Like many people, I’ve wanted to visit Oktoberfest for a long time. This year I got my chance. After arriving in Salzburg, Austria at 5am on the night train from Slovenia, I shoved my luggage into a locker, bought a train ticket for the two hour ride to Munich and headed for the world’s most famous drink-up.
Once in Munich, I just followed the sign and the crowds to the fairgrounds.
Oktoberfest has all the cheerful atmosphere of a harvest fair except that instead of smallish barns where vegetables await critical review or straw-filled pens corral perfectly groomed farm animals, the ‘tents’ are temporary wooden buildings about half the size of a football field, hold hundreds of picnic tables surrounding a raised bandstand in the center of the space.
There is a lot of food – sausages, roast chicken, gingerbread and candy but the only real focus is the beer.
Each building serves just one brewery’s beer, so you have to tent-hop if you’re going to want more than one brand though, to be fair, after even one liter of beer, how much hopping would you be able to do and assuming you found a place to sit, could you really tell the difference? Tables seat six to eight people; aisles are just wide enough for the women serving the beer to get through. Carpal tunnel could be a job-ender here; the beer comes in one liter glass mugs and the servers frequently carry two or three mugs in each hand. Costumed sellers roam the aisles selling huge dinner-plate sized pretzels; others sell salt and radishes. Radishes? Who knew?
Tables are numbered and marked with times when they have been reserved. Outside of those times, the tables can be used by anyone and some few tables are marked ‘Frei’, so they are available to anyone any time. These, of course, fill up early, too. All this means that finding an empty seat can be difficult to impossible depending on the time of day and day of the week as well as which tent you go to. For those who reserve a table, there is a map to help you find the spot you’re trying to find.
The first tent I entered looked completely filled, but it was hard to be sure. I took a couple of photos, watched for a few minutes to see how things worked, listened to the band playing typical beer hall tunes on a raised central bandstand, shuffled along the walls where the snack and souvenir vendors had booths and headed outside to decide on a plan of attack.
Adding to the country fair feeling is a whole bunch of carnival rides and a try-your-luck midway of games of ‘skill’ that might win you a giant cuddly toy. I never realized such things were so universal.
Lots of the patrons were dressed in Bavarian/Tyrolean clothing for the event. For the men this meant lederhosen with suspenders, chunky shoes and knee-high socks or colored knit bands around their calves. Many also sported the typical felt trilby with a feather
or other furry plume. The women wore full- or calf-length dresses in bright patterns, white blouses with short puffy sleeves, tight vests in colors to match the skirts and often a long apron over the skirt.
These clothes are a regional costume in Bavaria, Germany and the national dress in Austria but we don’t really have anything similar in the US which makes these clothes seem more like party costumes than street wear. Maybe the closest we have is the ten-gallon hats, silver belt buckles and fancy boots typically associated with Texas. There are other historical costumes that are more or less unique to the US – Pilgrim dress, various types of Native American dress, but people don’t dress like that to go to the office or the beach or take a walk in the country or get married. National dress, then, takes a bit of getting used to for an American and Oktoberfest is an occasion for Alpine dress from all over the area.
As for the beer – at Oktoberfest, they come in just one size – one liter. I drank a fair amount of beer in college (tsk tsk; underage activity on my CV!) and after college as well, but nothing in that ancient past of my alcohol-imbibing experience prepared me for the task of drinking 1000 ml on the clock, i.e., before the time of your table’s next reservation comes up. In my case, that meant 45 minutes. Foof. I tried to practice before leaving home, I really did. I switched from my usual wine to beer but there’s more volume in a beer. And all that carbonation! It was hard work. Even having one beer a day during my vacation prior to Munich did little to improve my beer-drinking fitness. Expecting to have some difficulty on the day, I had planned to take all my photos before having any beer but in the end I decided to upgrade my five year old camera with a new model. Not only was the upgrade smaller and lighter but, more importantly, it had image stabilization – absolutely essential when taking photos at this world-famous beer bash.
There are signs all over the beer halls announcing that drinkers are NOT allowed to keep the mugs. There are plenty of souvenir vendors selling them should you want one. This is different from the rules for the small glühwein mugs at the Christmas markets; those can be kept since the price of the glühwein includes the price of the mug. When you consider that some eighteen million liters of beer are served at Oktoberfest, it makes sense not to let the mugs go walkabout.
The second beer hall I went into was run by Augustiner, Munich’s oldest beer brand. I decided to take the plunge when I saw some empty bench space and set off to snag a seat. Amazingly, the first table where I stopped and asked ‘ist frei?’ as I pointed to the empty seat was taken up with a very nice young American woman and her German husband and in-laws. I thought I asked her name but if I did, I failed to write it down in my journal.
This was part of an annual family visit. There was a lot of conversation in German, though she included me in English once in awhile. I didn’t mind being excluded; I kept looking around me, marveling at the whole scene and taking photos. Most of the photos came out fine and I even became adept at hoisting my beer mug whenever the bandleader on the
raised central stage called out to the crowd for a toast. Odd, though. The mug didn’t seem a whole lot lighter as the beer went from the mug into my stomach.
Finally, I decided it was time to see more of the Oktoberfest grounds while I could still manage it. I felt fine while I was seated but boy, once I stood up it was pretty clear to me, if to no one else, that a liter is an awful lot of beer and the ABV (6%) is more than what’s found in many popular American beers.
The sunshine and open space outside was a nice change. I didn’t notice anyone who was weaving or staggering but I was there on a weekday between 10 am and maybe 3 pm. The crowd in the evening might have been rowdier. Or not.
There are animals at Oktoberfest, but they weren’t hanging around in pens and they were all one species. All were horses and all were hitched to one or another brewery’s wagon piled with beer barrels. After the beer, the horses were the most popular attraction.
I strolled around, clearing my head and trying to decide whether I’d plunge back into another tent but I decided my experience had been a great one even with just the one beer, so I bought a 2012 Oktoberfest shot glass ‘mug’ and followed the crowd back to the Munich train station.
More photos coming on my next posting!