The beer tents are what Oktoberfest is all about. In all, there are fourteen enormous circus tents erected for the festival. Nine are run by Munich breweries, huge traditional companies that still produce beer according to the strict Munich purity regulations of 1487, and are the size of aircraft hangars, multi-floored, and seat over eight thousand people each. The “Big Six” Munich breweries – Lowenbrau, Spatenbrau, Augustiner, Hofbrau, Paulaner and Hackerbrau – all have their own immense marquees, decked out with brewery paraphernalia dating back over the years and really are the only German words you need to know for the duration of the festival. The other tents sell a variety of wines and food and are relatively peaceful havens from the relentless beer-chugging. Inside, everyone sits at long trestle tables laid out around the bandstands. Orders are taken by buxom, corseted waitresses who have a remarkable ability to lug around up to a dozen foaming steins at a time, apparently without tiring. All you need to do is indicate how many steins you require and the beers will be brought to your table within minutes – cold, frothy and ready to go, Tips are always appreciated and generally bring even more attentive service. To show how culturally integral the beerfest is to the local economy, most of the natives actually pay for their beer with cardboard tokens, which are given out by local companies to their employees as bonuses in the preceding weeks. Better still, Munich’s senior citizens actually receive beer coupons as part of their pension each year.
All of the tents are constantly heaving with people. Munchens (as the residents of Munich are called) stride or sometimes stagger around in their traditional Bavarian costumes. The men wear black lederhosen – sturdy leather shorts held up with shoulder straps, also popular in certain New York nightclubs – thick woollen socks and massive brown boots; real traditionalists complete the ensemble with huge handlebar moustaches. Women dress in flowing skirts and laced bodices, which have a dramatic push-up effect that reveals more cleavage than a whole season of Baywatch. Beer-tent action tends to happen in two sessions – lunchtime (noon-3pm) and evening (7-11pm) – but the atmosphere stays rowdy pretty much throughout the weekend. The tents open at 10am to serve breakfast – and yes, you can have beer with your cornflakes. At night, the tents close at 11pm to allow what’s left of the crowds to slowly stagger home.
If you really haven’t had your fill by closing time, head to the “Hippodrom” tent, to the right of the park entrance, where Spaten beer is served until midnight to partygoers who can barely stand or speak.
The amusement park
Sharing the Wies’n park with the beer tents is a huge collection of rollercoaster rides, go-carts and fun fair entertainments which are absolutely fantastic after the third or fourth stein. Highlights most definitely include vomiting from the Ferris wheel, dive-bombing on the bouncy castle and re-creating Mad Max scenes with your mates on the dodgems. Things have come a long way since entertainments were first introduced in the 1820s, but some of the old rides and booths are still around. Check out Teufelsrad (Devil’s Wheel), the wooden toboggan rides, or the flea circus for a bit of Oktoberfest nostalgia. Other old attractions that didn’t manage to stick around were very much of the freak show variety, when, after a dozen or so steins, you got to admire a 22-metre- long fish, and meet Lionel, the world’s only lion-woman. Those were the days…