You’ve heard all about the beer, the pretzels; the buxom, dirndl-clad maids…and the beer. But is a day at Oktoberfest really as crazy as people say?
This year my friends and I decided to head to Munich to see what the 16-day, beer-drenched celebration honoring the 1810 wedding of the prince of Bavaria to Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen (see, it’s not just about drinking, it’s also about history!) is really like. Here’s how our first-ever day at Oktoberfest unfolded:
Thursday, September 25, 8 a.m.
Though the tents don’t open until 10 a.m. on weekdays, I had been repeatedly warned by experienced Oktoberfesters that lines begin forming very early in the morning. So despite a strong, steady drizzle, we were surprised to see only a few other attendees at the fairgrounds. Where is the commitment to the beer?
While cruising the grounds to investigate further, we meet Oktoberfest veteran Rick Sprague at Spaten’s Schottenhamel tent. Originally from upstate New York, Rick lived in Germany for 40 years, and has attended 45 Oktoberfests—quite the impressive streak. Rick admits that he’s never seen the field this empty before. “Usually there are lines of hundreds of people waiting to get in.”
“Is…Oktoberfest canceled?” one of my concerned friends asks, like a child doubting the existence of Santa Claus. But he had nothing to worry about.
After grilling Rick for tips, like that hofbräu attracts rowdy Americans and Australians, and Augustiner has great beer but is quieter than others, we head over to Hacker-Pschorr’s Hacker-Festzelt. Hacker is one of the largest tents on the Wiesn (short for Theresienwiese, or “Therese’s meadow,” which is the official ground for this insanity.). We are among the first dozen guests in the Hacker-Pschorr line, which almost immediately begins growing exponentially. There is so much excitement in the air that people are even cheering for the workers squeegeeing water away from the doors of the tent.
Hacker opens its doors five minutes earlier than expected to allow the 200 or so people waiting outside to stampede in and scramble for seats. For those who know they can’t handle more than seven straight hours of drinking and singing and want to explore the rest of the festival (raises hand), I recommend looking for a table, but you should know they’re tough to come by. Reservations for tables book up in February, but until 5:30 p.m. each day they are first come, first served. We lock down some of the best seats in the house just a few rows from the band, smack dab in the center of the whole tent.
Our seats secured, we begin procuring the sustenance we would need for the day, which includes giant Bavarian pretzels and baked käse schinken stangen, which translates to “ham and cheese stick” (though we prefer to call it German pizza).
Apparently at Oktoberfest the waiters don’t exactly ask if you want beer—they just slam them on your table and ask for money. You’ll always receive one liter (almost three bottles, for those keeping track at home) of Oktoberfest brew for €10. As a beer style, Oktoberfest is generally a dark gold to deep orange-red lager of medium body with a soft, clean, slightly toasty malt character. And unless you specifically request a radler (half lemonade, half beer), or you’re currently in a 12-step program (in which case, what are you doing here??), you’re going to drink this beer, and only this beer.
Three minutes after our beers arrive, the first chanting of the day begins, including Allee / eine Straße / viele Bäume / ja das ist eine Allee! (which roughly translates to “Avenue…a street, some trees, yes, this is an avenue.” I know. I don’t get it, either). “All this singing reminds me of summer camp!” my wife says. I make a mental note that we will not be sending our children to any camp that serves one-liter steins of beer.
One by one, a few brave souls decide to stand up on their bench to announce their intention to chug an entire liter of beer. As someone begins chugging away, the entire room cheers wildly, and erupts into an explosion when any individual successfully completes the task. But before you let fantasies of your own Oktoberfest beer guzzling run wild know this: Should you take the challenge and fail—or merely take too long to finish—you will be heartily booed. And you don’t want to get booed by 5,200 drunken people who are drunk at 10:30 in the morning.
Following the example of everyone around us, each person in my group orders wiesn-hendl mit kartoffelsalat, a half chicken served with potato salad. Perfectly moist, beautifully browned and infused with delicious herbs, it’s easily the best chicken I’ve ever tasted in my entire life. The best potato salad, too. All future picnics have thus been ruined.
One liter down, and we’re all slightly to moderately drunk (the exception being my teetotaler wife, who is now extra-moderately drunk). We’ve just been introduced to a new cheer: Ein Prosit, Ein Prosit, der Gemütlichkeit! which translates to “A toast, a toast, the good cheer.” (Still don’t get it, but it makes considerably more sense than the song about streets and shrubbery.) Apparently this is the fest’s most common cheer, the end of which requires a hearty toast and gulp. After two Ein Prosits in a row, we all need refills. But first, I need a quick de-fill.
The men’s bathroom in the Hacker tent contains nothing but two sinks and half-dozen giant troughs through which water continuously flows. If you’ve never experienced it before, there is truly nothing as heartwarming as simultaneously peeing in joyous harmony with 80 other grown men. Holding my breath to avoid the fine mist that hangs in the air due to the cumulative spray-back is a small price to pay to take part in such delightful camaraderie.
The second best thing about Oktoberfest (after the beer, of course) is that you get to meet so many people from all around the world. Having finally secured my second beer, I introduce myself to a team of charming Swiss dudes at the table next to ours. They join our party and begin mercilessly hitting on our female companions.
We invite a group of five female Mexican students from Monterey studying abroad in Leipzig to sit with us, smushing together to make room for them. Within 15 minutes we are speaking to them in Spanish and they are teaching us German. We sing the Ein Prosit song three more times.
Two-thirds of the way through my second beer I order my third pretzel of the day, despite the fact that I’ll now probably never have a bowel movement ever again.
During a trip to the bathroom, two Dutch guys from a nearby table are displaced when their friends invite some gorgeous Germans to steal their seats. They sit with us and they order me my third liter of beer without even asking if I want one. We become fast friends.
Two-and-a-half liters of beer in, and we are all beginning to come apart, as are my notes. All I have written for this time period are the words Munich people—which would mean absolutely nothing to me if not for my wife later reminding me of the two young locals who joined our table our ever-growing table.
Three liters down and I’m officially wasted. Maybe it’d be a good time to explore the rest of the festival? We discuss the possibility of leaving the Hacker tent.
We decide to leave the Hacker tent.
We leave the Hacker tent. Moving people at Oktoberfest is like herding drunken cats.
We stumble into the Paulaner beer garden, where I end up ordering yet another liter of beer and a sausage plate. As a very infrequent meat eater, I can remember eating sausage only six times in my life. Five of those times have been in Germany.
All of us are barely able to stand, but we somehow make our way into a fun house. The attendant at the entrance hands us pairs of disorienting wacky glasses and shoves us into a rotating cylinder lit only by a laser light show. If we could barely stand before, it has now become physically impossible.
We pay for admission to a bumper car arena because, though unable to walk, at least we can still drive (in an enclosed space designed for cars to hit each other). By some miracle, none of us throws up.
Our heads dizzy and bellies full, we all agree that it’s time to go. Waving goodbye to our newfound holy land, we exit the festival and forgo a cab in favor of a 20-minute hike back to the hotel that we hope will sober us up before some much needed rest. We came; we saw; we drank. (Now, that would make for a sensible chant.)