A little history first.
Oktoberfest started out as a celebration for Crown Prince Ludwig's wedding on October 12th in 1810. He was married to Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen. As was the Bavarian tradition, a series of horse races were held. After the event, the grounds were named Theresienwiese ("Theresa's meadow") after the Prince's bride.
The city of Munich decided to hold races, with an agricultural show, the next year, and Oktoberfest was born!
Now, beer has always been a HUGE part of Bavarian culture, mainly because the water in the region has always had a good deal of bacteria growing in it. The boiling process in the brewing of beer killed the bacteria, and the hops used to spice the beer acted as a natural antibiotic, so the bacteria never had a chance to grow back. Thus, beer was drank instead of water. Over the years, the festival became more and more focused on beer than on horse racing or agriculture. Today it is mostly about beer.
There is only one style of beer served at Oktoberfest. It must conform to the Reinheitsgebot or the ancient German beer purity law. The Reinheitsgebot states that the ingredients of beer can only be barley malt, water, hops, and yeast. Also the beer served at Oktoberfest must only be brewed IN Munich. This limits the beer vendors to just 6 breweries.
The beer style is the Oktoberfest beer or Märzen style. Why Märzen?? Well, before refrigeration, it was nearly impossible to brew beer in the summer due to the hot weather and bacterial infections. Brewing ended with the coming of spring, and began again in the fall. Most beers were brewed in March (Märzen get it??). These brews were kept in cold storage cellars over the spring and summer months, or brewed at a higher gravity, so theyd keep.
Oktoberfest celebrates the beginning of fall, and the new brewing season, so the beer that was served in the good old days was all of the left over beer that the brewers wanted to get rid of before their fresh brews were ready.
Now, because the beers that were to last throughout the summer were brewed with a little bit more hop and a little bit higher gravity, and set to ferment longer than other German beers, they tended to be full-bodied, rich, toasty, typically dark copper in color with a medium to high alcohol content.
The common Munich Oktoberfest beer served at Wies'n (what the locals call the Theresienwiese) contains roughly 5.0-6.0% alcohol by volume.
Who has the best beer? That you will have to taste for your self, but, in my opinion the Augustiner-Bräu version is the best. It also has the added touch of authenticity of being fermented in the traditional large wooden barrels. It is not as high in alcohol as the other brews, but it is much more complex and rich in its taste.
Because the early Oktoberfests were mainly agricultural shows, the people who attended them tended to be of the farming class. And what did these farmers of Bavaria wear? Lederhosen!!!!
Today you can go to Oktoberfest without wearing lederhosen, but it is much more fun if you do!!
What I found was this... the Munich locals tended to be kind of aloof of most of the visitors. If you were wearing normal clothes, they kind of pretended you weren't there. They really wouldn't go out of their way to let you sit at their table, but they wouldn't prevent you from sitting down either.
If you were wearing on e of the really stupid Oktoberfest hats, they treat you with outright disdain. They actively prevented you from sitting down with them or even being in their general area.
If you were wearing a bad quality lederhosen they might give you a little nod, but mainly they rolled their eyes at you. They would let you sit down, and might even make a little room for you.
If you show up wearing a good quality lederhosen, it is very easy to tell the difference between good and bad lederhosen, the correct shirt, and a good traditional hat, the locals treat you like one of their own. They make room for you at their tables, they ask you who you are and where you are from. I had one table insist on buying us beer when they learned that we were from the United States. This was the same table that told the guy with the funny hat to pound sand.
So... What tips do I have for Oktoberfest?
- Buy some good quality lederhosen. I went to Angermaier in Munich. They sell the good stuff. You will end up spending about 200 Euro for a full outfit, so plan for that. You can get away with lower quality stuff, but see above for the local's reaction. We went all out, and the reception we got from the locals was well worth it. They went well out of their way in every tent to make sure we had a seat, beer, if we needed help with food, everything. Those not dressed as we were did NOT get that same treatment.
- Find a day during the week to go. The tents hold about 10,000 people, and they fill up FAST. If you go during the week, you might get a seat without a reservation.
If you go on a weekend, or on the holiday, forget about getting in to a tent. The tables will be mostly reserved, and you just won't get in.
- If you ARE going on a weekend, you can get a table reservation online. Do it WELL in advance, because they go fast. Unfortunately, you will have to stay there the whole time because, "Shuffle your feet loose your seat" rules are in FULL effect.
- Tip your server FIRST. Yes, yes, yes, you aren't supposed to tip in Germany. That's if you are not competing with 3,000 or more people for a single waiter. If you give the server an extra 10 Euro after when she comes with your first beer, you can rest assured that she will visit you often, and bring you your food and beer quickly.
- Do a little research and know how to pronounce the food choices, AND what you want to have, before you sit down... The servers do not speak English and they don't have time to wait while you stumble over words or try to decide what you want to eat.
- There is only one style of beer, Märzen, and there is only one size, 1 liter. Each beer costs about 10 Euro, so bring enough cash.
- The beer is STRONG. Be careful. Take it easy and drink slow. If you are dressed correctly, many people will want to cheers with you, so just sip. The beer sizes are huge, and it is very easy to drink too much.
- I suggest that you go to the Augustiner-Bräu tent first. They have traditional bands and traditional dancing. Lots and lots and lots of fun.
- If you stand up in the Hofbräu tent to chug a liter, you better be prepared to drink it very fast and not spill a drop. If you spill even a little bit, or if you drink too slowly, the entire crowd will jeer you and throw pretzel pieces at you.
- End your night in the Hofbräu tent. It seats almost 13,000 and they play Mowtown. You can get up on the benches and sing with the crowd.