tunes and lots of American frat-party classics. I'm talking about the Rhino records stuff, like Shout!, Wooly Bully, and Gimme Some Lovin' (gad – will that Spencer Davis hit never die?!). The crowd loved it. The folks at my table left and their places were soon taken by the arrival, along with my fourth litre, of a group of middle-aged Italian men, who I quickly figured out were from Venice. One is a gondalier and, as I headed there Monday, it was fun talking with some of the Venetian locals. When they were trying to guess my nationality, they tossed out “Harley-Davidson” and were soon on to me. We sang, we drank, we stood, we cheered.
It's always interesting to observe the group dynamics in these situations. There's always one “class clown” who, if not in command, is at least intent on creating fun. This person will be loud, may be rude, will take risks, and gets everyone laughing. I saw this in many groups of men and certainly in the Venetians. I guess it takes one to recognize one.
At 4:00 we were kicked out of our table so it could be available for those who reserved it and we said our goodbyes. The place was really packed and getting to the tent's huge WC through the crowd took a lot of work. I finally escaped outside to the midway where I discovered the crowd had grown to almost gridlock, too. I parked myself in a good location and people-watched for a while and noticed other odd bits. Did you know they sell bratwurst by the meter? Yes, apparently you can buy .25, .5 and 1-meter of it, on a bun, ready to eat.
Well, I was feeling pretty lively then but was saved by the fact that I was broke (1 beer = 9.6 euros, chicken = 9.7 euros, souvenirs, postcards, stamps, etc. cash only, please) and probably couldn't have gotten into any tents, all of which had now sprouted long entry lines, anyway. So at 5:00 pm I headed back to my hotel. I was clearly intoxicated (let's see: 4 x 33 = 132 oz. / 16 oz. = 8.25 Mad Fox pints at 6%) but having spread them out throughout the day, I was in good shape and slept well without any serious after effects. Let's not talk about gross calorie intake, please.
I went back to the festgrounds this morning to mail some postcards there so they'd get the official Oktoberfest stamp cancellation. Today is the next to last day of the festival and, at 10:30 am, the crowd was as big as it was at 5:00 yesterday. Good golly, I can't image what it will be like tonight. The tents are open until around midnight and I'm sure they'll be rockin'. My visit was a great experience and I recommend it to you!