Latest posts by Rayka Kobiella (see all)
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People in suits and leather pants, dancing on tables in a completely over-crowded giant tent. Women in voluminous dresses with even larger cleavages, balancing too many one liter beer glasses, that one must think will surely break their fingers. The bands playing loud German music, typically trombone and accordion, and everyone seems to know one other.
This is not how you would picture the behavior of the Germans in general, is it? Well, you’re right. So let’s find out how and why the Germans take their chance to freak out at the Oktoberfest, at least once in their lifetime.
What all this fuss is about?
The Oktoberfest tradition started in 1810. It looked a bit different though, at the time of its inception. The Crown Prince Ludwig just married his fiancé, Princess Therese and so there was a big celebration scheduled for this royal event. The city of Munich decided to organize a horse race on a field close to the city gate. That field was named after the Princess Therese – “Theresienwiesn”. And that is where the Oktoberfest originated, and where it still takes place today, though it is now much closer to the city center.
After this great festivity the people of Munich wanted to repeat it. They found some private sponsors who brought together a horse race and a fair again. A few years later, in 1819 the city fathers of Munich decided to finally take over and organize this into a public fair, with many stalls and carousels. The tradition of offering the famous “hendl” – a half roasted chicken, started in 1881 and people loved it right away. It still goes very well together with beer.
Then it started getting bigger…
In the late 19th century the Oktoberfest became more and more the festivity that we know today. Electronic lights inside the stalls and the carousels, numerous carnies, massive tents with the music bands organized by the breweries, instead of the small beer booths, that were now part of history. In 1910, the first record for drinking beer took place inside one of the biggest party tents with 12,000 seats, filled with guests who drank 12,000 hectoliters of beer!
Another tradition without which the Oktoberfest wouldn’t be the same again, was initiated in 1950. The so-called “Anstich” became the official opening ceremony, led by the Mayor of Munich, on the first Saturday of the festival. The Mayor has the honor of tapping the first keg of the Oktoberfest beer. After he says the phrase: “O’zapf is” which can be translated as: “the beer is ready to serve” – the festival is now officially open. Following this act, the beer will start flowing. You can probably imagine the enthusiastic crowds waiting for this moment. It is quite an ear-battering experience, I shall say.
So what does it look like today?
Once you enter a Theresienwiese or Wiesn as we call it, you will instantly feel like you are inside an amusement park, with numerous carousels and stalls, filling up the premises. It will smell of candies, roasted chickens, and the freshly made “Brezen” (pretzels).
Then you will notice fourteen large tents and numerous smaller ones. Generally you won’t see too much of the interiors, because it’s usually too crowded right after the opening, between 9 and 10, in the morning. On average, it looks rather standard – with just the beer tables and benches lined up in an order, and a stage right in the middle or next to a wall, for the musicians and bands. Everything is usually decorated in bavarian colors – blue and white. It’s still rather impressive because of its enormous size, but it gets even more so, once the crowds fill up the space.
How’s the party?
Even for me, as a German, what’s happening inside these tents seems quite strange. Everyone starts drinking beer at around 10am. You also have to make sure that you enter the bigger tents early enough, because they will be closed once they get too crowded. This often happens between noon and the early afternoon.
A large number of people are seating together at a table, holding their huge glasses of beer, swaying to music, crossing their arms with people on both sides, while singing some old traditional songs or shouting out some slogans. Most famous one is the “Ein Prosit auf die Gemütlichkeit”, which means something like “Cheers to coziness”. Another famous one is the “Ein, zwei, drei, Gsuffa”. When you hear that one – get your glass ready, clink it on “Gsuffa” and then drink as much as you can.
As you can imagine with this party behavior, people loose it pretty quickly and start climbing on the tables to dance. Between those tables the crowd is also dancing and flirting. If it works out with your flirt – you can call him or her your “Gspusi” of the evening.
You can also make reservations for a table, which usually doesn’t cost a thing, but you have to buy vouchers for food or drinks, to show that you’re not just sitting there and blocking the table. Surprisingly, you can find insane rates, up to 3,000 Euros for a single table reservation on the internet – but that looks like a some kind of “black market” scheme. Just make sure to arrive there early and you will be fine.
What about the drinks?
It’s pretty easy – if you truly love beer, then this is your place. If not – don’t go there. Although there is usually one tent called “Weinzelt” – which is a wine tent. But then, if you’re a wine drinker – why go to the biggest Beer Party in the World?
There is a traditional rule that on the Oktoberfest, they will only sell beer from the Bavarian breweries. Hence you’ll find six fantastic beers in Munich: Augustiner, Hacker Pschorr, Hofbräu, Löwenbräu, Paulaner and Spaten Franziskaner. If you will decide to try out a Maß of every beer in one day, you might not remember how the last four tasted. So let me give you a quick overview.
Generally the beer used at the Oktoberfest has a higher amount of the original wort. That’s why they have this lovely yellow-golden look – and a higher percentage of alcohol, around 6%. The Hofbräu-Beer with its 6,3% of alcohol has a note of lemon in it. Augustiner is rather pleasant to the taste. Hacker Pschorr-Beer and Paulaner are the only two beers with less alcohol percentage, but Hacker Pschorr still got 5,8% and it’s really ‘full-bodied’. Paulaner is fresh and easy-going, as is Franziskaner, which is a bit more nippy. In addition, Augustiner has a light herb taste.
The beer is usually served in a one liter glass, or how they like to call it here – a “Maß” of beer. You would pronounce it with a short “a” and “ß” like a strong “s”. I had to hold my first Maß with both of my hands while drinking half of it quickly, otherwise it would’ve been too heavy.
There is actually a word for the remaining beer that’s left in a Maß glass. You can imagine that the last sip of a one liter beer might taste a little, let’s say… different. It’s named “Noagerl” in Bavaria, and there are three different ways of treating it, which can lead to prolonged drunken discussions at the Oktoberfest. There are people who always relinquish the last sip, those who drink it quickly, and those who just pour it in their next Maß.
One beer will usually cost between 10,40€ and 11€, which sounds like a lot at first – but you should remember that it’s one liter… By the way in 2016 – 6.6 million Maßs were served!
And the food?
Every cliché about the Germans is true here. The food is fatty, meaty, and comes in abundance. There is the half roasted chicken – “hendl”, and of course the well-known white sausage – “Weißwurst”, which you have to consume before noon with some sweet mustard. This custom dates to the time, when this kind of sausage was prepared in the mornings and there were no fridges around.
So they cooked it in the morning and served it before noon. Just don’t forget to peel off the skin before you take a bite. You can also take a look around, just to see how others are treating it, so you don’t make a total mess out of the sausage. Usually you will hold it down with a fork, while you cut a line lengthwise. Then you will softly peel off the skin with a knife, while gently pulling the sausage out of it. Traditionally it is eaten together with a good salty Pretzel. Weißwurst, a Pretzel along with a Weizenbeer, is a famous breakfast dish in Bavaria, but is served all-day long nowadays.
Of course there are more dishes – pork knuckles with sauerkraut, ducks with potato dumplings, red cabbage with self-made sauce, and yes there are also items like the famous sausage salad. Nothing much on offer for veggie-lovers, as you can probably guess. Though, for the fish-eaters – you will love fish on a stick.
Those are the traditional top dishes. But luckily, since vegan food became super fashionable everywhere in Germany nowadays, you will also find Tofu-Burger, vegan goulash and so on. However at such a traditional fair as this one, don’t expect that people will not give you “the look” for ordering a vegan meal.
A rather good veggie dish would be the super delicious bread dumplings. They come with or without meat, so ask before you order. They have a funny name – “Knödel”. There is also the “Brotzeit”, which is bread mixed with creamy cheese, called Obazda and radish. There are also wonderful desserts, like the sweet yeast dumplings with hot vanilla sauce.
Food is just as important as beer during the Oktoberfest. In 2016 they served more than a hundred oxen, almost 50 veals, 360,000 chickens, and more than 28 tons of roasted almonds!
What do I wear… and why the hell should I?
The Bavarian, not the German in general, traditional costumes are the dirndl dresses for the ladies and lederhosen for the men. The original ones are really expensive, but if you like this fashion and want to try it out, there are many shops around the Wies’n, where you can buy an inexpensive one.
All the waiters as well as musicians will wear the original one for sure. Particularly, for the young waitresses – the open cleavages are a very popular choice, especially when impressing everyone when serving and holding up to 10 Maßs in their hands. In order to do this, they actually have to train their hands and fingers, as well as attend a casting where they will have to demonstrate, that they can hold 5 liters in one hand.
As to the guests – they can come in as they want to, there is no dress code at all. Though many people are excited to attend Oktoberfest and they usually try to make an effort and wear something that resembles a traditional costume. That’s how they did it more than 200 years ago, so why not pay a tribute to those who started this mega tradition. Even if it’s just a gingerbread heart hanging around your neck, saying something like: “I love Oktoberfest”.
Oktoberfest takes place every year from the mid or end of September to the beginning or mid of October. The original Oktoberfest in 1810 was held in October, but due to the better weather conditions in the month of September – it was later extended.
- Weekdays: 10:00am – 10:30pm
- Weekends and holidays: 9:00am – 10:30pm
They’ll stop serving beer at 10:30pm but will give you some time to finish your drink, and you’ll have to get out of the Wies’n shortly after midnight. One tent will usually be open until 12:30am.
- Entrance: Free
Security: on September 26th 1980, a bomb exploded in front of the main entrance of an Oktoberfest tent, killing 13 people and wounding 200 others. Among those killed was the assassin Gundolf Köhler. This was one of the worst attacks in the history of Germany. Right after that incident, the Oktoberfest organizers started taking security very seriously.
After yet another attack on a Christmas market in Berlin in 2016, they take it even more seriously now, which includes checking all bags and not allowing anything larger than a medium-sized backpack inside the grounds.