ONE OF THE MOST AMAZING things about Oktoberfest is how smoothly everything works, despite the enormous crowds and massive alcohol consumption. Even at midnight, during the mass exodus after all the tents close, grabbing a cab or public transportation back to your hotel is easier than at the typical baseball game. German culture loves rules, and the most important one is that you cannot be served in a tent unless you are associated with a table. More than 70 percent of tables are sold in advance, typically by the end of January, with priority given to repeat customers. “If you have a table, the closer it gets to Oktoberfest, the more friends you have,” Korte jokes. “If it is your first time, go during the day and look into the different tents when they are not crowded.” You can sit and order lunch or beers at unoccupied tables, then move on and test the flavor of another tent. But by 5:30, table holders arrive for the evening and tents fill quickly. “Most tables are rented out twice, during the day from 11 to 4, and again from 5 on. It’s much easier to get one during the day, but much more fun at night,” says Pat Gallagher, managing director of financialresearch firm BDR and an Oktoberfest fan who has attended for the past 10 years, often bringing clients and friends.
Arriving without a table and then being unable to enjoy the beer tents is a common and f rustrating rookie problem, but Gallagher, who has never gone without a table, has developed several surefire tentmanagement strategies: “Get your hotel and f lights as early as possible, because these go fast. Consider flying into a nearby city like Zurich and taking the train. Try to get tickets through ordinary channels, starting nearly a year ahead; each tent handles it separately. Get tables in advance for as many nights as you can.” In the event you can’t reserve, don’t worry — most Europeans don’t tip, and most tables are managed by temporary waitstaff trying to earn as much as possible in two weeks. Gallagher says, “Your first day, go early, when the tents are empty. Sit down, order beers and food, and tip your waitress generously. Then tell them that you have no table for the night and need one.”
There are always no-shows, and if she can’t hook you up in her section, a colleague in another part of the tent usually can. Again, tip generously and arrange to return the next night. We’ve done this for four straight nights before.” If price is no object, you could turn to online table brokers who scalp tables, but Gallagher has never had to resort to that. “Remember, the rule isn’t that you have to be seated, but that you have to be associated with a table, and most people stand. I’ve gone up to a table of friendly people, told them I was from the States without a table, and asked if I could stand with them. They say yes, I buy the table a round, and we become fast friends.”
LARRY OLMSTED writes the Life on Vacation column every weekend for USA Today, and he is a contributing travel editor for Cigar Aficionado magazine.
› If You Go ‹
Despite its name, Oktoberfest always begins on the third or fourth Saturday in September (next year’s will be Sept. 17 to Oct. 3). The first and last weekends are always the most popular.
"Opening day is very exciting; the mayor of Munich taps the first keg, and there are lots of performances. You experience a [great deal] of culture all at once,” says Paulaner’s Marcus Korte. (Nearly 10,000 costumed performers participate in the opening parade and pageantry.)
The middle weekend is informally known as “Italian weekend,” when visitors from nearby Italy take over the festival. “[Italy is] the biggest export market for Munich’s beer and the second-largest country attending after Germany,” Korte explains.
Closing weekend is typically the busiest, because, as Korte notes, “It’s the last chance for beer.”
All beer at Oktoberfest comes from one of Munich’s six breweries, known in America as Paulaner, Hacker-Pschorr, Löwenbräu, Augustiner, Spaten and Hofbräu. Most also operate permanent yearround traditional Bavarian beer halls and gardens in downtown Munich.
Many Oktoberfest tents have their own particular style. Each brewery operates one (except for Hacker- Pschorr, which runs two), and these seven are essentially giant versions of the traditional Bavarian beer hall. The main differences are the beer and the food. Spaten is famous for its spit-roasted oxen, while Paulaner is one of a handful of tents that offer nonalcoholic brew. The seven independent tents vary more by audience and atmosphere, with the Hippodrom at one extreme with a crazed spring-break vibe, and the winecentric Weinzelt (15 choices by the glass) at the other, small, sophisticated and intimate. The popular Schottenhamel, Pat Gallagher’s favorite, is in the middle: large and lively but with broad appeal. Käfer’s tent is the Aspen of Oktoberfest, home to celebrities and the see-and-be-seen crowd.
For more information, visit www.oktoberfest.de, www.muenchen.de and www.cometogermany.com.
› If You Can’t Go ‹
There is no Oktoberfest like Munich’s Oktoberfest, but there are a few imitators around the globe that try hard to capture the spirit of the original.
“Addison is getting close to the real thing,” Korte says, which is a high compliment. The four-day event, which is held in the city park, features a 30,000-square-foot tent and draws about 60,000 visitors each year, many of whom are polka fans. www.addisontexas.net/events/oktoberfest/
The Queen City bills its “Oktoberfest Zinzinnati” as the “nation’s largest, most authentic” festival, but the original certainly does not feature a “Running of the Wieners.” The two-day event attracts an impressive half million guests and serves up 200,000-plus sausages per year. www.oktoberfest-zinzinnati.com
KITCHENER-WATERLOO, ONTARIO Supposedly the second largest in the world after Munich, the event lasts a whopping nine days and has 15 beer tents. It’s held later than tradition dictates in order to coincide with Canadian Thanksgiving, so it’s actually possible to attend Munich and Kitchener in the same year! www.oktoberfest.ca
This surprising spot is another festival that claims to be the second largest in the world after Munich. It runs for 18 days and is so popular that it has spawned a second annual edition in midsummer (Summer Beer Fest). Authenticity begins with a crosstown opening parade and free admission to those wearing lederhosen, and ends with the beers being all local Brazilian brews. www.oktoberfestblumenau.com.br