The 183rd Oktoberfest gets under way next Saturday with a traditional parade through the streets of Munich. Cheered on by large crowds, horse-drawn carriages haul giant beer barrels to the festival grounds, where, at noon, the mayor of the southern German city opens the first keg and declares the event officially open.
Oktoberfest traces its origins back to a royal wedding in 1810. Citizens were invited to attend the celebrations, which lasted for five days. There were shooting displays and a horse race around a meadow on the edge of Munich but, ironically, no beer was sold. Such was its success; the gathering became a regular affair, moving to late September, so festival goers could enjoy the warmer weather.
Fast forward to 2015 and six million visitors from every corner of the globe guzzled 7.3 million litres of the amber stuff. That’s enough to fill almost three Olympic-size swimming pools. To soak up all that booze, there’s a belt-loosening array of munchies, from fresh pretzels and slow-roasted ox to apple strudel and chocolate-covered strawberries on a stick. And if you like sausages, you’ve come to the right place. Germany boasts more than 1,200 varieties and at Oktoberfest you’ll soon know your Weisswurst from your Mettwurst.
Morning is a good time to get a feel for the festival. Wander around the 14 cavernous tents comparing décor and music then quench your thirst with a cold one. All beer served is from one of Munich’s six breweries and subject to purity laws introduced in the 16th century. Oktoberfest isn’t solely a celebration of barley, malt, yeast and hops, though; there’s plenty to keep families entertained, including street performers, games areas, a flea circus and the Schichtl variety show, a festival favourite since 1869. An enormous fairground with a Ferris wheel, roller coasters, a haunted house and water slides offers an alternative to those prepared to put down their steins of lager. Every Tuesday is family day, when discounts are given on the rides.
By evening, the party shifts up a gear. Link arms, hoist your giant one-litre mug and sway along as Lederhosen-clad “oompah” bands belt out drinking songs such as In Heaven there is no Beer. Toast unsteady revellers in traditional costume with a shout of zum wohl! (To your health!) and if the beer is making you feel bloated, stumble over to the Weinzelt tent, where wine is served.
Bavaria is a beautiful destination that rewards visitors with lakes and forests, fairy tale castles and Alpine vistas. Cruises and excursions are a good way to experience Europe’s second-longest river, the Danube, as it winds through the state. Consider basing yourself in Augsburg, which is only 30 minutes from Munich by train. It’s one of Germany’s oldest cities and if you fancy a day “on the wagon”, there are medieval guild houses, museums and an 11th-century cathedral to explore.
You don’t need a reservation to visit the beer tents but on weekdays you’ll have to secure your seat by early afternoon. At weekends, a morning start is essential; not so you can sample the sideshows and take in the atmosphere but to guarantee space at a table, especially if you’re part of a large group. Drinkers ferociously guard their hard-won seats and there’s nothing worse than standing in line waiting for others to leave. Remember, if you don’t have a seat, you won’t be served. How’s that for an incentive to set your alarm clock?
Some underwhelmed online reviewers claim that Oktoberfest is little more than an overrated county fair peddling cheap souvenirs, overpriced euro fizz (“ten euros a glass; mostly foam”) and littered with bierleichen (beer corpses) – people who drink until they pass out. Instead, they suggest heading to one of the many smaller, saner festivals held elsewhere in Bavaria and other parts of Germany.
Augsburg is an attractive base, but that’s partly because room rates in Munich double during the festival. It might be only 30 minutes away but finding your way back to your hotel on a foreign train in a foreign country with only an increasingly blurred timetable for guidance seemed a lot easier when you were sober.
Crime is not usually a serious problem although, in 2014, a German news agency reported that a man on a haunted-house ride jumped out of his ghost train carriage and demolished an evil-spirit puppet – a felony that has the words “highly intoxicated” written all over it. Pickpockets and thieves aren’t as much of a problem as absent-minded (drunk) merrymakers and it’s no surprise that one of the busiest venues on site is the lost and found office. Passports, mobile phones, cameras and wallets are frequently mislaid; more unusual items left behind include hearing-aids, dentures and – perhaps confirming the miraculously curative power of alcohol – crutches.
Not everyone has the time or money to visit Munich and a number of alternative “oktoberfests” are celebrated with gusto in cities as diverse as Nashville, Moscow and Shanghai. Things may be about to change, though, as there are moves to monopolise festival rights. If the application is successful, organisers of copycat events would be obliged to purchase a licence to use the Oktoberfest name or face legal action. Bavarian bigwigs say the extra revenue will go towards operating costs; particularly the additional security arrangements in place for 2016.
So, should you let your hair down at the world’s largest beer festival or give the whole thing a miss? Well, if you’ve ever looked forward to queuing for hours to get into the South Stand during Rugby Sevens weekend, singing yourself hoarse, winding up in the midst of a beer-throwing frenzy then waking up the following morning fully dressed with a horrendous hangover, then Oktoberfest will be your idea of heaven.
Security is being tightened. Fears of a terrorist attack have prompted organisers to ban rucksacks and water bottles, and introduce random identity checks for the 2016 Oktoberfest. In addition, fences will be installed to ensure visitors are unable to bypass mandatory baggage inspections. The extra security measures come in the wake of a number of violent incidents in Germany this year.