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PROST!! & ALL Things Oktoberfest

Just this past September, I was able to jet-set off to Europe for a couple of weeks to indulge in all things French, German, and Austrian, in between a friend’s wedding held in Cologne, Germany. While I was planning the trip, it was discovered that Oktoberfest —THE REAL DEAL— was being held in Munich during my travels. Being the craft beer writer that I am, I knew I HAD to attend the festivities and of course, share this excitement with all of you reading Brew Time!

Let’s back up a little and discuss a little history of what Oktoberfest is and how it all came to be. … The first Oktoberfest ever was held in the year 1810 to honor the Bavarian Crown Prince Ludwig’s marriage to Princess Therese von Sachsen-Hildburghausen. The festivities were held for 6 days from October 12th through October 17th. The grounds —which were public fields— were named Theresienwiese, or “Therese’s Fields” in honor of the princess. (This term was eventually shortened to “Wiesn” by the locals, and what you’ll hear today.) Every year after, the festivities were held again, and then eventually prolonged and started to be held in September. Mostly, this was due to the better weather during the month of September. Today, the festival is held for two weeks in Munich starting at the end of September and ending into the first days of October. This year it ran from Saturday, September 22 through Sunday October 7th. Fun Fact: Even though Oktoberfest began 205 years ago, 2018 only marks the 185th event held because the festivities were cancelled during both world wars, two cholera outbreaks, Napoleon’s invasion of Bavaria, and during the hyperinflation of the 1920s.

Traditionally, on the opening day, the Mayor of Munich taps the first keg of Oktoberfest beer in the Schottenhamel tent at noon … and that’s when the next two weeks of parades, traditional Bavarian food, flowing liter upon liter of beer, bands, singing and general debauchery while wearing your dirndls and lederhosen commences! Every day the 14 big tents on the Oktoberfest grounds open to the public at 10am on weekdays and 9am on weekends, and close at 10:30pm. The Oktoberfest grounds are much like our New York State fairgrounds. The “tents” take about 3 months to be constructed and this starts in June of every year. Each of these 14 tents hold THOUSANDS of people at one time – the largest tent, Schottenhamel, holds a capacity of 6000 inside with another 4000 outside, giving it a total capacity of 10,000 people at one time! And there are FOURTEEN of these tents with capacity limits just a hair behind this number (and this doesn’t even include the 21 other small to medium tents that are not included in the big 14). So you can imagine just how large the Wiesn actually is! Each tent also has a different theme, character, feel, different bands, and different type of Oktoberfest beer served.

Getting into the grounds is free for anyone and everyone, and the crowds are large. Each day, as many as 600,000 people enter, and there are technically only about 130,000 combined seats at the tents. The majority of tents keep a certain percentage of seats open to the general public, which are filled on a first come-first served basis – so the key is getting to these tents early, with Euros (there are no credit cards accepted), and a few friends with the intention of planning to stay all day, because if you move your feet, you lose your seat! It is free to go into any tent, even just to walk around, but you must also note, that you cannot order any beer or food in a tent if you are not seated at a table. You can also get a reservation at the tents which essentially means that your seat is saved. Reservation requests start in December, prior to the next year, and must be made in person, in Germany, at the tents, and online starting in April; you may also send a letter by snail-mail. The reservation itself is free of charge, however, you should buy vouchers for beer (per liter) and food (chicken, pretzels, sausages, etc). Reservations are usually in groups of 10 seats. You can find further, legitimate, information at: www.muenchen.de and www.oktoberfest.de -Don’t make the same mistake I did and buy your reservation from a third party —which is what I thought I had to do as a single person attending Oktoberfest— because they will charge you 3 to 4 times the price of what you should be paying, and I found this out after the fact. As well, there is a great Facebook group with lots of advice that I wish I had found sooner by the name of “Oktoberfest in Munich.” Oh well, live and learn!


The grounds themselves have something for everyone. There are food stands, roasted nuts, souvenirs, games, carnival rides that rival those here at home, and lots to see and do other than drink. Pets are not allowed. Children are allowed, but be aware that the daytime tends to be more family friendly than at night, when adult frivolity is out in full-force! The grounds and most tents are also handicapped accessible.

In 1887, lederhosen and dirndls, “Trachten” or traditional Bavarian clothing, became the official dress of Oktoberfest attendees. Truly, you will see 75% of folks dressed in this garb and the rest just walking around in casual clothing. However, dressing up in costume is totally half the fun! You’ll see men wearing lederhosen, which are breeches made of leather —traditionally made out of deer hide— (p.s. I think we just found a solution to our overpopulation of deer here in CNY … ) and that fall between mid-thigh and knee. They are often worn with suspenders. Dirndls are comprised of a corseted-type dress with a full knee-length skirt, worn with a white blouse underneath, and an apron. They come in all different colors and patterns and materials. For women, (and men on the prowl, for that matter) likely the most important aspect is where you place the bow of your apron: Tying the apron bow on the left front hip means you are a single gal. Tying the bow on the right front hip means that a girl is taken or married. If the bow of the apron is tied in the back, it means the woman is widowed, or a waitress. While it’s hard to find lederhosen and dirndls in the US, you can wait until you get to Germany to find your outfit. There are shops on nearly every corner in Munich during Oktoberfest. Or, find yourself someone here in the states who can sew, as I did for my dirndl … Thanks Mom!!

The Beer! All the beer served at Oktoberfest is brewed within the city limits of Munich. The minimum Bavarian Purity Law, I repeat, MINIMUM, states that the standard ABV has to be 6%. The color of the beer looks light, and unfiltered, but most brews are going to be well over that ABV. Your formal reservation includes 2 steins of beer, with each stein holding an entire liter of beer, 33.8 oz. – or the equivalent of approximately 3 bottles of beer. The cost of a stein of beer this year was approximately 10 Euros, and of course, don’t forget to tip your beer maids! Also, it is illegal to take the steins home as souvenirs. If you want to obtain one to take home, each tent has a gift shop where you can purchase one for around 10-15 Euros. The key to drinking at Oktoberfest is to pace yourself! For those of you who go past your limit, there is a spot on the right-hand, far side of the Oktoberfest grounds, lovingly called “puke hill” by the locals. At any given time during the day or night, you can find a multitude of various people sprawled out, passed out, and generally sobering up. You can easily locate this hill by the 61 ft. statue of a Roman- or Grecian-looking woman, grasping and raising a “wreath of victory” above her with her left arm, holding a sword with her right arm, with a beautiful and majestic lion standing by her side. The monument, built in 1850, is meant to symbolize Bavaria’s power and strength.

My Oktoberfest experience

I arrived in Munich by train on Monday afternoon, September 24th, walked to my Novum hotel across the street from the Hauptbahnhof (Munich central train station), checked in and settled in a bit. My plan was to walk over to the Wiesn —the Oktoberfest grounds— to
familiarize myself with the area and see the grounds in all their splendor! As I was leaving my hotel room, there was a guy and girl leaving their hotel room, kitty-corner to mine. I noticed they were about my age and speaking English, and the guy was wearing a Penn State t-shirt … AMERICANS!! So, being the friendly person I am, I struck up conversation with them, and they in turn with me, and I found out they were fellow North East dwellers from Pennsylvania – Leah and Tanner. They were heading out to meet up with their friends —more Americans— who were already at Oktoberfest and the plan was to try and find a table at one of the tents to sit, eat and drink. I was headed in the same direction per my plans and walked the 10-15 minute jaunt with them. One (awesome) thing that I noticed on the walk was that there were green painted signs on all the sidewalks with arrows pointing to the Oktoberfest grounds, so you always know where you are going, no matter how intoxicated you are!

Walking up to the entrance, it was crowded but there was a sense of thrill and excitement in the air as you first saw the giant arch with the words “Willkommen Zum Oktoberfest!” to greet visitors. Bags were checked by police upon entry, and then we were walking down through the main thoroughfare, with me swiveling my head to look at everything in sight, taking photos of this glorious experience of actually BEING at Oktoberfest! We were all dressed casually in t-shirts and jeans, and blended in perfectly fine, and eventually met up with three of Leah and Tanner’s friends from PA. One had a little bit of a mishap, having had a little too much fun, and made his little bed on Puke Hill, while the remaining 5 of us sought out a beer tent. We wound up at Löwenbräu, which features an iconic lion drinking out of a beer stein. Inside the tent, the arched yellow ceiling had rows of little light bulbs, and hanging from the ceilings, giant green wreaths wrapped in blue and white ribbons, with bells dangling from them. The atmosphere was lively and loud with music from a traditional Bavarian band playing and people dressed in their lederhosen and dirndls holding up their beer steins singing along, with some standing on their benches dancing and sloshing their mugs together in complete and utter bliss. This was my first tent experience, and I loved EVERY SINGLE SECOND of it!

My fellow American compatriots and I walked around the tent attempting to locate an open table for the 5 of us – difficult to do being so late in the day. We located a table off in a corner with nobody at it, but it had a sheet of paper stating that it was “reserved.” Being that nobody was there yet, and it was late, we decided to risk it, and sat down. Our beer maid came over to us almost immediately and served us all a stein of beer. Just after we paid and tipped her generously, a group of 10 men came to the table, frowning, and clearly not happy with seeing us seated at it. So we hustled our butts up, (with our beers!), and walked around the tent with our steins, stationing ourselves near a group of tables in a walkway. Nobody said anything to us, so we merrily Prost’d and sang and danced along with the rest of the tent! (“Prost” is the German word for “Cheers” in case you weren’t aware.) The band played traditional German songs, but also played “Mamma Mia” by ABBA, “Sweet Caroline” by Neil Diamond, “Take Me Home, Country Roads” by John Denver, and even “Teenage Dirtbag” by Wheatus.

We finished our beers and were getting hungry, so we headed back towards Puke Hill to pick up our 6th American and headed to the “Oide Wiesn,” an area with smaller and more historical themed tents to see if those might be more accommodating for our group of 6. Sadly, they were not. However, there are many, many restaurants and beer gardens in Munich and near the grounds as a whole, so we left the Weisn and traversed to the nearby Augustiner Brau München for more beer and traditional Bavarian dishes. We were seated at a long table with benches, much like the traditional beer tents, and ate sauerkraut, pork knuckle, spätzle, pork schnitzel, onion roast beef with gravy, and I also ordered an Augustiner Dunkles Maβ – a darker German Dunkel Lager beer. It was sublime, as was the food! Truly, it was the perfect end to a day filled with Oktoberfest fun that I probably wouldn’t have otherwise had if I hadn’t run into fellow Americans! It was a real treat to spend the better part of the afternoon and evening with Leah, Tanner and friends. Once you’re able to experience being a part of the festivities, you’ll find that camaraderie and making new friends is as big a part of the Oktoberfest tradition as the beer, music and costumes.

Day number two in Munich had me on a day trip by train to Salzburg, Austria for a walking tour of the city and The Sound of Music tour. Both were so much fun, and I not only was able to see most of the small city, but a good amount of the surrounding countryside as well. Austria is full of old-world charm and absolute breathtaking beauty. I highly recommend taking a detour here if you’re ever in Europe! (& the Austrians have some pretty fantastic beer too!)

My third day in Munich, during the morning, was spent at Dachau, one of Germany’s former concentration camps. A must if you travel to Munich, it’s a sobering reflection of a time-period in recent history that we must never forget. After a quick nap, and a few adjustments to my beautiful dirndl, it was off to the Weisn to cash in on my reserved spot in the Hofbräu-Festzelt tent!

The Hofbräu-Festzelt tent can be located by simply looking for the large gold crown atop it’s peak on the outside. The crown stands two meters tall and is part of the brands logo. Known to be more of an “international” tent, it was for this reason why I chose this particular tent for my reservation. The tent holds just under 7,000 people inside, with another 3,000 outside. As I walked inside, the Bavarian brass band, Plattlinger, greeted my ears playing lively tunes, both traditional and modern. My eyes just took it all in, the spirit of Oktoberfest was in the air, and all around me, and would only become more so as the evening wore on! At the center of the tent was a large statue (suspended from the ceiling!) of a moustached man in a red cap with angel wings sitting on a cloud and playing harp. This is Aloisius, a figure modeled after the most famous service man/porter in the city of Munich, of which there are varying tales and legends,  but who is affectionately called “The Man from Munich in Heaven.” Surrounding him are multiple HUGE quintals (100+ lbs) of (real) hops fashioned into giant wreaths and hung from the ceiling, with more pillars of hops cascading down the tent’s wooden beams. In short, it’s a beautiful, whimsical tent!

Once I shut my awe-inspired gaping jaw and managed to gather myself together, I made my way to the tent office after not being able to locate the poster I was supposed to find my reservation on, per the ticket company. After some initial confusion, (and me almost losing my shit in the process), I was able to find my reserved table with a little sympathetic help from the tent manager. I initially was the only female at the table with a bunch of German men, who were confused and slightly surprised to have a single American female joining them at their table. After some back and forth discussion between myself, the Germans, and the tent manager (again, another reason not to buy your reservation from a third party … learn from my mistake, folks!) the Germans warmed to me a bit and the tent manager bought us all a round of beer on the house. It also took me about a whole stein just to relax after the (almost botched) reservation drama! But just like anywhere else in the world, no matter what the language, or who you’re with, or the situation at hand, when the beer is flowing, there are bound to be nothing but good times ahead and this night was no different!

Oktoberfest is definitely a party. It was not only a party with the people, who quickly became my friends, at my table, but with the other 6,900 people in the tent too! Simon was about my age and a German engineer and we chatted about anything and everything while his friend and co-worker Mario and I compared our tattooed right-arm sleeves and traded stories about our dogs. Soon, others joined us at our table, more friends, colleagues, girlfriends, and other acquaintances. We talked books, politics, traded stories of our respective countries and cultures in between swigs of beer, bites of Bavarian chicken and soft German pretzels as big as two human heads, singing loudly along with the band and Prost-ing too many times to even count. We laughed and joked and laughed some more, between their broken English and my basically non-existent German. And eventually, every last one of us, not only in our group, but across the sea of people in the tent, young, old, dirndls, lederhosen, and all, got up out of our seats, stood on our benches and tipsily danced and sang the rest of the night away. Afterwards, we straggled out into the Weisn and ate roasted nuts for dessert, and my new German friends even made sure I made it safely back to my hotel that night. To say that all the countries represented in that very beer tent could have brought about World Peace if tasked to do so, would not have been an exaggeration! It was such an amazing experience!!

Day #4 in Munich consisted of me being fairly hungover, (I managed to drink 3 steins the previous night), but I went back to the Weisn one last time to purchase a couple of
souvenirs, including a Hofbräu beer stein, and I had one last excursion of a walking tour of the city which included a history lesson on Hitler and the rise of the Third Reich. The
following day, I was on my way back to the states after two full weeks in Europe.

I hope every last one of you reading this will get the opportunity to make it to Munich at some point and experience an Oktoberfest at least once in your lives. You will not regret it! I already want to go back! For now, I’ll leave you with a few staggering statistics from this year’s Oktoberfest according to www.oktoberfesttours.travel:

A record 7.5 million liters of beer were consumed during the festival. That’s almost a half-million per day!

6.3 million people attended the festival this year. (The record belongs to the year 1985 where they had 7.1 million.)

According to ATM withdrawals, the top ten countries represented this year were: USA, UK, Austria, France, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Italy, Australia, Sweden and Belgium.

Injuries were down this year, to 5,800 from 7,000 last year. 717 of the visits to first aid stations were from excessive alcohol consumption. The Oktoberfest post office reported
approximately 500 postcards being mailed per day.

Security personnel reported stopping 101,000 attempted thefts of beer steins from the tents.

The Lost & Found Office reported 2,685 items including: 840 passports, 460 wallets, 350 cell phones, 350 items of clothing, 300 keys, 140 pairs of glasses, 130 pieces of jewelry, 90 backpacks, 20 umbrellas, and 5 cameras. Fun Fact: Likely the most unusual items found were two wedding rings, both belonging to the same couple, with the inscriptions indicating they married last year, and neither were claimed by the end of the festival. (Now THEY probably have one hell of an Oktoberfest 2018 story!!)

PROST!!

Kristin Merritt
Just a brief introduction that I’ve joined the Table Hopping crew as your new craft-brew-loving gal who will be bringing you your monthly pour of beer education and the low-down on all things beer related in the immediate CNY area and beyond. Along the way I hope that I can give a few recommendations for your grocery lists, event suggestions and local hotspots for an afternoon out with friends or planning a date, and if not for nothing, perhaps enlighten you with some random knowledge that you can amaze your teammates with at trivia night – or at least give you and your pals a suggestion on what to drink at the bar! I have some mighty large shoes to fill that my friend and fellow Syracuse Women of Craft Beer member (& founder), Gloria Rakowsky, left for me, but I hope that my style (and shenanigans) will keep all y’all coming back for more each month. Cheers!