By Claudia Fischer & Roger Holliday

Fischer/Holliday have toured breweries in Belgium, pounded tinnies in Australia, tasted ale with Trappist monks, sipped wine from the Napa Valley to Würzburg and tippled Scotch whiskey all over Scotland but until recently had never been to Munich's famed Oktoberfest. Here is their report.

It was a scene we never expected to witness: Munich's annual Oktoberfest. Frankly, the thought of 70 acres of howling revelers regularly augmented by arriving bus loads of amateur drinkers never had much appeal. An event better contemplated than experienced.

Then came the autumn of 1995 and a set of circumstances that found us in Munich on opening day of Oktoberfest. Always ready to seize the day, as the saying goes, and never ones to miss a party, we quickly put aside our preconceived notions, shed our pretense of superiority and dove into the festivities with abandon.

Each year, on the first day this year it's September 21 (always late in September in deference to the weather) a small group of about 1,000 Biermeisters, local dignitaries and workers make their way through the city streets to Theresienwiese, the festival grounds. The Lord Mayor of Munich swings his big wooden mallet in the air to drive a brass tap into a large wooden beer barrel and proclaims with a shout, Ozapft ist!, the beer is tapped.

But the best is yet to come.

The second day begins with another parade and this is one to outshine all others. Here, there or anywhere.

At 10 a.m. a long procession of colorful floats, horse-drawn beer drays, platoons of lederhosen-clad huntsmen, marching bands, families in traditional dress from the villages of Upper Bavaria, Lower Bavaria, even Austria, Switzerland and Italy, thoroughbred horses and goats and cows and oxen, all pass the reviewing stand in one flaggen-twirling, trommel-bashing, trompeten-blassenden wave after another.

There are seven viewing stands with reserved seats available for 59 DM ($42.14), but most people watch from the street, standing on benches, mailboxes and planters, in crowds two to three deep all along the route. Appropriately costumed volunteers pass out wreaths of hops to the spectators and an overall feeling of good-natured jollity prevails.

An estimated 10,000 people take part in the four-mile long procession as it makes its way from Maximillianstrasse through the streets of the city center and on to the festival grounds. At Theresienwiese, an astonishing sight awaits the first time visitor: wide midways lined with about a dozen giant beer tents, 70-plus hair-raising carnival rides, a giant eight-loop roller coaster and the biggest Ferris wheel we've ever seen, all intermingled with 700-odd food stalls, sideshows and games of skill.

The scene pulsates with humanity, the composition of which varies according to the time of day. During the daylight hours a family mood prevails, in the evening, when the serious drinking begins, it's strictly adults only.

The beer tents are operated exclusively by Munich's six remaining breweries: Löwenbrau, Paulaner, Hacker-Pschorr, Spaten, Hofbra and Augustiner. The seating capacity of these temporary wood and canvas beer halls varies from 2,300 to 8,900, the smallest being only the size of one American football field; the others sizes defy credibility. Each takes an average of six weeks and 1.2 million Deutsche Mark ($827,562) to construct...and presumably destruct.

The individual tents are decorated in their own style but garlands and wreaths of dried hops along with lots of blue and white Bavarian flags always seem to figure prominently in the plan. Long wooden tables are arranged in rows around a raised stand in the center where the oompah brass band leads the assembled thousands in rousing drinking songs, glass clinking toasts and general sing-a-longs. Still, in spite of the huge amounts of alcohol consumed the atmosphere is one of high-spirited fun and anyone dangerously inebriated is quickly dealt with by the well-organized security force.

Ask a Münchener what he or she thinks of the Oktoberfest and the response is usually cynical; a big fuss, just for tourists, etc. But wait a bit and they'll go on to confess to an annual visit, properly attired in lederhosen and dirndl.

But there are indeed many tourists among the merry-makers, making the Fest at times look like a beery United Nations, with youthful Australians dressed in matching t-shirts with slogans like Down Under Drinkers leading the most raucous list.

In spite of the crowds, however, with a little patience it's always possible to find a seat, just squeeze into a tight corner and get a conversation started in any combination of hand waving and phrase-book language that's necessary. Before you know it, every time the band launches into Ein prosit, ein prosit, Der Gemütlichkeit you'll be hoisting your mug like a veteran.

The party actually began almost 186 years ago in October, 1810, when a certain noncommissioned officer in the Bavarian National Guard came up with the idea of a horse race to celebrate the marriage of Crown Prince Ludwig (eventually King Ludwig I, not the mad one) and Princess Therese von Sachsen-Hildburghausen. The princes father, Maximillian I, who had recently been elevated from prince to king by Napoleon, seized on the plan as a way to rev up enthusiasm for the new-found nationalism then sweeping the country. The event was held on a nearby meadow later named Theresienwiese or simply die Wiesn where it still takes place today.

The horse race and the ensuing celebratory excitement was such a success the event has been repeated annually ever since with only an occasional time-out for war, pestilence and/or inflation the cost of a mug went up to 21,000,000 DMs in the 1920s!

(Sadly, the marriage was not a success, in spite of its auspicious beginning. Ludwig had a roving eye and after a couple of decades of philandering finally ran off with an Irish dancer.)

Much to our surprise, we thoroughly enjoyed the entire scene...and the festbeers...and it's not beyond the realm of possibility that come the 21st of September, 1996, we might again be on die Wiesn. Prosit!

Food and Drink

Munich and beer are practically synonymous. Fertile farm land for the growing of barley and hops, pure Alpine water and icy caves for storage made the region perfect for the brewing of beer from the beginning.

The monks who founded Munich or München, as it was then in the 1100s were very fond of their beer. Solid food was forbidden during periods of fast but not beer.

As a matter of fact, there were all sorts of religious restrictions for the monks to endure. One prohibited the production of beer between April and September. So in March, just before the deadline, the brothers brewed large quantities of a dark, heavily malted drink for consumption in October, sowing the seeds for the Oktoberfest several centuries later.

In Germany, where 40% of the worlds breweries are located, the production of all beer is still controlled by Reinheitsgebot, the German Pure Beer Law of 1516, which limits the ingredients to yeast, hops, malted barley and water. Period. No chemicals, no preservatives, no added sugars or flavorings, no substitute grains. And no pasteurization. Little wonder the results are so tasty.

German beer has a reputation of being exceptionally potent, sort of a European version of white lightning, but that fame is largely undeserved. Ninety percent of the beers produced in Germany are only 4.5-5% alcohol by volume, more or less what were used to in the U.S. The danger lies in the quantity not the content!

Most breweries serve only two styles of beer during the Oktoberfest. The traditional Wiesn Märzen is a dark, malty beer, while the currently more popular light-colored Helles is a sparkling, golden amber lager with a thick two-inch head.

The beer comes in a heavy, glass one-liter (approximately one quart) mug called a Ma Krug that's distributed by dirndl-dressed waitresses who can carry up to twelve at one time, six in each hand! The trick apparently has to do with elbows digging into waistlines but you'll have enough trouble just picking up one. The correct way to hold a Ma is to slide your hand through the handle and grip the glass itself...not the handle.

A liter in 1995 cost 10.40 DM ($7.42) and that's essentially one-size-fits-all, there are no smaller glasses. Some tents also offer alcohol-free beer at the same price.

The hard-working, good-natured waitresses are also purveyors of food. For nibblers there are the famous Radi (red or white radishes) and Brezn, big, soft pretzels. Corn on the cob is sold by strolling concessionaires who also happily peddle t-shirts, hats and schmaltzy memorabilia of every kind.

Larger appetites can be sated with plates of grilled sausage and sauerkraut or roast chicken with potato salad. Traditional favorites include Wiesn-Hendl am Spie gebraten, half a rotisserie chicken for 14.50 DM ($10) and Nürnberger Wurst vom Rost mit Kraut, little grilled sausages simmered with bay leaf, caraway seed and black peppercorns with sauerkraut on the side for 10 DM ($6.90).

Fr den groen Hunger for the even bigger hunger full meals of roast turkey, pork and duck are available for 21 to 32 DM ($14.50-$22).

Outside on the midway, there's even more food to tempt Fest goers. Mackerel grilled over charcoal, sausage in endless guises, herring on onion rolls, meatballs, more pretzels and Lebkuchen, the traditional Oktoberfest giant gingerbread hearts bearing tender sayings like Be mine forever or True Love. Best of all, though, is the delicious aroma of almonds roasting. Buy a bag to munch on the way home.

At the first Oktoberfest in 1810 the populace only managed to down 14,000 liters of beer, in 1995 some 840,000 liters disappeared on the first weekend alone, a new record. And by festivals end the number of whole oxen, chickens, pigs and ducks consumed are enough to make a vegetarian out of anyone!

Tips and Advice

  • Future Oktoberfest dates
    1. September 21-October 6, 1996
    2. September 20-October 5, 1997
  • Reserve a hotel room well in advance. Hotels in Munich are often booked a year ahead of time.
  • Use public transportation. Don't even consider driving; there's no parking anywhere in the vicinity of the Oktoberfest and it's risky to drive after even a single beer.
    1. The city's public transportation system is excellent: safe, reliable, clean and cheap. A single ticket costs just 3.30 DM ($2.28) but a mere 12 DM ($8.28) buys a Partner Tageskarte which allows two adults, three kids and a dog (really!) unlimited use of the system for 24 hours. Single travelers can buy a Streifen, a strip of 10 tickets, for 13 DM ($9).
    2. To reach the Fest by subway, take the U-Bahn: Lines U3 and U6 to Goetheplatz or Poccistrasse or U4 and U5 to Messegelnde or Theresienwiese. It's also possible to go by S-Bahn, tram, bus, taxi or even by foot.
  • Festival hours. The Fest opens at 10:00 a.m. Monday-Saturday and at 9:00 a.m. on Sundays. Some tents close as early as 10:45 p.m., others stay open until 12:30 a.m. For a relatively calm look at the action, go at lunchtime. To sample the total experience, arrive on the grounds late in the afternoon and stake out a seat for the evening. You can stay as long as you want.
  • Don't try to steal the mugs. Security is heavy and so are the fines!
  • The 1996 Oktoberfest brochure provides specifics about dates, times, tickets to special events and the like. It will be available in July from the German National Tourist Office in New York 212-661-7200 or in Los Angeles 310-575-9799.
  • Recommended reading. The Beer Drinkers Guide to Munich by Larry Hawthorne, Freizeit Publishers. An interesting book that not only includes useful information about the Oktoberfest but also about 40 of Munich's best beer gardens, beer halls and beer pubs.
  • Recommended Hotels (Listed in order of preference)
    • Expensive
      1. Hotel Excelsior, Schuetzenstrasse 11, Munich 2, phone 089/55 13 70, fax 089/55 13 71 21.Rating: Excellent 17/20
      2. Hotel Prinzregent, Ismanninger Strasse 42 - 44, Munich 80, phone 089/4 16 05-0, fax 089/41 60 54 66. Rating: Excellent 17/20
      3. Vier Jahreszeiten Kempinski, Maximilianstrasse 17, Munich 22, phone 089/23 03 90, fax 089/23 03 96 93. Rating: Excellent 16/20
      4. Bayerischer Hof u. Palais Montgelas, Promenadeplatz 2-6, Munich 2, phone 089/2 12 00, fax 089/2 12 09 06.Rating: Excellent 16/20
      5. Hotel Palace, Trogerstrasse 21, Munich 80, phone 089/4 70 50 91, fax 089/4 70 50 90.Rating: Excellent 16/20
    • Moderate to Expensive
      1. Platzl Hotel, Sparkassenstrasse 10, Munich 21, phone 089/ 37 03-0, fax 089/23 70 3800.Rating: Above Average 15/20
      2. Hotel Exquisit, Pettenkoferstrasse 3, D-8000, Munich 2, telephone 089/5519900, fax 089/55199499.Rating: Above Average 15/20
      3. Hotel Domus, St.-Anna-Strasse 31, D-8000 Munich 22, phone 089/221704, fax 089/2285359.Rating: Above Average 14/20
      4. Preysing, Preysingstrasse 1, Munich 80, phone 089/48 10 11, fax 089/4 47 09 98.Rating: Above Average 14/20
      5. Splendid, garni, Maximilianstrasse 54, Munich 22, phone 089/29 66 06, fax 089/2 91 31 76.Rating: Above Average 14/20
    • Moderate
      1. Olympic Hotel, Hans-Sachs-Strasse 4, D-8000 Munich 5, telephone 089/231890, fax 089/2318 9199.Rating: Above Average 14/20
      2. Hotel Adria, Liebigstrasse 8a, D-8000 Munich 22, phone 089/29308183, fax 089/227015.Rating: Above Average 13/20 $
      3. Hotel Kraft, Schillerstrasse 49, D-8000 Munich 2, phone 089/59482324, fax 089/5232856.Rating: Above Average 13/20 $
      4. Hotel an der Opera, Falkenturmstrasse 10, Munich 2, phone 089/2 90 02 70 fax 089/29 00 27 29.Rating: Above Average 13/20
      5. Hotel Müller, Fliegenstrasse 4, D-8000 Munich 2, telephone 089/266063, fax 089/268624.Rating: Average 11/20
      6. Hotel Uhland, Uhlandstrasse 1, D-8000 Munich 2, phone 089/539277, fax 089/531114.Rating: Average 11/20 $
      7. Hotel Bavaria, Gollierstrasse 9, D-8000 Munich 2, phone 089/501078, fax 089/5026856.Rating: Average 10/20
      8. Hotel St. Paul, St.-Paul-Strasse 7, D-8000 Munich 2, phone 089/530104, fax 089/534652.Rating: Average 10/20
      9. Hotel Ariston, garni, Unsoeldstrasse 10, Munich 22, phone 089/22 26 91, fax 089/2913595.Rating: Average 10/20
      10. Adler, Kohlstrasse 9, D-8000 Munich 2, phone 089/22399192, fax 089/2289437.Rating: Adequate 7/20 $