This year’s Oktoberfest, which draws to a close on Oct. 4, marks the 200th anniversary of the 16-day German party.
Photo credits: Alexandra Winkler/Reuters/Corbis AND DC Premiumstock/Alamy
If history repeats itself, about 6.5 million liters of beer will be consumed at next year’s Oktoberfest. With a little advance planning, one of the guests hoisting a giant glass stein could be you. Prost!
HISTORY IS REPLETE with over-the-top, no-holds-barred weddings, but when it comes to nuptial partying, no one tops Bavaria’s Prince Ludwig. Technically, Ludwig married Princess Therese von Sachsen-Hildburghausen on Oct. 12, 1810, but the soiree lasted five unabated days and featured Munich-wide celebrations, including a horse race. The party proved immensely popular with locals — so much so, in fact, that it was repeated the following year, sans ceremony, and quickly became an annual event.
Two hundred years later, Oktoberfest has morphed into a 16-day spectacle of parades, rides, entertainment, food, culture, attractions, and lots and lots of beer. While the party’s host is still very much Munich, the guest list has gone global, and after two centuries of practice, Oktoberfest has perfected itself as the world’s biggest festival. Every year, it regularly attracts six million-plus guests (more than the number who visit the Grand Canyon, Waikiki Beach or SeaWorld), and, packed with extra attractions and extended by two days, this year’s bicentennial Oktoberfest is expected by organizers to pull in at least a million and a half more people. This means record demand for tables, flights and hotel rooms, of course, but with savvy planning, you can still enjoy one of the world’s greatest events in fine style when Oktoberfest returns to its normal format in 2011.
The event’s scope is stunning, and while beer is a cornerstone, alcohol alone does not motivate millions of people to make the trip. “It’s not just the biggest beer festival; it’s the biggest festival,” says Marcus Korte, export director for Paulaner Beer, Oktoberfest’s top seller, accounting for a third of the brews consumed. “It’s an ambassador for Bavarian culture and Munich’s culture.” More of a state fair on steroids than a drunkfest, the festival is for all tastes and ages, and only 14 of the 600-plus vendors are beer tents. “One of the things that surprises visitors is how much there is to do with kids — lots of entertainment, bike races, rides,” Korte says. Proving that there is really something for every taste, Oktoberfest even features a wine tent. The grounds occupy 100 acres, and most offerings are outdoors, including games, displays, and more wurst and food stands than you could ever count. In a typical year, nearly half a million roast chickens are consumed, along with 200,000-plus sausages, 45,000 pig’s knuckles and 100 whole oxen. Thousands of items turn up at the lost and found, including hundreds of wallets, eyeglasses and cell phones, along with more bizarre items, such as dive goggles, a Superman costume, a ladder and even a dog. Family-oriented attractions range from a traditional f lea circus and carnival games to live performances and an ornate musical carousel. Admission is free, and many families enjoy the festival without ever even entering one of the famous beer tents.
But these 14 tents are Oktoberfest’s heart and soul, except that calling them tents is like referring to China’s Great Wall as “stonework.” The festival itself always begins on a Saturday, with a citywide parade and the symbolic transporting of kegs to the festival park. Once there, the mayor taps the first keg and proclaims Oktoberfest open. By strict law, only beer brewed in Munich can be served at Oktoberfest, with six breweries supplying all “tents.” These are cavernous, wood-framed halls that take months to erect, complete with high-capacity commercial kitchens, performance stages, balconies, seating and standing room for thousands, and enough bathrooms to cope. To put their size in perspective, a historic antique tent set up to replicate the old times holds 3,500. Today’s largest tent holds over 10,000 drinkers; the tents are, in effect, stadiums that can be dismantled until next year’s festival. Each has a specialty food, ranging from roast duck to sausage to impressive whole oxen roasting on spits, and each caters to a different demographic. Finding a table in any beer tent is the first priority for most visitors; finding one in the right tent is second.