Ahhh Oktoberfest …. Wiesn as the Germans call it …. the big kahuna of festivals for beer lovers and party hounds from all over the world. I decided to visit Oktoberfest again this year after a long hiatus. My first visit to Oktoberfest as a young guy 40 years ago was totally memorable. I can still bring back the distinctive sights, sounds, aromas, and the sense of the unique atmosphere that permeates this annual event.
More than five million people visit during the two weeks of Oktoberfest and they consume more than seven million liters of beer. The beer is mostly served in fourteen large “tents”, really huge temporary structures the size of multiple airplane hangers. Each seats thousands of revelers on benches at long wooden tables. Thousands more sit in outside areas or frequent the twenty smaller tent venues. More than a beer fest, Oktoberfest also features a huge midway with rides, sideshows, and food & drink venues.
My trip was during the second week of the massive festival and I arrived at Munich Main Station at about 9:30 AM. Signs of the festival were everywhere. Seasonal pop-up stores were doing a brisk business in dirndl, lederhosen, and other “tracht” (a blanket name for traditional German garments that many people wear to Oktoberfest). Directional arrows pointing the way to Theresienwiese (Theresa’s meadow), a huge open space within the city where the festival takes place. People dressed in tracht were everywhere and much of the pedestrian traffic was heading in that direction. You can also get to the festival grounds via subway. Some people told me to avoid the subway because it would be overcrowded. Although busy, I didn’t find it a bad experience — in fact, it was kind of interesting to scope out the revelers.
Only breweries that operate within the city are allowed in the big tents — you’ll see a bigger variety of brands throughout the city. The main breweries represented at Oktoberfest are the largest in the city. The brands are pretty much the same as I recollect from previous visits but alot has changed for these brands in terms of mergers and acquisitions. I was told that Augustiner Brau is the only one of the big breweries that is still locally, privately owned. I heard repeatedly through the week that Augustiner is the beer of choice for locals. I liked the Augustiner Brau but I can honestly say that I certainly didn’t encounter a bad beer all week.
Each of the tents specialize in a beer brand and some of them carry the name of the brand that they serve. The tents each have their own distinctive facade and decoration, but they pretty much have similar layouts — a bandstand in the middle with rows of wooden tables and benches spreading to a walkway surrounding their perimeter. Kitchens and beer dispensing stations feed into this walkway. On the outside of the walkway are typically two levels of more seating that seem a bit more sedate and are elevated from the floor for good views.
Table reservations can be made early in each year for that year’s fest but this only sounds practical if you are physically in Munich when they start taking them — you can’t do it over the internet except through brokers/resellers who seem to add huge mark-ups. The reservations are typically for groups of eight or ten people for 3-4 hour time slots. With a reservation, you are basically pre-purchasing food and a couple beers for each person in the group. There is also a proportion of the seats in each tent that are held for open seating each day on a first come, first served basis. On weekdays, I found it easy to grab a seat if I got there by 2 pm or so. Once a tent fills up, you have to show you have a reservation to be able to enter.
The first beers are poured at 10 in the morning each weekday (9 on weekend days) and the taps flow freely until last call at 10:30 pm. There are no chintzy plastic cups here — the standard beer is served in a substantial one liter glass mug called a Maß (Mass) . It is common to see people comparing their bruises on top of their index fingers from where the weight of the top of the handle has made indentations.
The majority of the beer served at Oktoberfest is Helles-Marzen style (to differentiate it from amber and darker Marzens like are typically marketed as Oktoberfest beers in the U.S.). It is a light colored Marzen, but don’t be fooled — It is a strong beer at around 6% alcohol content. It is possible to find other styles of beer if you are looking for them, but if you just say “beer”, you will get the Marzen.
You may have guessed it, but I had no reservation. I had only decided a few weeks earlier to go to Oktoberfest as a tack-on to a solo hiking trip I was taking. Also, I decided I would attend only on weekdays as I had heard that things are considerably less zooey. As I understand it, weekends bring in a big regional influx from other places in Germany and nearby countries making the place much more crowded.
My view is that a beer festival is alot more fun with a group of other beer lovers, so I invested some time in researching whether I could join in with others. I did have a promising lead from Tripadvisor forum on a group of Brits who had a reservation, but had a member who dropped out and needed someone to join them. That didn’t work out in the end. I also found offers from what seemed like tour guides who had purchased table reservations and were selling spots but these seemed ridiculously expensive to me. I ended up joining an event that I found on couchsurfing.com that was set up as a way for people to connect each day and stake out a table together. This was facilitated by a friendly guy from Alaska, Michael, who has been doing this for each of the past few years.
Michael told me that well over 100 people signed up for the event although that netted a smaller, reasonably manageable group of folks each day. He set up a Snapchat list for communications and he would announce which tent to go to each day. I did not have cellphone connectivity unless I wanted to pay Verizon $10 for each day I used it. I did have connectivity when I could find a wifi connection (I never found a free connection at Theresienwiesen although the city of Munich offers this at many other popular locations in the city). Imagine trying to find a group of eight or ten people you don’t know in a crowd of thousands. On the first day, I was glad to spend the $10 to be able to use my cell phone to find the others — I did not end up needing it to find them on other days once I knew who I was looking for.
Predictably, the couchsurfing.com group was pretty young and I would describe them more as “partiers” than “beer lovers.” I enjoyed the company, conversations, and perspectives none-the-less. This was a pretty international group with people from the U.S., Europe, and Asia. A good number were expatriates in Germany either as students or workers in tech companies. A like number were tourists like me, here to check out Oktoberfest. Michael told me that he does some screening of the group to try to weed out people who really don’t have that much interest in the group (e.g local guys trolling for a date or people looking for someone to acquire and save a seat for them or their group). I think he was having fun with his role, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him take it on again. There were two or three events like this on couchsurfing.com that had different date ranges during the two week long event.
The event is a great one for people watching, and it is quite photogenic as well. People start the day relatively clear-eyed but as the day goes on and the beer flows, things get progressively looser and wilder. The music contributes nicely to the mood and the band frequently invites the crowd to toast — prosit –which is always met with raising of glasses.
A wide range of food is served at the tables. Huge pretzels (brez’n), roast chicken (hendl vom grill), pork shanks (schweinshaxe) , and many kinds of sandwiches are all available. Most tents have extensive formal menus (example) with all kinds of options. Outside the tent there all all kinds of food stands as well. For a nice introduction to the foods of Oktoberfest, check out this story.
At one corner of the Theresienwiese is the Bavaria statue. Unlike the rest of the structures, it is a permanent installation. People collect on the steps beneath the monument. I think some people use the steps a a place to get some air and clear their head a bit.
People asked me what seemed different after 40 years … I’d say it seemed like more people, certainly more Australians to be sure. Selfies. A bit less traditional music (more covers of modern songs). Oktoberfest is still a one-of-a-kind experience for the senses, though. The beer, food, layout of the festival, feel of the big tents were all comfortably familiar feeling. There were this year’s versions of the drunk and obnoxious and there were many interesting and fun acquaintances that I struck up — just like old times.
A few additional notes on practicalities: This can be a very expensive event to go to or you can do it fairly modestly. The prices at the event itself are what they are — actually they seemed pretty reasonable to me — I budgeted about $50/day there. I spent less than $50 for a transit pass good for six days of unlimited trips on all the local trains, trams, subways, and buses — this also got me to and from the airport. Having this pass allowed me to stay at an Air BnB in a pleasant village nearby for about $25/night and quickly get wherever I wanted to throughout Munich — As for accommodations, I did talk to couchsurfers who had free places to stay and to people staying in hotels and rentals close to Theresienwiese who were paying hundreds per night. I find telecom connectivity to be a pain in Germany — I thought I had an inexpensive approach figured out using FreedomPop, but it ended up not working as promised. Free wifi hotspots are not as prevalent here as in the U.S. and other places I’ve been traveling over the past few years. I found lots of other things to do in Munich that made it a much more enjoyable time than if I had just spent all of my time at the festival — I’ll do other postings about some of those. I would highly recommend this approach if you have the time for it — it will make your time at Oktoberfest all the better.