A year ago three buddies and I planned a trip to Germany primarily to experience Oktoberfest. At the beginning of this month, as the Federal government was shutting down, we arrived in Munich for a week-long trip. It was a complete success! We saw a lot of Munich and spent two days in the medieval village of Fuessen, 2 hours to the south. I will write posts about all of it, but here is the first installment, Oktoberfest.
For two weeks each year there are two main activities, amusement park rides, and drinking beer.
The amusement park is huge, the size of an American theme park. There were roller coasters and gut-wrenching rides everywhere you could see and it was packed with families and teens day and night.
All of the Germans I spoke with said they typically spend a couple days at the festival each year. It was different from visiting an American theme park for a number of reasons. For one thing, there was always this backdrop of a magnificent city. Formed in the 1100’s, and nearly completely destroyed in World War II, Munich is amazing to see and visit and every corner we turned prompted involuntary “Wows”!
- At the festival and ready to hit the beer tents!
What was it like? We had heard that it was crowded and difficult to get into the tents and find a seat, but we had no idea how lucky we were when we walked into the first tent we saw and immediately found four seats.
Once we got to our table we met what would essentially be our family for the night. two young British doctors, a couple German women our age, two Swiss brothers, a British father and his 23-year-old daughter, and assorted Germans. They were the friendliest group of people you could meet! We learned the words to German drinking songs, learned the subtle rules for toasting–be sure and make eye contact–and sang backup for a number of songs in English including the odd Oktoberfest favorite of “Take me Home Country Roads”!
There’s something about the spirit of thousands of people sharing a common euphoria, all in a happy party. While we saw the occasional “beer corpse”, and a few folks being escorted out, it appeared to be because they had simply stayed a liter too long. We never saw any fights, nobody threw up, and in general people were just happy to be there.
It was indeed crowded. Everywhere, the amusement rides, the beer tents, even the outdoor beer gardens in what was chilly weather were packed from morning till night!
THE BEER TENTS
There are 14 major tents. There are some smaller ones too. There is, for example, a wine tent. a family tent, etc. The big names are Lowenbrau, Hoffbrau, Spaten, and Augustiner. Each appears on the surface to be more or less the same, but as you walk through them, and certainly when you sit down and spend some time at them, subtle differences emerge.
- This is a beer tent! More like a field house or airplane hangar! This one is the Spaten Ochsenbraterai Tent
They call them beer tents, but “tent” does not exactly translate! Yes, light shines through the roof during the day but they were buildings the size of airplane hangars and held thousands of people!
- The Lowenbrau Tent with the symbol of Bavaria, the lion.
We had heard, for example, that the tent called the Hippodrom was the trendy spot where one was most likely to spot celebrities, and was, in general, the place to be.
What we found at the Hippodrom was a staid, snobby atmosphere where handlers in suits and wearing ear pieces sized you up when you entered and shepherded you away from the “preferred” areas! Not our favorite tent!
- The trendy and exclusive Hippodrom, like each of the tents had its own unique look and feel.
The tent that ended up being our favorite happened to be the one we walked into first. It was run by Spaten and is called the Ochsenbraterai, which is German for “Ox on a Spit”. They actually had a steer on a spit!
We would eventually at least walk in and check out each of the tents, and I think we drank beer in 5 of them. Many Germans told us to be sure and check out the Augustiner tent which seemed to be the universal favorite of the Germans and all claimed it serves the best beer.
- The Augustiner is a favorite among the Germans who claim it serves the best beer.
Hoffbrau is perhaps the most famous, and thus often where you encounter the most tourists. We spent an evening in the Hoffbrau tent and found it to be wild and rowdy and crowded almost to the point of feeling claustrophobic. It was, however, very fun! Fischer was all modeled on the sea and on fishing. The bandstand was shaped like the prow of a ship and they served a smoked barbecued fish. The problem I had was that the entire place smelled like fish and I’m not sure how long you’d have to sit there to get used to it but I was not there that long.
- All of the tents were packed to capacity at all hours. If you don’t like crowds, this is not the place to be; but, if you like to be in the center of the action, here it was!
- According to the Germans, the best beer at Oktoberfest is the Augustiner. We had lunch one day at the Augustiner tent and found it filled mostly with Germans and the beer was indeed very good!
Each tent offered a menu of beers but practically speaking, the wilder and more raucous tents (i.e., the ones we sought out) served only the standard Oktoberfest beer. This was a crisp delicious golden lager with subtle flavor differences from tent to tent.
- The first round!
It is served in 1-liter mugs! Throughout the festival you had to remind yourself that this was a marathon, not a sprint! A liter of beer tended to last a long time which was fine since we spent hours at this table!
One of the more iconic images of Oktoberfest is the waitress who can carry 4 or more liters of beer in each hand! At one point I went and got two beers for our group and promptly lost my group. Walking around looking for them with one liter of beer in each hand I had to stop and put them down for a minute because they are really heavy! I have a very healthy respect for the arm and shoulder muscles of these servers.
We had been prepared for the food to be exclusively heavy, fatty, and more or less unhealthy. There was indeed plenty of that, but in an environment where one drinks beer all day, a large delicious pretzel every few hours turned out to be a vital element! Besides, concern about carbs went out the window with the first liter mug of beer!
- That’s right, rotisserie steer! Ochsenbraterai is german for “Ox on a spit”.
The Ochsenbraterai tent traditionally features an ox on a spit and it is possible to go up and order different cuts off it. We tried one of the classic beef dishes and it was fine but a tip we all read before going turned out the be the most useful.
- Oktoberfest featured some of the best rotisserie chicken I have ever had. (and I live in Arlington VA, walking distance from the legendary Pollo Rico!)
The tip we read said that while there are extensive menus at each tent, the size of the crowd makes it difficult to place different orders and the recommendation was, “Just order the damn chicken”! That turned out to be some of the most delicious rotisserie chicken I have ever had. That, by the way, is a big statement because I live within walking distance to a legendary Peruvian chicken place called El Pollo Rico in Arlington, VA. The German chicken was crispy and seasoned on the outside and tender and moist on the inside. An order was a half chicken which again, was useful to counter all the beer.
Most dishes also came with sauerkraut and this was something of an epiphany for me. I had no idea how delicious sauerkraut could be because the canned product we get in the US on Rubens and hot dogs has a sharp acidic bite and bears little resemblance to the Germans’ fresh cabbage with a well-developed sour flavor. I have already begun what is a six-week process of making a batch of sauerkraut from scratch and will post that in the future!
What a fun bunch of people! It was a very international crowd. At points we sat with people from England, Wales, Belgium, Switzerland, and many other countries. We also were surprised to meet very few Americans there.
- Standing on the table at Oktoberfest is strictly verboten. Standing on the bench, however, is almost required!
The crowd was, however, overwhelmingly German and what a fun bunch of people they are! In the recent decade the trend of wearing traditional dress had grown and most of the men wore lederhosen and the women wore traditional dirndls. If you’re not familiar with the dirndl, think sexy Snow White!
- The traditional dress made it seem like we were in a Disney movie!
Everyone in Germany speaks English. The one person I met who did not speak English spoke Italian, French, and German! When I commented that in America everyone studies a foreign language but nobody can speak it they said, “Well you don’t have to!” In Germany one has to speak English to get jobs like waiter, store clerk, etc. It’s simply required.
- Michael’s hat was a favorite target of our new friends!
At every tent and every table they were engaging and interested in the United States. They all knew about the shutdown of the federal government and many seemed to know more about the Affordable Healthcare Act than most Americans!
I really expected people we met to identify with a wide diversity of personalities when we told them we were from the US. I thought sure we’d hear, “Oh, Michael Jordan!” or “Oh, Miley Cyrus”, but nearly every German who heard that we were Americans would point at us and say, “Obama!”
Most had very strong and well-informed opinions about American government and politics.
- Did we have a good time? Indeed we did!
THE NEXT POST
After a couple days at Oktoberfest we spent a day getting a walking tour of Munich, then headed a couple hours south to a medieval walled city called Fuessen. Those parts of the trip were equally amazing including a German monastery that made its own beer. Coming soon I will post about those and share some incredible pictures!