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February 28, 2019

Germany: Munich, Oktoberfest

Filed under: Architecture, beer, Europe, Germany, Photography, Travel, Travel, Writing — Tags: , , , , , , , — anotherheader @ 7:14 pm

Inside the Bräurosl tent, which serves Hacker-Pschorr beer.

I’ve long wanted to attend Oktoberfest but could never arrange the time. Finally in 2018 there was an opportunity. A visit to Munich during Oktoberfest both fit into our travel schedule and we started looking early enough to be able to find a hotel room for two humans and one canine for three nights during the festival.

It always strikes me as odd that Oktoberfest is mostly in September. It wasn’t always that way.

Oktoberfest started as a fete to honor the marriage of Kronprinz Ludwig to Princess Therese on the 12th of October 1810. The festival continued as a tradition in the following years evolving as a horse race, an agricultural show, and then eventually to a beer festival. From it beginning the location has stayed the same: The 100-acre Theresienwiese fairgrounds, named in honor of the Crown Princess Therese, has been the site of every Oktoberfest.

A maß or mug Hofbräu beer at the Hofbräuhaus in Munich’s old quarter: Staatliches Hofbräuhaus or the public Royal Brewery in Munich is owned by the Bavarian state. Though their tent at Oktoberfest is very popular we did not go inside.

The well-marked route to the fairgrounds

Though the location is identical, the days of the event have shifted into September to benefit from better weather. Today Oktoberfest typically runs for two weeks and one weekend, 16 days in total. It starts on a Saturday in September and runs until the first Sunday of October. There is an exception. If the first Sunday falls on the 1st or 2nd, Oktoberfest is extended until the 3rd of October for a total of 18 or 17 days, respectively. The 3rd of October is a public holiday honoring the reunification of East and West Germany, the Tag der Deutschen Einheit. It is natural to extend Oktoberfest a day or two to include it. Figuring the schedule for Oktoberfest is not quite as complicated as figuring the date of Easter, but it is not far off.

I had many preconceived notions of what attending would be like. But as with all travel experiences reality is related to but different than one’s prior expectations. That’s a good thing. Otherwise, why would one bother to see something first hand?

Before I arrived I had some mental Oktoberfest image of large packed tents, free-flowing beer, women wearing dirndls, and men wearing lederhosen. There was all of that and more.

The entrance to the grounds

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We left our hotel we joined the line of people walking to Theresienwiese. The route to Oktoberfest was well marked. It didn’t need to be. All that was required was to follow the trail of the dirndl and lederhosen wearing festivalgoers, many who were already drinking as they walked to the fairgrounds.

For those in need, many stalls along the streets were selling cheap variants of the traditional clothing. The locals, it seems, already have better quality traditional clothing hanging in their closets ready for the occasion. But for those who just arrived in Munich the street stalls filled the last minute need for the proper Oktoberfest attire. We couldn’t see buying cheap clothes that we couldn’t carry and would we never wear again. So we joined the minority of visitors who attend Oktoberfest in civilian clothing and in the process stood out as obvious outsiders.

Passing through security at its gates, Oktoberfest presents as a large fair complete with amusement rides and food stalls. The festival grounds include fourteen large and twenty small “tents” that function as beer halls. Tent is a misnomer as the structures are in fact massive temporary wooden buildings the size of small basketball arenas. These structures are cavernous and elaborate; the tents we visited had spacious floor areas filled with tables and benches capable of seating several thousand. Above the floor mezzanines further increased the capacity. Oktoberfest tents are far from simple canvas-covered pole-supported fairground covers.

Gigi was sadly left behind in the room.

Although Oktoberfest, the world’s largest beer festival, lasts a little more than two weeks, the Theresienwiese fairgrounds are taken over by the event for a good chunk of the year. Each year Oktoberfest facilities are reassembled. Oktoberfest tents can take 3 months to construct and a month or so to take one down. It is a major yearly undertaking to accommodate the festival’s 6 million or so visitors.

Once we entered the grounds we had a decision to make. Which tent do we go into first? There were 34 to choose from and with no background research our choice was arbitrary. We walked into the Ochsenbraterei tent featuring Spaten beer and roasted Ox mainly because I was familiar with the beer.

On the inside of Ochsenbraterei we were hit by the shear mass of humid humanity and noise. The tent was packed. Open seats were near impossible to find. In the center of the pavilion a band on a raised platform was cranking out a mix of sing along English-language pop music and traditional German favorites. Virtually all the 6,000 or so dirndl and lederhosen-clad participants were standing on the benches, singing, and swinging their beer mugs to the beat of the music. There were a few obvious tourists in the mix, but the Sunday evening crowd when were there seemed weighted to locals. Indeed as beer service ended at 10:30 pm the tent quickly cleared. The participants were heading home for bed in preparation for the workweek.

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I expected Oktoberfest to be filled with drunken people. And sure there was plenty of drinking. But we didn’t see many staggering or abusive drunks. Yes, most everyone was consuming beer. Why else would you be a beer festival? But beer was typically not consumed to excess. Indeed, in 2013 6.4 million people visited Oktoberfest and were served 7.7 million liters of beer. Given that a Maß or mug is the only portion size available the amount of beer consumed comes out to one serving per visitor. Mostly it seemed the beer consumption was an excuse to have a really, really good time at a very, very large party.

So what was different Oktoberfest than I expected? The pictures I’d seen didn’t convey the visceral impact of the packed scene inside the tents. It is an experience that needs to be felt as much as seen and heard.

I was also surprised that Oktoberfest was exuberant yet at the same time restrained. It is a massive loud party with plenty of beer. But still the whole thing was basically controlled. The crowd was friendly and people were there to celebrate the occasion and join in on the party. They weren’t just there for the beer.

The beer hall empties out quickly at the end of the evening.

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We visited Oktoberfest on September 23 and 24th of 2018, on the second and third day of the event began.

The beer, a special brew for Oktoberfest, was excellent, as expected.

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2 Comments »

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