It is a special day in Munich. Above the meadow, tremendous tents and roller coasters cut into the blue sky. Passing by each stall, we are subjected to a symphony of mouth-watering scents: warm cinnamon sugar on crackling almonds, then the sharpness of mustard and sauerkraut, and then an entire earthy ox on a spit, and then familiar, fatty bratwurst. Always in sight is the glorious amber München beer, served by the Maß, frothy and sloshing into the mouths of ecstatic attendants. Oktoberfest.
The world’s largest folk festival, Munich’s Oktoberfest celebrates beer and Bavarian culture. It was first held in October of 1810 as a wedding celebration for the royal matrimony of Crown Prince Ludwig and Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen. Although originally held in October, the now deceptively-named festival takes place mostly in September to ensure enjoyable weather. However, Oktoberfest is still held in the same meadow where Ludwig and Therese celebrated their wedding over 200 years ago. The site is now called Theresenwiese (Therese’s Meadow), prompting many Muncheners to refer to the festival by the shortened pet name for its location, die Wiesn.
The Kingdom of Bavaria itself was long separate from Prussia and Austria. Bavaria today is the largest German state, but it has a long history of cultural distinction from the rest of Germany. Beer gardens, born when chestnut trees planted over beer cellars to keep the concoctions cool inspired customers to linger in the shade, are a Bavarian staple. A perhaps more eyebrow-raising tradition is the Schuhplattler folk dance, which consists of claps and slaps striking every part of the body. This jovial slap dance is always accompanied by music from yet another Alpine highlight, the brass band Anticipating our trip to Oktoberfest, my flatmate and I held some foolish misconceptions. We had envisioned a simple beer festival attended by mostly internationals and boozed-up partiers. How wrong we were! The clear majority of attendants are from Bavaria and only 15 per cent come from outside of Germany. The festival is also populated by people of all ages, from newborns to centenarians. Not only do festival-goers gather within the massive beer tents, they also peruse the stalls, events, shows, rides, and beer gardens on the Theresenwiese grounds.
There are over 80 rides at Oktoberfest operated mostly by families who have been working at the festival since the early 20th century. Traditional favourites at the Wiesn are the Riesenrad, a 12-meter ferris wheel first introduced in 1880, and the Krinoline, the only merry-go-round in the world to boast its own live brass band. My personal favourite, as well as the choice of many who enjoy the German pastime of Schaudenfreude, is the Teufelsrad (Devil’s Wheel). The Teufelsrad is a large spinning platform on which a dozen or so of the bravest (or drunkest) amongst us perch. As the rotating wheel increases its speed, the participants are pugnaciously flung off. The last of the clinging participants are picked off one by one by Teufelsrad staff armed with lassos and giant balls.
Of course, the crowning feature of the Oktoberfest are the colossal beer tents. Titanic in size and beauty, these tents are erected each year just for the festival. There are 14 big tents on the meadow, each with a capacity of around 10,000. Inside, long wooden tables and benches surround a rotunda that often boasts a brass band. Every tent is decorated differently, but a typical big tent features long colourful ribbons strung across the bright ceiling, hanging rings of greenery or paper stars, and Bavarian murals. The crown decorated tent is the Hacker-Festhalle. With robin egg ribbons painted with clouds and stars, this tent is hailed as the “Bavarian Heaven.” Each tent has its own character, personality, and theme. Hofbräu Festzelt is the party tent and caters to the most international crowd. The Ochsenbraterei, or ox tent, celebrates the bovine part of Bavarian cuisine with an entire ox roasting on a spit, “eyes and all.” Within every tent are thousands of people, Maßkrüge in hand, toasting and eating and enjoying themselves light-heartedly.
Inside and outside the tents, the merry festival-goers wear Bavarian tracht, or German traditional garments. For men (and some adventurous women), this means donning leiderhosen, the knee-length leather breeches so often associated with alpine imaginings. The leiderhosen seen at Oktoberfest are often intricately embroidered and feature the distinguishing leather suspenders and drop-front flap. Leiderhosen are paired with knee-high socks and a box-embroidered shirt that displays a pattern closely related to plaid. The uniform for my flatmate and I, in addition to the millions of other women who attend the festival, is the charming dirndl. Sometimes coquettish but always flattering, the dirndl is perhaps most recognisable for the way in which it manifests an hourglass figure on every wearer. The garment is made up of a corseted overdress, a puffy white undershirt, and a colourful apron. The way in which the apron is tied is important. A bow on the back means that the woman is a waitress. Tied to the right, the wearer is married. And bow on the left? Congratulations fellas, she’s single!
Purple, green, red-checkered, hot pink and orange blossom: the dirndls at Oktoberfest display every colour and pattern imaginable. According to a friendly and knowledgeable Munchener whom I spoke to, wearing tracht at Oktoberfest did not become a mainstay until the 1990s and until then attendants opted for simple street clothes. Today, though, the meadow grounds are saturated with tracht: dirndls and leiderhosen everywhere you look.
There is no greater accessory to a colourful dirndl than a cold, amber beer. Only beer that adheres to the German Beer Purity Law and is brewed within the boundaries of Munich is served at Oktoberfest. Because of this, only six breweries make prized Oktoberfest beer. The delicious drink is not served in a stein as often believed, but in a Bavarian Maßkrug, a vessel made of double-walled dimpled glass that weighs nearly 1 kilogram empty. When full with a big head of foam, the Maßkrug holds 1 litre (or 1 Maß) of beer. At Oktoberfest this year, just one Maß will set you back a hefty 11.50 euros. But don’t worry about having to spend too much to get a buzz: the beer served at Oktoberfest is strong at a generous 7-8%. At the early autumn festival, many opt for a Radler, which is half light beer and half lemonade. Inside the tents, waiters and waitresses hoist 10-12 full Maßkrüge at a time between the tables and kitchens. The world record holder for beer carrying? German waiter Oliver Struempful, who carried 27 full Maßkrüge 40 metres. To order a beer from one of these impressive waiters, you must be sitting at a table, prompting many to reserve their spots up to a year in advance to ensure their chance of a drink.
Like any cultural phenomenon, there are some eccentric and surprising practices at Oktoberfest. Every 10 minutes within the tents, the anthem “Ein Prosit” is played. The tune pledges a toast to Gemütlichkeit, which more or less translates to a feeling of belonging, cosiness, and good cheer. Upon hearing the bars of “Ein Prosit,” one is prompted to stand, sway to the music, and complete a hearty toast with a few swigs of beer. Some sinisterly believe that the song is played so often to inspire customers to drink their beers more quickly, increasing profits for the breweries. The song itself is, surprisingly, not even Bavarian, being composed by a man from Saxony. After a jolly rendition of “Ein Prosit,” the foolhardy among us may be inspired to down an entire Maß of beer. Chugging a whole litre can come with more consequences than just a serious hangover: if the drinker fails, they will be pelted with foodstuffs including pretzels and entire roast chickens, before being escorted out of the tent. By the afternoon, tents are full of jolly drinkers who take to standing on the benches, singing pop ballads and traditional songs alike.
And so it is a special day in Munich. My flatmate and I have just left the Hacker-Festhalle, the “Bavarian Heaven,” and we are greeted by a comely sunset. We browse the stalls outside and revel at all that the festival has to offer: hearty signing, gingerbread hearts, charming rides, amber beer, cold and delicious. Time to go on the ferris wheel, and then after that, we want some of those cinnamon-sugar roasted almonds. They smell heavenly.