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The Munich1 Oktoberfest - most people have heard of it. A number of people have been there (more than six million people a year), and some of those even had the chance to drink some beer there (six million litres every year). But what seems at first glance to be a very straightforward undertaking, in fact isn't as simple as you may believe. Properly drinking beer at the Oktoberfest is a challenge not everyone is able to master. This entry will give you a little guidance and help you to avoid the most embarrassing mistakes.
There is more to drinking beer at the Oktoberfest than simply going there, drinking the stuff and then getting home somehow. You should carefully consider each of the following steps:
- Getting there
- Ordering beer
- Drinking beer
- Getting home
Getting To Munich
This entry won't go into detail about how to get to Munich, Germany. In general, a visit to Munich should not be encouraged during the Oktoberfest, as the whole city is crowded during that time. Actually, it would also make sense not to book a hotel room during the Oktoberfest. There are no hotel rooms available in late September anyway, and those that are available are either astronomically expensive or 50 kilometres out of the city centre.
If you are one of the 'I'd-rather-go-camping-because-that's-cheaper-guys': you also won't want to camp at the 'Thalkirchen' camping ground right next to the hordes of Aussies and Kiwis who either play drinking/getting naked/puking games all day or holler drunkenly all night. You also won't be able to find a place for your caravan, because all the legal places have already been occupied by Italians, and the illegal spaces are kindly kept free of ignorant tourists by the local authorities who keep towing away the caravans parked there.
Again: this entry prefers not to go into detail about how to get to Munich - it's too sad a story!
Getting To The Beer Tent
So how do you get to the Oktoberfest? You should go there by public transport, by bike or on foot. But that's only the first part of the story.
The key question is: how to get to a place at the Oktoberfest where you can drink good beer? This is a deep philosophical question. Here's why: there are seven different beer brands in Munich. Each of these beer brands has its own distinct taste2. There is an ongoing discussion about which of the Munich beers is actually the best. The diplomatic answer would be: they are all very good. You should find out yourself what your preference is - and the Oktoberfest is a good opportunity to do that. It should be noted that the beer served at the Oktoberfest has been especially brewed for the Oktoberfest and has a little more alcohol than the 'normal' beer brewers prepare throughout the rest of the year. When choosing a place to drink beer, you should keep in mind that you won't get all Munich beers in all beer tents. Instead, every Munich brewery has one or more tents at the Oktoberfest where they only serve their own fine brew.
However, your choice of beer tent will certainly come down to more than just the beer brand on offer. The second question is: what kind of atmosphere are you after? You should know that every beer tent has its own atmosphere, ranging from drunken party with popular music to a more relaxed, traditional feel with folk music. For example, younger people would usually prefer the Hacker-Festzelt beer tent because of the party atmosphere, while older people prefer the Schützen-Festzelt because of its relaxed ambience. You should also know that certain nationalities have preferences for certain beer tents. For example Australians like the Hofbräu Festzelt beer tent because that's where they can pitch their drinking skills against the Kiwis, who make up the other 50% of the crowd.
To make it even more complicated: there is a third factor to consider in the choice of beer tent - the food. Some beer tents offer special food that you won't get in other tents - for example the Fischer-Vroni offers a wide variety of fish and the Ochsenbraterei offers ox meat.
Getting A Seat
Let's assume you have finally come to a decision about which beer tent to go for. The next question is: how do you get in there? You should know that beer tents tend to be crowded almost all of the time. Here's why: there are 14 big beer tents at the Oktoberfest, each with a capacity of about 6,000 places. There are six million visitors in the two weeks. You can do the arithmetic yourself.
You might say now: 'Where's the problem? I don't need a place to sit - I'll just walk in there, buy my beer and go out again!' Well, nice idea, but you obviously have never heard of the concept of a 'Stehmaß'. The word 'Stehmaß' is Bavarian and is a combination of the words 'stehen' which means standing and 'Maß' which is the name of the big glass of beer. You will find signs in the beer tent which indicate that 'Stehmaßn' aren't allowed - that is, the waitresses and waiters aren't allowed to sell beer to customers without a place to sit. So you need a seat - at least for a couple of minutes (while purchasing the beer), ideally for a couple of hours. One more word on carrying beers out of the beer tent: the big angry security guys at the exit will happily take care of your beer glass as soon as you try to leave the beer tent because they don't like the idea of them being stolen3.
Back to your search for a seat. You will easily get a seat in a beer tent when visiting the Oktoberfest on weekdays before 4pm. From 4pm onwards, the tents will become more and more crowded, until 6pm when, typically, most are crammed full. The reason for this is many companies reserve a huge number of places for their employees. Reserved tables must be occupied by 4pm at the latest, therefore they typically are. So you should make sure that you don't occupy any reserved seats, as the companies typically uphold their right to the reservations, having paid a lot of money for them.
So, how do you get your seat? The first method is: get there early enough and occupy an unreserved place (ie, a bench without a reservation sign on it). The second method is: successfully organise a place even though you are late. A good idea is to ask the waitress/waiter for places. Every waitress/waiter has an area she/he serves and has specific ownership for. The landlord just arranges the reservations, but the final decision of who sits where is up to the waitress/waiter. With a little luck, you might get a place in a 'box' (a quieter area on the edge of the beer tent) by talking nicely to a waitress/waiter.
Getting a place in the (substantially more atmospheric) middle area of the beer tent might be a bit harder. You have a good chance of getting a place for one or two people by carefully scanning through the place and asking people whether you might join them on their bench. Being an attractive woman, or having one with you, can increase your chances. You have a good chance of finding places with this method when showing up between 8pm and 9pm, because some people will already be leaving at that time, having quenched their thirst for the day4.
As soon as you have found your seat, sit down and don't leave it for as long as you can hold out.
Ordering beer is astonishingly simple at the Oktoberfest. The problem is that most tourists don't realise how simple it is. Most tourists try to order by saying, 'Would you mind bringing us two of these big glasses of beer?'. That's too complicated. Simply wait for your waitress/waiter, make sure she sees you and raise two fingers. That's it - you'll get your beers a few of minutes later.
How did the waitress/waiter do that? Even though there is so much brisk trade taking place in a beer tent, the waitress/waiter knew for some reason that you wanted beer - amazing! Well, the secret is that 95% of the products sold in a beer tent happens to be beer. Therefore there is a high chance that raising two fingers means: 'Bring me two beers, please'.
A few words on your ordering options: there is only a limited number of drinks available in a beer tent. You can get beer (obviously!), alcohol-free beer and with some luck you might get non-alcoholic drinks like lemonade, Spezi (a mix of cola and orange soda) or water. In some beer tents you will have to buy non-beerish drinks outside. You won't get different sizes of beers, the only size known is the 'Maß' (one litre). You may find Weißbier (wheat beer) or 'Radler' (beer mixed with lemonade - a shandy) available in a few tents, but not all.
Your order has to be paid immediately on delivery. Typically you add 10% - 20% tip5 depending on the quality of the service (or round it up to the next whole Euro unit).
You should not, under any circumstances, underestimate the importance of tipping. If the waitress knows you'll tip her, she'll keep coming back to your table with more beer. If she realises you haven't worked out the tipping game yet, you might have a looooooong wait between beers.
Drinking beer at the Oktoberfest is more complex than it seems. You don't simply sit there and drink your beer whenever you like. There is a sort of drinking ritual. There are several triggers to nudge you to drink beer:
Drinking Your Freshly Ordered Beer
There's nothing better than a fresh beer. You are happy to get a fresh beer and all the people around you share your happiness about your fresh beer. So you should enjoy this moment and celebrate it by saying 'Prost' (German for 'Cheers') and drinking some beer together with the people around you. This also means that you celebrate every fresh beer brought to the people around you in the same way. When clinking glasses in Germany it is important to look your counterpart in the eye. If not, hearsay has it, you will be cursed with seven years bad sex - and no-one wants that now, do they?
Drinking When Someone Next To You Drinks Beer
As soon as you sit down, all the people around you become your new temporary friends. If you speak German, you will immediately notice this because the formal form of address 'Sie' (you, formal) is immediately replaced by the informal form of address 'Du' (you, informal) which is used when talking with friends. You can even talk to the waitress on this informal level. Since drinking together is expected behaviour for friends, you now drink whenever someone at your table is drinking. You even drink whenever someone at the neighbouring tables is drinking.
Drinking When Thirsty
This is probably the case you had in mind when you started the 'Drinking Beer' section. While this case is very typical for a non-Oktoberfest setting, it is very rare in an Oktoberfest environment. You might be thirsty when entering the beer tent after a strenuous walk to the Oktoberfest or after eating a salty 'Hendl' (chicken) or a dry 'Brezn' (pretzel). In most cases, however, you won't get a chance to develop a thirst because you will be drinking all the time.
Drinking When The Band Plays 'Ein Prosit der Gemütlichkeit'
As you probably noticed, the rules above only ensure that you are drinking most of the time, not all the time. To ensure you keep non-drinking periods to a minimum, the band plays 'Ein Prosit der Gemütlichkeit' (cheers, to a relaxed mood) - a short tune ended by shouting '1, 2, 3 gsuffa' (one, two three drink) and taking a swig of your beer. The band plays this tune every ten minutes. This cheap and simple, but very effective, marketing trick has the whole beer tent drinking beer the whole time - amazing, isn't it?
It has to be noted that there are a number of beer-drinking disciplines at the Oktoberfest: drinking while sitting, drinking while standing, and finally drinking while standing on the bench. You shouldn't even think about drinking beer while dancing and jumping on the bench out of respect for the good beer that would get spilled, and the other people who would end up wearing it. You should also not even dream of standing on the table - with or without beer. Standing on the bench is considered to be okay, but standing on the table is considered to be a reason for the big angry security guys from the exit to show up and have a quiet word with you.
Drinking And The Restroom
You should remain aware that bladder capacity will eventually necessitate a restroom visit. Since the restrooms are typically far off at the other end of the tent, you should consider having a strategy, like 'Sit and hold it as long as you can before you go for the first time'. You should be wary that once you do go the first time, return visits will likely happen more and more frequently - so if you can hold as long as comfortably possible, all the better. Better plan this in advance, otherwise you will keep running to the toilet - and that might put your hard-won position on your bench at risk!
At first glance, you might consider drinking beer and getting home represent two completely unrelated tasks. However, given that excesses of the first might render performance of the second task almost impossible, you need to have a plan. Even though the Oktoberfest ends around 11pm, you will see a lot of people hanging around there hours after the tents have closed.
Those hanging around do so because they have forgotten one or more things. They may have forgotten:
- Which hotel they are staying at
- How to get to the hotel they are staying at
- How to get to the subway or where to find a taxi cab
- How to complete simple tasks like walking, speaking and staying conscious for more than a couple of minutes at a time
- Who they are and what they're doing here in the first place!
For most of the less serious cases, writing down the important facts for later reference may prove a big help. However, if you find yourself still struggling, there are a lot of helpful people in Munich who will be happy to lend a hand and provide some simple assistance with the wheres and the hows. People in Munich are used to this phenomenon of acute Gedächtnisverlust (memory loss) around Oktoberfest time.
In a nutshell, you can have a lot of fun drinking beer at the Oktoberfest. The secret is to be well informed and to keep yourself under control. As long as you control the beer instead of letting the beer control you, your Oktoberfest visit will be an experience to remember (alcohol-induced memory loss permitting!).