Great Escapes

10.05.13

My Two-Day Oktoberfest Bender

When invited on a last-minute, 48-hour jaunt to Germany’s biggest festival, Kristyn Ostman prepared her stomach and jumped on a plane. She reports on the epic frenzy of food and booze.

Molly may be the party drug of choice in America, but here in Bavaria, revelers maintain their energy by using snuff tobacco and glucose.

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Waitress carry beer mugs during the opening ceremony in the "Hofbraeuzelt' beer tent of the 180th Bavarian "Oktoberfest" beer festival in Munich, southern Germany on Sept. 21, 2013. (Matthias Schrader/AP)

I learn this as soon as I arrive in Munich, Germany for a two-day bender to indulge in the time-honored tradition known as Oktoberfest.

Started in 1810 with just a parade, the festival is now the largest people’s faire in the world. Approximately 6.5 million attendees, only 15% from outside of Germany, congregate in Bavaria each year to consume over 7.1 million liters of beer and 70,000 pork knuckles over a 16-day span.

The only thing I’ve eaten since yesterday is airplane food, and I’m operating on only an hour of sleep. This whole adventure is ill-advised, but who can say “no” when invited on a last-minute trip to a festival where one engages in beer appreciation and debauchery on an epic, slightly frightening, scale?

Walking onto the fairgrounds is like stepping into the German pavilion at Disney’s Epcot. The makeshift buildings, traditional costumes, and carnival rides all seem cliché, but the excitement is palpable, and I can’t help but feel anxious to start on my first beer of the day, which happens to be at 10 a.m.

The “tents” are semi-permanent buildings holding anywhere from 5,000-9,000 rowdy drinkers. Sporting electricity and impressively clean bathroom facilities, each tent has a unique décor, music, and crowd. Much like your favorite bar, it seems most people are content to park themselves at a preferred spot and commence a 12-hour feeding marathon.

Reservations for tables are made months, even up to a year, in advance. But with only one month’s notice, I’m counting on the no-reservations sections, which are awarded on a first come, first served basis. I’ve heard getting a seat at the table isn’t difficult for small parties, but, as a few Munich locals informed me, on weekdays you’d better arrive by 11:30 a.m., and by 8 a.m. on the weekend. I have come prepared for two long days of eating and drinking.

Similar to parade floats, each tent makes a statement to draw in the crowds. A giant mechanical pig-roast diorama welcomes you at Spatenbrau, but inside there is only a sad display of colored streamers without much character. The Hippodrome is a show-stopper. It stands at the main entrance to the festival and has a vintage circus feel with the most impressive façade. Löwenbräu-Festhalle won me over with an atmosphere entirely set by a mechanical drinking lion at the entrance. While the best beer is at Augustiner-Festhalle, my favorite tent by far is Hacker-Festzelt with its cloud-scape ceiling.

“It’s remarkable to watch a grown man, in full lederhosen, snort a line of tobacco off a beer-soaked table.”

I also found that Hofbräu-Festzelt is the tent of choice for homesick English-speakers. It developed a reputation as the preferred festival drinking spot for Americans and Australians, and it does not disappoint. By 6 p.m. the tent rivals most frat parties with constant, mostly unsuccessful, chugging contests. If you plan to attempt the unthinkable—downing an entire liter of liquid without stopping—consider this: failure will result in being simultaneously booed by over 6,000 people.

My first festival day is a slight bust. Delirium from sleep-deprivation combined with 3.5 liters of beer leaves me falling asleep beside a pack of Irishmen speaking Celtic by 7 p.m. But on day two, I discover the trick keeping many Oktoberfest revelers afloat despite their grueling alcohol intake. While Molly has recently made the U.S. news as the drug of choice for those partying into the wee-hours, at Oktoberfest, the girls walking around with pretzels and souvenirs are also selling snuff tobacco and glucose. While I wouldn’t consider these hard-core party drugs, snorting them gives users a light perk, enough to keep them going until the festival closes at 11:30 p.m. And most importantly, it allows them to get a boost without the fear of having to abandon their precious seats to smoke a cigarette outside. It’s remarkable to watch a grown man, in full lederhosen, snort a line of tobacco off a beer-soaked table.

When it comes to the food, I only have one tip: eat everything. It may be rough packing in sausage and sauerkraut on top of so much beer, but loosen your belt and your inhibitions and join the gluttony. Festival must-eats include the crispy-skinned buttered chicken, giant pretzels, and anything with ‘wurst’ in the name. Or, you can adopt my own language-barrier ordering tactic:  point at something on the menu and hope for the best.

But most importantly, there is the beer. The beer is the real guest of honor in every tent. Half pints and truly delectable food options are available in the smaller tents, but don’t bother asking for a small glass in the bigger tents where there is only one option—a liter stein of cold, German brew. Each tent represents a different beer or brewery, so there’s only a single drink option poured at each, which makes it much easier for foreigners to order. “Two beer,” seems to translate well enough without worrying about further questions. The beer frau returns quickly, carrying up to a dozen giant glass steins at a time. These women (some men) are truly amazing. My weak little wrists are a sad comparison.

While a two-day feeding frenzy makes for a fun excursion, the human body is only capable of so much consumption. I spent the final night in my hostel listening to a man a few beds over loudly suffering until the wee-hours of the morning from his day of revelry. All-in-all, it’s a worthwhile experience for those with the stamina, though be sure to adjust to the time zone a few days prior. Jet lag really cuts into your drinking time.