Want to know everything you absolutely need to know about the German beer festival known throughout the world as Oktoberfest? Here we give a complete guide telling you everything you need to know about the Wiesn!
What is Oktoberfest?
Oktoberfest is the world’s largest annual festival with over 6 million people visiting Munich from all over the globe to join in the celebrations by drinking specially brewed German lager, dancing, enjoying the funfair and generally having a great time! Specifically, the festival is a Volksfest which means “people’s festival”. Such events always combine either a beer festival (as is the case for Oktoberfest) or wine festival with a travelling funfair! The funfair, as you might expect, will feature rides, games, and various vendors of snacks including traditional German sausages, pretzels (or bretzels in German) and sweets.
The beer for the Oktoberfest is brewed especially for the occasion and varies from year to year as the breweries compete with each other, in a sense, to win the hearts of their drinkers. It is often brewed in a style very similar to ‘Märzen’ – traditionally brewed in March and then put away for consumption at the end of the harvest season.
When is Oktoberfest? – Oktoberfest Dates
The Oktoberfest always begins (except in extremely rare circumstances like war or cholera epidemics!) on the third Saturday of September and runs for at least 16 days. If that day is October 3rd, the festival ends, otherwise it continues until October 3rd comes round – this is German Unity Day. Here’s a list of some recent and upcoming Oktoberfest dates:
2015: September 19th – October 4th
2016: September 17th – October 3rd
2017: September 16th – October 3rd
2018: September 22nd – October 7th
Most of the tents open each day between around 9am and 10am and close by 11.30pm or midnight.
Note: We are running an Oktoberfest UK event in Bristol this year called Oktoberfest for the People! come along and help us to celebrate this traditional annual celebration with authentic German Beer!
The Name & Spelling of Oktoberfest or Die Wiesn
The name Oktoberfest is actually quite an interesting word in that it remains the same in pretty much all languages! Only non-Western-latin alphabet languages have an alternative translation (except the Münchners – the people of Munich, themselves). Saying this though, it is often spelled alternatively or wrongly: with English speakers often unsure whether it’s Octoberfest, October Fest, or Oktober Fest instead! The problem is that Oktoberfest as a word only translates directly into the Munich Beer Festival – Oktoberfest!
To attempt a translation where Oktober is translated or treated separately, does away with the true Munich Beer Festival association. This is because it is only in a historical sense that it is so heavily October-related. Nowadays, the German beer festival falls much more into September, so the spelling Octoberfest is really used only to appeal to an English-speaking audience who will perhaps be less alienated by this spelling, or by mistake!
The people of Munich (or Münchners) do have their own colloquial word for the Oktoberfest though: Die Wiesn. This name is abbreviated from the name for the grounds Theresienwiese (“Theresa’s Fields”) upon which the Oktoberfest is held, named after Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen.
The History of Oktoberfest
The reason the grounds takes her name dates back to exactly the first year of the famous volksfest when Crown Prince Ludwig, later to become King Ludwig I, married her on 12 October 1810. The Royal Wedding celebration took place in the very same location as the Oktoberfest happens today! Back then though, horse races were the sole entertainment. All citizens of Munich were invited to attend and it was decided to continue the celebrations each year to follow. The grounds were renamed Theresienweise in the princesses’ honour. She became queen 15 years later.
The following year, the horse races featured an agricultural show, intended to boost Bavarian agriculture. This agricultural show still occurs every 3 years in the southern part of the festival grounds. The horse races, though, are no longer held.
As the years went by, the festival grew and changed, introducing swings, carousels and beer stands. The festival was pushed back a bit, which is why it now mostly falls in September, so that the visitors could expect warmer weather enjoy the gardens. In 1896, the beer stands were replaced by tents and the rides on offer had developed into a large funfair thanks to the rapid growth of the fairground trade from the 1870’s. The tents and beer halls were set up by the enterprising landlords, supported by the individual breweries. Bavarian lager had very recently become extremely trendy because before the 1860’s, beer was never so clean and fine as breweries hadn’t had the ability to reliably refrigerate.
Beer which is brewed for the Oktoberfest is called Oktoberfest Bier or Munich Beer. It all hails from Bavaria, a large region of Germany, in the South-East, encompassing Munich.
The history of lager is a story for another day but suffice it to say that it was very popular by the late 1890’s and so the big Bavarian breweries of the time were drafted in to produce large quantities of this type of beer for the burgeoning Oktoberfest celebrations. It is these same 6 breweries who still produce all of the official Oktoberfest beers – Paulaner, Spaten, Löwenbräu, Hofbräu, Hacker-Pschorr and Augustiner. Find out more about these Bavarian breweries at our Bavarian beer page.
The terms Munich beer and Oktoberfest beer are protected as an appellation and can technically only be used by those breweries for that particular type of beer. See: What Makes an Oktoberfest Beer?
Did you know that the Oktoberfest is actually free?! You don’t need tickets to enter – you just need to get yourself there! The funfair operators, stands, and vendors as well as the beer tents are all owned by individual people or businesses – there is no central body to pay.
But Make Reservations!
However, the beer tents get very, very crowded! By law, there are days and times when the tents operate on a first come, first served basis. If you’re not at the Oktoberfest by about 2.30pm on these days you very possibly won’t even manage to get into a tent at all! The rest of the time, most tents run a reservation schedule. You will need to contact the tents directly in order to make these reservations. The reservations are usually specific to a table, this way seasoned Oktoberfest-goers can reserve the same table each year, which, because of the way the waitressing system works, they will most likely get the same waitress!
Oh, but a table reservation in any of the tents will typically cost between €24 to €38 (£20 – £33 or $27 – $43). Once you’ve got your table though, you’ve often got it for the entire rest of the day, so many consider it well worth it! Think ahead though, many of the tents’ reservation slots are all booked out by February to March!
How do you reserve a table at the Oktoberfest?
If you visit the Beer Tents page at oktoberfest.de you’ll be able to explore all of the different beer tents at the festival and find the phone numbers, email addresses and other contact information. The tent pages also give you up to date information about the capacity of the tents, their hosting brewery, and information about the entertainment they provide.
Closer to Home
There are often Oktoberfest celebrations going on in many other countries around the same time as Oktoberfest. In fact, we at Bierhaus are organising an Oktoberfest event in Bristol, UK this year (2016). Just like the real Oktoberfest in Munich, our homage to the Munich beer festival will be free to all!
And there we have it!
Hopefully this guide helped you to understand some of the most important things to grasp about this famous German beer festival!