Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Munich Oktoberfest 2012

For a number of years I've thought about visiting the famous Oktoberfest in Munich, the world's largest beer festival. This year I finally got the chance as I had already planned a road trip through Germany in the right time period, but before delving into my own impressions of the 2012 festival I'll say a few words about its history and current status.

Welcome to the Oktoberfest 2012.

The Oktoberfest history
The origins of the Oktoberfest goes back to October 12th, 1810, when Crown Prince Ludwig - the future king Ludwig I of Bavaria - married his beloved Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen. At this time, the state of Bavaria had existed for only four years so the people in Munich were jubilant and proud to celebrate the marriage of their own future king and queen. And celebrate they did!

The wedding celebrations lasted five days and took place on the meadows in front of the city gates, where people could watch horse races while indulging in beer and food. The horse races and celebrations proved so popular that they were repeated at the same place the next year, giving rise to the tradition of the Oktoberfest. Oktoberfest has been held almost every year since 1810, it has only been canceled 24 times - because of either Cholera outbreaks (in 1854 and 1873) or war (the Franco-Prussian War and the two world wars).

While the original Oktoberfest started out as a relatively short and small, local festival, for and by the citizens of Munich, it has now expanded into a 16 days long beer and food extravaganza, with more than 6 million visitors annually - from all over the world. It has become the biggest tourist attraction in Munich, bringing in close to half a billion euro to the city's coffers every year.

The Ochsenbraterei tent, famous for its grilled oxen.
- Sponsored by one of the Big Six.
Despite all the tourists and the cheap souvenir stands, the festival is still very much a Munich festival - rooted in the local beer and food culture. The big tents are all sponsored by the original "Big Six" Munich breweries; Augustiner-Bräu, Hofbräuhaus, Löwenbräu, Hacker-Pschorr, Paulaner and Spaten. Late arrivals, such as the world famous Schneider Weisse brewery - established in 1872, are not found on the Oktoberfest bill.

Today the meadow where the Oktoberfest is still held lies safely within the city of Munich, just a kilometer south west of the Hauptbahnhof main railway station, and it has been named after Ludwig's young bride: Theresienwiese or Theresa's meadow, often just called the Wiesn.

For the 2012 Oktoberfest, which started September 22 and ended October 7, there were 14 large tents and a number of smaller with a total seating capacity of about 100,000. The larger tents can typically seat from 5,000 to 8,000 guests and they usually feature an oompa ensemble, playing traditional Bavarian drinking songs. The smaller tents are more focused on either entertainment or speciality food, such as the famous Fischer-Vroni tent which has been selling all kinds of grilled fish (and more recently sushi) since opening up in 1948.

The how and when
Despite being a big city of 1.4 million, the massive influx of visitors to the Oktoberfest - in the millions - means that the Munich hotels will get swamped and turn up their prices. Many of the hotels will be fully booked long before the festival starts, so even if you're willing to spend big bucks for a room in central Munich you may not be able to find any.

It's both cheaper and easier to find vacant rooms outside the city, and transport is not a big problem since the metropolitan area has a very efficient railway system which can take you from the outlying districts to the heart of Munich in less than 45 minutes.

Because of this, and for reasons which will become apparent in a future post, I decided to stay in Freising, a town some 40 km north east of Munich, not far from the international airport. From Freising you can take the fast commuter train, which departs a couple of times every hour and run all day long. This train takes less than 30 minutes to München Hauptbahnhof, in the heart of the city, which is just a short walk from the Theresienwiese or from Marienplatz for that matter.

Ein, swei, drei - prost!
At a quarter to 10 on a sunny Monday morning in September I went in through the main gate at the Wiesn, ready for my first Oktoberfest. Many other visitors had already arrived and were walking around between the tents, taking photographs or just enjoying the fine weather while waiting for the festival tents to open.

A long queue of several hundred kurt lederhosen clad men had already formed in front of the Hacker-Pschorr tent, but that was fine by me as I had no intention of going in there.

Augustiner Festhalle with an oompa band on stage.
My tent of choice was Augustiner Festhalle, sponsored by the oldest brewery in Munich,  Augustiner-Bräu. This brewery has made beer in Munich since 1328!

Not only is Augustiner-Bräu the oldest brewery in Munich, but they make the beer that many locals claim to be the best - the Augustiner Edelstoff Helles. And, finally, the Augustiner Festhalle is the only tent at Oktoberfest where the beer is served like in the old days, straight from large, 200 liter woodens casks, only assisted by gravity. Thus, for me the choice was rather simple.

Inside the Augustiner Festhalle there was still plenty of space at 10 am, roughly half the tables were free while the other half were reserved. It turned out that most of the free tables had been taken by the time I noticed them, but since many of the reserved tables were reserved from 4 or 5 pm, probably for groups of people coming straight from work, I sat down by a table that was free for the next seven hours. That was plenty of time to enjoy the beer, food and atmosphere in this tent.

As I'd never been to Oktoberfest before I was uncertain about how to order beer and first tried asking a man standing by the large wooden cask in one of the four schänkes (a schänke is basically a filling station for beer), but he pointed at the girls running around with large beer mugs so I sat down again and finally managed to attract the attention of one service lady. Two minutes later she was back with a Maß - a 1 liter beer mug - of the 5.6% strong Augustiner Edelstoff Helles.

I had worried it would be tough to empty the large mugs of beer, before the beer went flat, but it turned out to be no problem at all. The Edelstoff is such a tasty, refreshing and drinkable beer that before I knew it I was looking down into the wide glass at a small puddle of golden liquid far down there at the bottom.

Drinking large volumes of beer was also helped / promoted by the many girls walking down the aisles in the tent, offering freshly baked, warm and salty brezn from big baskets. Brezn is better known as brezel in the rest of Germany or pretzel in the US. This salty delicacy is a match made in heaven with German helles beer, take my word for it.

Schänke number 2 (out of 4) in the Augustiner Festhalle
- serving Edelstoff Helles straight from the cask.

The first couple of hours, the large tent remained fairly quiet and relaxing, but around noon just about all the seating space had been occupied and I noticed people standing along the sides, waiting for someone to leave or for their reservation to kick in. It was getting harder to move around, both for the beer mug carrying girls and for those guests needing to go to the toilets, as a large number of standing guests blocked the aisles.

Around noon the stakes were raised when an oompa band entered the raised stage in the middle of the tent and launched into a series of drinking songs of which I just caught the omnious "ein, zwei, drei - prost!" upon which the band leader raised his own Maß and toasted together with the audience before swallowing a good mouthfull.

It was about this time that I realized it was time to move on if I wanted to see some of the other tents, as the Augustiner Festhalle was now approaching a very packed condition. So after two nice hours and three Maß of Edelstoff I left the tent to take a look outside the tent.

The horse drawn Augustiner-Bräu Faßwagen from 1901
- still used for transporting wooden beer kegs.
Outside things had become a lot more chaotic than when I arrived, it seemed that several tents were so full that bouncers had been posted to stop more guests from entering - so instead people roamed around between bratwürst stalls and the smaller tents.

When I looked up towards the main gate I saw a continous stream of people entering, so it was obvious it would just get more cramped at the Oktoberfest. Thus, after pushing my way through the crowds for a few minutes and taking photographs of the Augustiner-Bräu Faßwagen, a beautiful horse drawn wagon from 1901 which came with more wooden beer casks for the Augustiner Festhalle, I extricated myself from the crowd and left the Wiesn for a quiet biergarten in Munich.

Concluding remarks
The Oktoberfest is a strange mixture of circus, carnival and Bavarian holiday, you'll see all kinds of people from all walks of life. The party factor is high and probably grows as day turns into night, so if you're up for that and a bit cramped space the Oktoberfest should be rigth up your alley.

As for myself, it was worth making the effort and I did enjoy the short spell in Augustiner Festhalle before it started getting rowdy in there. This was a once in a lifetime event for me, I will certainly return to the lovely biergartens and cozy bierstüberls of Munich, but not during Oktoberfest.

A Maß of Augustiner-Bräu Edelstoff Helles
- my best memory from Oktoberfest.

More photos from the 2012 Oktoberfest can be found in this Flickr set.

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