“He’s just downed a litre of 6% beer in under 10 seconds!”
The deep roar had grown across the enormous tent, getting louder as it got nearer, the wave passing ever-onwards. People turned to the epicentre of the noise where a man, dressed in pine green lederhosen, was standing on a bench with one arm heroically in the air holding his empty stein and the other arm wiping drips of beer from his bearded chin. Within a few minutes of him sitting down another cheer surged from across the other side of the tent.
This is the bright blue sky-painted ceiling of Hacker-Pschorr’s tent at Munich’s Oktoberfest and I’m drinking a stein of their Oktoberfest lager. Around me there must be at least 6,000 people all drinking steins of the same beer. There’s lively conversation bouncing around, there’s singing, there’s music playing, there’s pretzels and roast chicken and a lot of laughing. I’m sitting somewhere near the middle of the tent trying to understand it all. But I barely can because it’s just so big, so over the top, so unexpectedly amazing, and then there’s the beer, which is just so gloriously good.
The Hacker-Pschorr Oktoberfest lager is a deep bronze colour, the bitterness is robust yet restrained, it’s toasty with malt, there’s barely any sweetness yet you know you’re drinking something strong (all the Oktoberfest beers are 5.5%-6.3% ABV). It’s balanced and bold and brilliant.
The big six Munich brewers each produce a special Oktoberfest lager for the event and all of them are a little different. Hacker-Pschorr’s was the darkest, the most bitter, the one with the deepest flavour; Augustiner was the smoothest, the creamiest, the one with the tastiest, toastiest malt – it’s also notable as it’s poured from 200 litre wooden barrels; Späten was the cleanest and simplest, and wonderful for those reasons; there’s also photographic proof that I drank Hofbräu’s beer, and I kind-of recall its malt richness and dry finish, but my memories fade at the same time as I had the first mouthful from that maβ (and for that reason it’s probably better that I didn’t make it to the Paulaner or Löwenbräu tents before leaving… though I have drunk them since: both have the classic elegance of Munich lager just with an extra wallop of hops, malt and alcohol, and for me they are the least interesting).
The festival itself is beyond astonishing. I had no idea it was going to be so extraordinarily vast. The tents are like superstores, the spaces between them are busy wide boulevards, the fairground (yeah, it’s not just beer and pretzels) could be a theme park in its own right, there’s also so much food and so many people. I rode the giant big wheel to get a better view and I still couldn’t get my head around the size of it. I still can’t now when I think back on the experience.
My first visit to Oktoberfest was in 2015. I never really wanted to go before and I only ended up there because I happened to be near Munich while it was on. I went with expectations of long waits to get beer, tents so busy that we couldn’t sit down, rowdy drunkenness, and not much else. I was wrong and now I want to go back every year.
Oktoberfest, which begins tomorrow, isn’t just a beer festival. It’s much more than that; it’s an amazing drinking event, an amazing social event. I loved the beer, the friendliness of it, the way that it’s the most fun beer-thing I’ve ever been to. Prost!
Here are some things you need to know before you go...
- It’s free to get into Oktoberfest. On weekdays it opens at 10am while on weekends you can get in from 9am.
- A one-litre stein of Oktoberfest beer costs around €10.50, though prices vary in each tent.
- It’s huge. It’s like a small town. There are tents everywhere (14 big ones and around 20 smaller stalls – the big ones are where you’ll do all your best drinking). There’s food stands, places to buy gifts, and a huge amount of space is dedicated to the theme park.
- If you find a seat in a tent then sit down and don’t move. Beer will arrive within minutes – the efficiency and speed of service is astonishing, especially considering the largest tent holds 12,000 people.
- There are six official Oktoberfest breweries, all of them from Munich. Each has at least one huge tent. If you’re in the Augustiner tent, for example, you can only get their Oktoberfest beer (if you’re in a tent which isn’t run by a brewery you’ll still only have the choice of one of the Munich brews). You might also be able to get a wheat beer and an alcohol-free beer. One tent is dedicated to wine (but who goes to Oktoberfest to drink wine?!).
- Go to the theme park before you get drunk. Please don’t go on the roller-coaster after more than a couple of beers.
- You will get drunk. You get served a litre of beer which is around 6% in alcohol. As soon as you finish one, you’ll drink another because it’s delicious and oh-so drinkable and getting a full stein of cold, fresh lager thumped down in front of you is an experience you want to repeat again and again.
- All the tents serve food. Order lots of pretzels and a few roast chickens (the classic food of the fest) and some sausages. Drink water whenever you can.
- It runs for 17 days and always starts in September. In 2016 it runs from 17thSeptember until 3rd October. Over 6 million people will visit during this time.
- The first ever event here (before it came to be Oktoberfest as we know it now) took place on 12th October 1810 and was for the wedding of Crown Prince Ludwig to Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen. It was a big party that was so good they repeated it, with it growing each year. Beer was available in small stands from the beginning. The amusements arrived in later years. By 1896, the first large beer tent opened. Later they moved the festival forward to make better use of September’s warmer evenings.
- The festival is on Teresienweisse (named after Princess Therese – locals call it ‘Wiesn’ after the location). It’s a short walk from the Hauptbahnhof or Marienplatz.
- Every year around 4,000 items end up in the lost property office. Phones, clothing and keys are frequently found there. However, each year the list of unexpected items grows: dogs, dentures, walking sticks, fishing rod, an iron ball, a glass eye, and much more. Look after your stuff. And don’t take weird things (like iron balls…) with you.
Want to drink some of the classic Oktoberfest beers in London? Want to see a draft beer battle that puts an England XI against a German XI? Want some delicious street food? Then check out OktoberFeast.