Five Facts About Oktoberfest You Probably Don’t Know Yet

The Biggest Volksfest in the World

Men in their traditional Bavarian clothing clink beer mugs at Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany
The Oktoberfest is full of traditions. Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images News/Getty Images

As September inevitably segues from summer to autumn, Germany’s daylight hours shorten appreciably. This change of seasons is worldwide, but, in Munich (München), in southern Germany, the locals and the tourists brace for a festive event of an altogether different sort. Munich, a modern city in all senses of the word, is the capital of Bavaria (Bayern). It lies on the edge of the Alps; it’s Bavaria’s largest city and Germany’s third largest.

The Isar River, which originates near Innsbruck, Austria, flows through Munich on its way to join the Danube (Donau) near Regensberg. At this time of year, some say the flow of the Isar is more than matched by the flow of ​beer.

For two weeks this year, from 19 September through 04 October, Munich’s huge assortment of international companies, world-renowned brands, high-technology resources, and exquisitely graceful fairy-tale-like architecture compose the backdrop for the annual German cliché, the 182nd Oktoberfest. For those living in Munich, it will be two thrilling weeks of lederhosen, beer, and tipsy tourists. If raucous revelry on a city-wide scale is not to your liking, you’d be well advised to leave downtown Munich until the festivities end. If you live near the Festwiese, the epicenter of the partying, you better close your windows tightly and get used to the smell of spilled beer mixed with puke.

There are not only nice things to tell about the Wiesn, but also endearing ones. Here are five important, lesser-known facts about Oktoberfest which might surprise you.

1. The First Day of Oktoberfest

Oktoberfest embraces numerous traditions, most of them commemorated at the very beginning of this annual celebration.

The first day of the so-called “Wiesn” is the most traditional one and it follows a strict timetable. In the morning, the “Festzug” (parade) takes place. The “Wiesnwirte,” the landlords of the fest-tents, are the main participants. They are soon joined by waitresses, brewers, and old-fashioned Bavarian shooting associations.

The two parades head toward the “Theresienwiese” where the actual Oktoberfest takes place. Horses pull big wagons with wooden kegs of beer, gunners fire salutes, and the Münchner Kindl, the personified coat of arms of the city of Munich showing a child in a hood, leads the parade. At the same time, thousands of people, sitting in the 14 huge tents, await Oktoberfest’s official opening. The atmosphere will be convivial, but dry: They won’t get a sip of the good Bavarian brew before . . .

2. O’zapft Is!

. . . the mayor of Munich starts Oktoberfest at high noon by tapping the first keg. This tradition began in 1950, when mayor Thomas Wimmer initiated the ceremonial tapping of the keg. It took Wimmer 19 hits to fix the big tap properly into the huge wooden keg—traditionally called a “Hirsch” (deer). All wooden kegs come with the names of different animals. The deer has a capacity of 200 liters which is the weight of a deer.

The mayor will tap the keg at exactly high noon on the first Saturday of Oktoberfest and call the famous and eagerly anticipated phrase: “O’zapft is! Auf eine friedliche Wiesn!” (It is tapped!—for a peaceful Wiesn). It’s the signal for the waitresses to serve the first mugs. This tapping ceremony is broadcast live on television and the number of strokes the mayor will need to tap the keg are wildly speculated on before the event. By the way, the best performance was delivered by Christian Ude, mayor between 1993-2014, with only two hits (opening the 2013 Oktoberfest).

Traditional Bavarian gunners will immediately fire two shots out of a “Böllerkanone” just below the memorial of the Bavaria, an 18Ω-meter tall statue which is the female personification of the Bavarian homeland and, by extension, its strength and glory.

The first Maß, i.e., the first beer of the Oktoberfest, is traditionally reserved for the Bavarian prime-minister. “Wiesn” is local Bavarian dialect for both Oktoberfest itself and for “Theresienwiese,” i.e., the meadow where it all began decades ago. 

3. The Maß

The typical Oktoberfest mug contains one liter of “Festbier,” which is a special brew made for the Oktoberfest by a few select breweries. The mugs can be filled very quickly (an experienced waiter can fill one in 1.5 seconds) and, from time to time, a mug could end up with less than a liter of beer. Such a tragedy is deemed a “Schankbetrug” (pouring-fraud). There is even an association, the “Verein gegen betrügerisches Einschenken e.V.” (association against fraudulent pouring), which makes spot checks to guarantee that everybody will get the right amount of beer. To make fraud even more difficult, the “Maßkrüge” are made of glass. If you want to drink your beer out of a traditional “Stein” (stone mug), you can visit the “Oide Wiesn” (old Wiesn), a special Oktoberfest area where you can experience Oktoberfest as it was practiced in days of yore, with old-fashioned “Blasmusik” (brass-band music) and original attractions from 1900 through the 1980s.

Taking your Maß home isn’t a good idea because it is seen as theft and might lead to getting acquainted with the Bavarian police. But, of course, you can buy one as a souvenir. Sadly, the delightful beer, with its slightly higher alcohol content, combined with a heavy mug in one’s hand, frequently leads to harsh “Bierzeltschlägereien” (beer-tent brawling), fights that can end very seriously.

To avoid that and other criminal acts, the police patrol the Festwiese.

4. The Police

Every officer on duty volunteers his/her time for Oktoberfest. For most of them, it’s both an honor and a significant challenge. The high amounts of alcohol consumed on the Wiesn lead to numerous fights and beatings. Besides that, the dark sides of Oktoberfest include theft and rape. Three hundred police officers are therefore on duty in the local police-station which is located in an underground building beneath the Theresienwiese. Additionally, over 300 more officers make sure that this mass event remains safe. If you plan to visit this episode of Bavarian madness, you should be aware of the dangers caused by thousands of drunk people all over the place. Especially as a tourist or non-Bavarian, you should also be aware of the beer.

5. The Beer

It is not harmless, but it is, or can be, delightfully mischievous. Oktoberfestbier is not an ordinary beer, especially for those who come from the USA or Australia. German beer itself is rather strong in taste and alcohol, but Oktoberfestbier is even stronger. It must contain between 5.8% to 6.4% alcohol and be brewed in one of the six Munich-based breweries. Besides that, the beer is very “süffig” (tasty), which means that you will empty your mug much quicker than you might have intended—one does not sip “Festbier” daintily. That’s why so many tourists, unfamiliar with German beer, can be found on the “Besoffenenhügel” (hill of the drunks) after three or four Maß—a little hill where all the wasted people sleep off their Wiesn experience.

If you don’t want to end up there, just enjoy the fest as the locals do: have a “Brezn” (a typical Munich pretzel), drink slowly, and enjoy the annual Bavarian madhouse.