Oktoberfest is the world’s largest funfair held annually in Munich, Bavaria, Germany. It is a 16-day festival running from late September to the first weekend in October with more than 6 million people from around the world attending the event every year. Locally, it is often simply called Wiesn, after the colloquial name of the fairgrounds (Theresienwiese) themselves. The Oktoberfest is an important part of Bavarian culture, having been held since 1810. Other cities across the world also hold Oktoberfest celebrations, modeled after the original Munich event.
The Munich Oktoberfest originally took place during the 16 days up to, and including, the first Sunday in October. In 1994, the schedule was modified in response to German reunification so that if the first Sunday in October falls on the 1st or 2nd, then the festival would go on until October 3 (German Unity Day). Thus, the festival is now 17 days when the first Sunday is October 2 and 18 days when it is October 1. In 2010, the festival lasted until the first Monday in October, to mark the anniversary of the event. The festival is held in an area named the Theresienwiese (field, or meadow, of Therese), often called Wiesn for short, located near Munich’s center. Large quantities of Oktoberfest Beer are consumed, with almost 7 million litres served during the 16 day festival in 2007. Visitors may also enjoy a mixture of attractions, such as amusement rides, sidestalls and games, as well as a wide variety of traditional food such as Hendl (roast chicken), Schweinebraten (roast pork), Schweinshaxe (grilled ham hock), Steckerlfisch (grilled fish on a stick), Würstl (sausages) along with Brezen (pretzel), Knödel (potato or bread dumplings), Käsespätzle (cheese noodles), Reiberdatschi (potato pancakes), Sauerkraut or Rotkohl/Blaukraut (red cabbage) along with such Bavarian delicacies as Obatzda (a spiced cheese-butter spread) and Weisswurst (a white sausage).
By 1960, the Oktoberfest had become a world-famous festival. Since then, foreigners began to picture Germans as wearing the Sennerhut, Lederhosen, and the girls in Dirndl.
Traditional visitors wear during the Oktoberfest Bavarian hats (Tirolerhüte), which contain a tuft of chamois hair (Gamsbart). Historically, in Bavaria chamois hair was highly valued and prized. The more tufts of chamois hair on one’s hat, the wealthier one was considered to be. Technology helping, this tradition ended with the appearance of chamois hair imitations on the market.
For them as well as for the general medical treatment of visitors the Bavarian branch of German Red Cross operates an aid facility and provides emergency medical care on the festival grounds, staffed with around 100 volunteer medics and doctors per day. They serve together with special detachments of Munich police, fire department and other municipal authorities in the service centre at the Behördenhof (authorities’ court), a large building specially built for the Oktoberfest at the east side of the Theresienwiese, just behind the tents. There is also a place for lost & found children, a lost property office, a security point for women and other public services.
Since the 1970s, local German gay organizations have organized “Gay Days” at Oktoberfest, which by the 21st century always began in the Bräurosl tent on the first Sunday.
To keep the Oktoberfest, and especially the beer tents, friendly for older people and families, the concept of the “quiet Oktoberfest” was developed in 2005. Until 6:00 pm, the tents only play quiet music, for example traditional wind music. Only after that will Schlager and pop music be played, which had led to more violence in earlier years. The music played in the afternoon is limited to 85 decibels. With these rules, the organisers of the Oktoberfest were able to curb the over-the-top party mentality and preserve the traditional beer tent atmosphere.
Since 2005 the last travelling Enterprise ride of Germany, called Mondlift, is back on the Oktoberfest.
Starting in 2008, a new Bavarian law intended to ban smoking in all enclosed spaces that are open to the public, even at the Oktoberfest. Because of problems enforcing the anti-smoking law in the big tents there was an exception for the Oktoberfest 2008, although the sale of tobacco was not allowed. After heavy losses in the 2008 local elections with the smoke ban being a big issue in debates, the state’s ruling party meanwhile implemented special exemptions to beer tents and small pubs. The change in regulation is aimed in particular at large tents at the Oktoberfest: So, smoking in the tents is still legal, but the tents usually have non-smoking areas. The sale of tobacco in the tents is now legal, but it is abandoned by agreement. However, in early 2010 a referendum held in Bavaria as a result of a popular initiative re-instituted the original, strict, smoking ban of 2008; thus, no beer will be sold to people caught smoking in the tents The blanket smoking ban will not take effect until 2011, but all tents will institute the smoking ban this year as to do the “dry run” to identify any unforeseeable issues. The common issue when the smoking ban is in effect is the nauseating stench of stale beer spilled on the floor, which the smoking masked.
2010 marked the 200th anniversary of Oktoberfest. For the anniversary, there was a horse race in historical costumes on opening day. A so-called “Historische Wiesn” (historical Oktoberfest) took place, starting one day earlier than usual on the southern part of the festival grounds. A specially brewed beer (solely available at the tents of the historical Oktoberfest), horse races, and a museum tent gave visitors an impression of how the event felt a century ago.
Most recently, in 2013, 6.4 million people visited Oktoberfest, and the festival served 6.7 million liters of beer.
Only beer conforming to the Reinheitsgebot, and brewed within the city limits of Munich, can be served at the Munich Oktoberfest. Beers meeting these criteria are designated Oktoberfest Beer.
The breweries that can produce Oktoberfest Beer under the criteria are:
Oktoberfest Beer is a registered trademark by the Club of Munich Brewers, which consists of the above six breweries.
Tips to Oktoberfest from Susi Mai
You’re walking out of a giant beer tent, it’s 11 p.m., you smell like beer, and your wallet’s empty. But you have a happy glow that can only mean one thing: you just had a good day at Oktoberfest.
Held annually in the heart of Munich, Germany for six nights, Oktoberfest turns into Europe’s biggest amusement park, featuring a strange combination of huge beer tents and wild rides.
Each year for the last 30 years, I’ve been making a pilgrimage to this fabulous wonderland of fun. At first I was in a pram, then (mostly) on my own two feet. I know this place like the back of my hand, so here’s my guide to what Oktoberfest is, why everyone should go, and how best to do it.
FIRST, A FEW TIPS
In my 30 years of attending Oktoberfest, there are a few key things I’ve learned. Here’s what you should know before you go:
1. Do not get on a roller coaster after 10 beers. It will end badly for you and the people around you. Get the rides out of your system before you start drinking.
2. People are very open and welcoming about sharing their table with you. Be that same way when newbies approach your table.
3. Make friends with a server. Here’s why: When the tents are full, they close the doors. Bam. Nobody can enter until security decides enough people have left to let a few more in. The wait can be hours long, and you can’t drink beer while you wait. However, the wait staff can bring anyone into the tent and to their tables at any time. So on day one, when you’re being served by someone you like, talk to them, buy them a beer, and tip them well (which you should do on any account, since they work like animals, sometimes carrying up to 14 steins at once). Then ask if they’d be open to helping you come back into the tent next time; usually, you’ll get their number and then you’re golden. Now you won’t be faced with the dreaded closed doors, standing outside while everyone else is having a great old time inside.
4. Keep your calm. Almost everyone will be hammered, so don’t take it too seriously when people come across as disrespectful. It’s never a good idea to be confrontational when there are so many heavy beer steins around. If someone is being rowdy or aggressive, simply remove yourself from the situation. The good news is that for every roughneck there, there are at least 100 jolly folks waiting to cheer their mug with you and hug you while yelling “Prost!”
5. There’s no shame in drinking a Radler (half beer, half lemonade) every now and again to help you put on the brakes.
Oktoberfest began in 1810 as a wedding celebration for King Ludwig I and his bride Therese. The king was passionate about beer, so over the years, the annual party became where the heads of the German breweries would meet up to compare their goods.
The official test back then was to pour the beer onto a wooden bench, sit on it while wearing leather lederhosen for a few hours, then determine how sticky the leather was on the wood. The better the beer, the stickier the lederhosen.
Each year, Oktoberfest begins with a huge parade consisting of marching bands and horse-drawn carriages piled high with barrels of beer. Other carriages bring in celebrities, politicians, and soccer players waving at the thousands who gather to watch this procession. The mayor of Munich is at the front of it all and gets to open the first barrel of beer and pour himself the first glass.
Hundreds of game stalls and fair rides—including huge roller coasters and a Ferris wheel—cover Theresienwiese. In the middle of all that are the beer tents, 14 big ones and 21 small ones, all offering booze and delicacies. The big tents hold 15,000 people each and on weekends, get packed just 30 minutes after the doors open at noon.
Each tent has its own vibe, so it’s fun to move around and explore different ones. Almost 80 percent of Oktoberfest attendees are from Bavaria, giving it an authentic, local feel, though some tents, especially the Hofbrau one, have more of an international scene.
In the tents, you have to be at a table to get served. You’ll end up best friends with the other people at your table, so move around a bit to find where suits your style. Once you get settled in, a waitress will slam a fresh mug of golden goodness on your table. The German word for it is “Mass.” The price for a Mass is fixed—depending on the tent, around $13. Each tent features live music and as the day goes on, the crowd gets rowdy and starts dancing on the benches.
Oktoberfest’s music is called blassbusik, which means “blow music,” owing to the fact that the instruments involved are wind ones, mainly trumpets and accordions. Inside the tents, the bands play a mix of German songs and modern English classics. It’s all great sing-along fare, and even though the same 30 songs seem to be on repeat, they get better the longer you stay in the tent.
German food is hearty and delicious, and at Oktoberfest the gastronomy is considered some of the year’s finest.
There’s lots of meat: roasted pig, chicken, lamb, ox, duck, and beef, accompanied by dumplings, potato salad, and giant pretzels. Obviously, most of the animals listed above can also be consumed in sausage form. Wouldn’t be Germany otherwise.
There are plenty of other treats on offer too: cotton candy, roasted almonds, as well as small cocktail bars serving Prosecco and Caipirinhas.
Ah, the beer. The big breweries here are names known all around the world, including Lowenbrau and Hofbrau. (The smaller tents, which tend to be quieter, host microbreweries.) These big brands usually crank out a special Oktoberfest beer that’s tastier and stronger than their normal fare. The strongest beer is the Augustiner, but my favorite remains good old HB, right at table 10 in Block B just in front of the band.
German traditional clothing is referred to as tracht and is considered formalwear. It’s really only common in southern Bavaria but has spilled over into the Alps, including Austria and Switzerland. Men wear lederhosen, or leather pants, along with a checkered shirt, wool socks, leather shoes called haferlschuhe, and a hat with a feather. Ladies wear a dress called a dirndl, which consists of a low-necked blouse, a structured bodice and skirt, and an apron tied onto the front—the apron is there to keep the skirt clean but can also signal if someone is single. A bow tied on the left of the apron means you’re available; tie it on the right and you’re saying you’re off the market.
MAKING YOUR EXIT
Leaving Oktoberfest can be just as tricky as getting in. The last beer is poured by 11 p.m., though the food stalls stay open longer so you don’t go home hungry.
Regardless of what state you’re in, the candy apple is your savior. I always eat one on my way home—it helps a lot with the hangover. There are other yummy things out there but trust me when I tell you that the apple is the way to go.
If you can avoid “the hill,” do, but if you really feel like you won’t be able to get yourself home, park there first. It’s where people pass out for a few hours before continuing their journey home, and is right behind the HB tent—and the police station. It can be quite entertaining, so you might want to check it out.
The fact that Oktoberfest shuts down before midnight makes it tempting to hit up some of Munich’s nightlife, which during the weeks of the fest, is as out of control as O-fest itself. I usually steer clear of the afterparty scene because, honestly, 11 hours of drinking is enough for me. If you do decide to keep it going, though, just latch on to the nearest group of locals and go for it.