After a pandemic-driven two-year hiatus, the Munich Oktoberfest was finally back! The moon and stars aligned, and I had the good fortune of having a fantastic group of friends, most of whom I have known since college, all planning to participate in the welcome back celebration. My one-hour flight from Nice, France was booked, and I couldn't wait! Those of us that didn't own lederhosen went about acquiring some as we eagerly anticipated our trip, and we all packed our suitcases full of the traditional Bavarian attire. In my case, I'd been dragging around 20 lbs of heavy leather pants, trachten shoes, and several traditional shirts with me since we left for Europe in July. But it was worth it!
This party's been going on since 1810 to commemorate the marriage of Bavaria's Crown Prince Ludwig to Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen, after which it became an annual event that now draws upwards of 7million attendees from around the world. About 6.9 million liters of beer are typically consumed along with more than half a million chickens, a quarter million sausages, and 100,000 pounds of fish. They call it the world's biggest folk festival, which is true, but more correctly it is really the world's biggest party!
To my surprise, it's truly a family affair, at least during daylight hours. Children with parents abound, and there are countless massive rides and carnival games everywhere you look, all dispersed nicely between the 17 large and 21 small beer tents.
The rides are absolutely massive, like you would expect to see at a major amusement park. No junky traveling carnival rides here! Amazingly, everything here, including the rides, is temporary. Some of the rides and the roller coaster are well over 100 feet high! Even the massive beer halls which have every appearance of being permanent buildings are assembled beginning in May and then returned to storage after the fest. The grounds are absolutely massive at over 100 acres, and it is a full-time affair for months in advance to get this party rolling.
Beer deliveries here are quite a sight! On the way to the beer hall, the beer barrel wagon stopped, and the crew took a break. The driver hopped off and walked to the back to pour a few liters for his colleagues. Only in Munich!
The servers are truly something else, fighting their way through the crowd with 10 liters of beer in both hands, always with smiles on their faces. That's about 35 pounds of beer and glass! Another round please!
It wasn't all beer all the time. There were a few side trips including a guided bike tour through the streets of Munich. We saw and learned about many historical landmarks, but the most noteworthy site was the urban surfing that takes place on the swiftly flowing river right in the heart of the city. It sure looks like fun!
So, can you just show up at Octoberfest and order up a beer and participate? Well sure you can, but you will make some compromises on where and when you go because the best beer halls are reserved and sold out well in advance. The vibe in various tents can be dramatically different, from an older more subdued crowd, a more family friendly location, or perhaps the hardcore, raucous tents that we were decidedly way too old for. Fortunately, our good friend Jeff (AKA Mister Oktoberfest) is a longtime regular of the fest and knows the ins and outs.
Perhaps our thinning and graying hair implied otherwise, but given we have been drinking beer together since the mid-eighties, we somehow fit right in to the rowdiest and loudest beer halls of them all. Jeff was networking for nearly a year to land us reservations in some of the best spots like the Schottenhammel Festzelt, which is said to be the oldest and most traditional tent (not to mention, the largest with over 10,000 seats), now in the 5th generation of family ownership. The Paulaner, Hacker Pschorr, and Hoffbrau tents were also great snags by Jeff. This group of old friends made new friends everywhere we went, mostly partiers from all over the world that were half our age. Aside from occasionally being referenced as "sir" by our newfound friends, we fit right in!
Our times in these tents followed a similar pattern each day. A massive but somewhat subdued crowd sits with a group of a dozen or so at each of the countless tables packed tightly throughout the massive room. (The smallest tent holds 6,000 revelers!) Liters of beer (that's 33.8ozs for Americans who never embraced the metric system) are ordered from friendly servers dressed in traditional German dirndls. The beers are carried back to the table by the armful and dispersed to the thirsty crew.
Roasted chickens, bratwurst, ox, and pretzels are consumed in mass quantities. The band begins playing traditional music in the background. After the second or third beer, the tempo and song selection quietly shifts. An eerie anticipation simultaneously spreads throughout the massive crowd. It is hard to describe but you can just feel it in the air. Then it happens.
The crowd erupts as the band breaks into one of John Denver's most notable hits. "Almost heaven, West Virginia, Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River" As if they had been rehearsing together for days, the entire crowd of 6,000 plus simultaneously leaps off their seats and stands on the benches at every table. They join into song with wild abandon, hoisting their huge mugs of beer into the air. "Country roads, take me home, to the place, I belong, West Virginia, mountain mama, take me home, country roads" How it came to be that thousands of people from countries all around the world know every word from this song will forever remain a mystery. From this point on, all hell breaks loose.
There is no more sitting down. There is no more conversation. The party is on, the beer keeps flowing, and the band continues to feed one hit after another to the crowd. There are a few German songs, which us English speakers did an admirable job singing along to. But the vast majority of the sing-alongs are to well-known songs with English lyrics. The hits come one after another. Neil Diamond's Sweet Caroline, The Village People's YMCA, Journey's Don't Stop Believin', and the Beer Barrel Polka in both German and English, to name a few.
A crowd favorite across Europe, and especially at Oktoberfest, is Australian band Smokie's 1976 cult classic "Living Next Door to Alice." Somehow, years ago, this song took on a life of its own all over Europe with the crowd spontaneously adding in lyrics of their own at precisely the right moment.
No trip to Oktoberfest would be complete without experiencing one of the fest's most notorious "rides." I use the term ride loosely, as it's more like a sadistic game designed primarily to entertain the folks that are operating it. Tucked within the countless rides lies a large room that you can enter for the fee of five Euro. Inside is a large spinning disk known as the Devil's Wheel. The announcer beckons a group, usually by age, gender, etc. onto the wheel.
The music starts and the wheel begins to spin. Slowly at first, clockwise, then counterclockwise. Faster, back and then forth. Faster yet again. The operator juices the wheel yet again until humans begin to flail and spin off the outside of the wheel and land forcefully into the barriers that surround the wheel. This continues, faster still, people flying, the crowd cheering, until all that remains are just a few hangers-on planted firmly in the middle. It is at this point that a new tactic is deployed. A large sphere, swinging like a wrecking ball, is aimed squarely at the hangers-on, attempting to knock them loose. At this point two other staffers approach with what can be described as two large snake-like tubes that are thrown onto the wheel in an attempt to wrap around and drag them off. This continues, all the while the crowd going crazy, until there is but one person remaining in the middle. This fierce competitor wins nothing more than honor and applause, only to be eventually knocked into the barrier at full speed by the now furiously spinning wheel. Check out the video to get an idea of this spectacle.
After several long days and late nights, our thirst for German beer and the biggest party in the world had been quenched (for the time being). It was an epic event with fantastic friends, and one that we will never forget. No one got arrested and everyone made it home, or in my case, back to Nice, France to my temporary home. The only question that remains is, "Who's with me next year?!!!"
Enjoy a taste of our travels with drink recipes on Instagram - Worldwide.Cocktails.