On the Oktoberfest

Among the big planetary parties, the annual Oktoberfest in Munich has perhaps the most impressive constellation of worldwide siblings, with mini-fests now established in places as far afield as Sydney, Mexico City and Santa Catarina in Brazil.

The proud parent event, which opened last weekend and runs until 7 October, is Europe’s biggest festival of any kind — organisers call it a “folk festival”. A staggering 6 million people attend in just over two weeks.

Of the 6 million, about 15% or 900,000 were foreign revellers in 2014 — the most recent figures available — some 7%, or 63,000, were Australian. That’s no small beer given that only 8% came from across the border in Austria, about an hour’s drive from here, and 4% from France, which of course also shares a border with Germany. Americans were the largest group of foreigners, at 10%, according to market research commissioned by the City of Munich.

“You meet people and the usual barriers just drop,” says Georg Veit, a theatre lighting designer who has worked at La Scala, Italy’s famous opera house, and with Spain’s La Fura dels Baus at the Sydney Opera House. “It’s great to come as a single. Or you might sit with some Bavarian couple who don’t say much at first and then open right up! There’s no (exchange of) telephone numbers or anything like that. It’s absolutely of the moment.”

Georg, 50 — Goxl to his friends — is at the Oktoberfest 13 days and nights some years, and has been quoted in the German media as a fine connoisseur of the event.

“Everybody lets their hair down,” he says, ensconced in the famous Hacker-Pschorr tent. Enough to be dancing on tables in their thousands when things reach full swing. Suddenly, the informality rivals what we think of as fairly habitual in Australia, Canada or the UK.

But among 600,000 visitors on the busiest days, between 30 beer tents — including 14 hangar-like “mega-tents” — the novice can feel quickly disoriented, especially if just arrived from abroad kitted out and chafing in traditional leather shorts (Lederhosen), or trussed-up in the traditional dress (Dirndl), with no local smarts or table booking.

And it’s not just the madding crowds. Everything about the Oktoberfest, or Wiesn as the locals call it (pronounced: VEE-zn), startles by its size, across 42 hectares with seating for 119,000. There are 151 fair ground attractions, and approximately one kilometre of urinals. In a recent sample year, 2016, Bavarian Labor Department figures said 6.6 million litres of beer were served, usually in the Bavarian litre-glass or “Mass” (Maß); 366,876 chickens consumed; 67, 227 pork knuckles and precisely 28, 377kg of roast almonds.

“The first week is much less crowded than the second,” Goxl advises. “On the Monday (through) Wednesday the tents are walk-through even in the evenings”. This is particularly true of the Hofbräu Tent — one of the biggest, with capacity for 10,000 including the outside beer garden, and where the proportion of international visitors is near to 25 or 30%.

The Augustiner Tent is more traditional, known for its Oompah music and Augustiner beer, perhaps the Munich lager, which is still brewed in wooden kegs. Founded in 1328, Augustiner-Bräu famously does not advertise — on television (brewers are not allowed to by law in Germany), or in the press, or even on public transport. Just via the brewery trucks dotted around Munich streets.

The Hacker-Pschorr Tent is the most-photographed, with a child-like blue sky and white cloud ceiling designed by Oscar-winning set designer, Rolf Zehetbauer, who did ‘The Neverending Story’, Ingmar Bergman’s ‘The Serpent’s Egg’ — filmed in Munich — and Bob Fosse’s ‘Cabaret’, for which he won the Academy Award.

Among the other mega-tents, The Schottenhamel, founded in 1867, is the place of the festival opening, when the Mayor of Munich “taps” the first keg, to the boom of a dozen canons. Käfers, looking more like a ski-lodge than a tent, is for VIPs and the chic set — the stars of the Bayern Munich football team attend in Lederhosen with their wives and girlfriends. Entry can be difficult if you “don’t know someone”, Goxl says, but an “aftershow” outside til the wee hours is for everyone. The beer and the champagne flow.

As the Bavarians say, “Nur ein Schwein trinkt allein” — only a pig drinks alone. And at the Oktoberfest, it seems, nobody ever does.