One writer divulges everything you should know about Germany’s famous Oktoberfest.
After a long bus ride across Bavaria to Munich and an even longer night on the floor of my friend’s one bedroom flat with five other people, I woke to the sound of German chatter in the kitchen and my friend Anna Lena towering over me, asking if I wanted some coffee. Slowly I got up, shook out all my aches and smiled as I watched my male friends hike up their lederhosen and the ladies zip up their dirndls. With my limited proficiency in German, I could hardly understand their accelerated conversations, especially given they have a very unique dialect some native German speakers can’t even understand.
But what happened next I understood with absolute clarity: Anna Lena scampered up to me, held up an extra dirndl and said, “Los geht’s” (Let’s go). It was time for Oktoberfest.
It was difficult not to marvel at the sheer size of the fairgrounds in Theresienwiese, known by locals as “Wiesn.” On each side of every path, towering beer halls advertised on huge crests the beer served inside. Drinking anthems of varying nationalities poured out of the doors and into the Biergartens, where every waitress carried at least half a dozen beers as they dodged the rowdy groups at the tables. Between the halls were small stalls for Bratwurst and enticing tiny trinkets, while carnival rides of varying intensities loomed over, and I hoped the riders hadn’t had too much to drink yet.
Wiesn was playground for dare-devils and adventure seekers–and on that day, I was one of them.
Since its origin in 1810 as an event meant to celebrate King Ludwig I’s marriage to the princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen, Oktoberfest has evolved into the largest festival in the world. It draws visitors from all over the globe to experience Bavarian culture and drink its local beers by the liter. Oktoberfest did not originally start as drinking event; in fact, local breweries did not start serving at the festival until 1887. But despite the other attractions that it offers, there is no doubt Oktoberfest in Munich has a reputation for being a beer drinkers heaven. Oktoberfest is a place where the kegs are always tapped and flowing. It is where everyone starts drinking at ten in the morning. Oktoberfest is where you have at least three liters of beer before noon.
Because of Oktoberfest’s global reach, every year more visitors come to experience this slice of Bavaria. But with all these people flocking to Wiesn nearly every day of the three-week-long festival, it is difficult for the beer halls to accommodate every patron. I learned this the hard way, and unfortunately didn’t see the inside of a tent all day, which says something about the size of this festival, considering each hall is home to thousands of visitors. However, my group and I got lucky in the Biergartens.
Our first stop was the Schottenhamel Festhalle, where we jockeyed for the last available outside table with a group of Italians who hardly spoke German. Luckily the security guard fancied ladies in dirndls instead of the middle-aged men, some of whom had their lederhosen on backwards.
This is the politics of Oktoberfest at work: getting an outside table–even when you come early in the morning–is all about luck and the right amount of persuasion. Getting a table inside of a tent is a completely different story. That either takes a long standing reservation, which usually costs a ridiculous amount of money, or making a connection with the right person while in line for a pretzel. Despite my inability to experience the ornate and traditional beer halls, my worries melted away with my first sip of Spatenbräu Oktoberfestbier.
During my time at the table I learned from my friends that each beer served at Oktoberfest must meet certain criteria as set forth by a set of rules called the Reinheitsgebot, known by some English speakers as the German Beer Purity Law. These rules dictate allowable ingredients in the beer, and were historically meant to prevent price competition and ensure affordable materials for brewing beer in Bavaria. In addition to abiding by the Reinheitsgebot, the beers at Oktoberfest must be brewed within the city limits of Munich. Upon learning this, I felt happy in knowing I was drinking in a distinctly German tradition.
After a liter of Spatenbräu, the group took its chances on finding another hall, so as to experience more of the fairgrounds. We waited in front of the Löwenbräu tent for nearly an hour before being squeezed onto benches and getting up close and personal with an Australian group that had been at the hall for a couple hours. They were already four rounds in. Despite the slurred sentences, I was happy to finally hear some English. Every couple of minutes the Biergarten would break out in a Bavarian drinking song and some groups would sing melodies from their home countries. After some coaching from my German friends, I was happy to join in on the festivities and soak in every bit of Oktoberfest.
After hours at the Löwenbräu, we went home for a brief nap before going back to the fairgrounds for dinner and more celebration. After a huge Bratwurst with spicy mustard and a cola to wash it down, I was corralled to the swings with my friends. As the ride lifted me higher and higher I finally understood the incredible size of the fest. The lights blurred around me as we spun and I saw Wiesn as millions of visitors have before me and I felt so lucky to be able to cross this experience off of my bucket list. I can say it. I have been to Oktoberfest.