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Celebrating beer like a German

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Not a fan of crowds, I have never been all that interested in attending Oktoberfest. However, over the past few years tasting fresh Bavarian beers at Taps in Petaluma, I have grown to really love everything that Munich breweries have to offer. As the trip grew closer, I started to anxiously anticipate getting to taste the six official Oktoberfest beers.

Oktoberfest is the world’s largest beer and folk festival in the world, welcoming over 7 million visitors each year, with roughly three-quarters of those coming from Bavaria and the rest visiting from around the world. At slightly over two weeks, depending on the year, the event actually culminates on the first weekend of October, making it more a SeptemberFest.

The numerous beer tents, both large and small, tap close to 2 million gallons of beer through the festival, but as we found out, this is more than just a beer guzzling party and was not nearly the mosh pit we had expected, even when arriving in the 10th hour of Thursday’s drinking for many of these folks.

Through fairly strict drinking etiquette laws, as well as other safety measures, visiting one of the big tents is like sitting around drinking, eating and singing, packed shoulder to shoulder, with 5,000 of your best friends. Everyone is friendly and folks at Oktoberfest are much more prone to buy someone a beer than get in a fight. It was an extremely pleasant experience.

Oktoberfest was first held in 1810, when the locally citizenry were invited to celebrate the marriage of Prince Ludwig and Princess Therese by partying on in the fields in front of the Munich city gates and has continued at that spot ever since. Only beer from Munich breweries can be served, with those six breweries building and hosting at the seven biggest tents at the event. (Two breweries joined forces a few decades ago but still have separate tents.)

The brews poured are generally called “fest” beers and are light and easy to drink, which is good because in most tents they only serve by the liter, which is roughly two pints. The six beers served at Oktoberfest are Hacker-Pschorr, Löwenbräu, Paulaner, Spaten, Hofbräu, and Augustiner, the last one being Münchners’ favorite and also the hardest to find outside of Bavaria. Augustiner is also the only Oktoberfest beer delivered and served from wooden kegs, even though you will see plenty of barrels on the horse drawn carriage which parade in and out of the grounds each day.

With only a day and half to visit, we really had to buckle down in order to visit all seven main tents, try all six main beers and taste as much of the Bavarian food as we could. I am happy to report that we not only did it, but loved it so much that we are already planning our trip to visit again next fall. One trick that helped us get through was that we ordered and shared just one beer per tent. That still put our overall intake at roughly a gallon each, but spread out over two days left us no worse for the wear.

Even though Oktoberfest serves my favorite styles of beer, which are malty and light, I am still all about the food and was not disappointed. We loved just about everything we ate. Along with a huge variety of hot roasted nuts, which we snacked on as we walked around, we also tried oxen, roasted chicken, roasted duck, currywurst, Schupfnudel and Steckerlfisch.

Other than beer, Oktoberfest is best known for roasted chicken but also specializes in duck. After a visit to the Hacker tent for our first liter of beer, we started to our first night’s food order with an excellent duck burger and what turned out to be a sub-par currywurst. Chef Abe’s Oktoberfest currywurst at Taps Petaluma is much better, in our opinion. And although some will call me crazy, we much prefer the pretzels in Petaluma to those we tasted all over Germany, Austria and Czechia, which tended to more tough and crumbly. However, they all made up for it by offering excellent mustards for dipping.

After our second beer at the Spaten tent, where we witnessed a roaring rendition of AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell,” we found a food vendor with something that appeared to be similar to spätzle. We ordered a healthy serving of Schupfnudel, which are also called “finger noodles,” and in this case were cooked with sauerkraut and speck, which is the German’s answer to prosciutto.

We were on the prowl for spätzle, which is an egg noodle dish, which both Chef Abe and Pub Republic make excellent examples of. We learned later that spätzle is a northern Bavaria dish, so not normally served in the southern Bavarian city of Munich.

Our host Gaby took us out the next morning for a traditional Munich breakfast, in the meat-packing district, which certainly had me excited. The restaurant’s name, Gaststätte Großmarkthalle, translates roughly to “restaurant big hall” and is known for super fresh weisswurst sausages, simple but comfortable wood décor, and the best wheat beer I have ever tasted, which was a hazy wheat beer (yes, there are also clear versions) from Paulaner called a “weissbier.”

This breakfast was not only a great chance for us to visit with our dear friend but was also eye-opening when it comes to weisswursts and weissbiers. Not a fan of our U.S. white sausages, the Munich version is speckled with herbs and spices, is made with veal and pork back bacon, and is truly delightful. They are also eaten without the casing, which Gaby taught us how to skillfully remove, Munich style. And unlike a lot of hefeweizen, even in Germany, this Paulaner was not overpowered with banana and clove flavors.

We started our second day at Oktoberfest by visiting the Hofbräu tent, which is one of the largest and most lively. After that, we waded into the Spatenbrau Ochsenbraterei, which is the main oxen serving tent for lunch. The meat we ordered left a bit to be desired, but the potatoes and slaw sides were excellent.

We learned after the fact that we had ordered the wrong dish, getting a boiled ox dish that our friend later informed us is preferred by “the older people,” instead of the ochsen braten, which is more of a roasted/pulled pork-esque oxen dish. Had our server not been the only rude person we ran into in our whole trip, he might have steered us better, but you live and learn.

After lunch, we visited the Augustiner tent, where we were again lucky to find a couple of seats, this time in the upper level. With most tables inside the tents having been reserved since the prior December, it can sometimes be a challenge to find a seat and at Oktoberfest, unless you have a seat, or are in Hofbräu’s standing area, you cannot order a beer. Thankfully, the Bavarians are a friendly bunch and often invited us to squeeze in with them, and most of the big tents have additional outdoor seating for those who came without a reservation.

We departed late afternoon for our apartment to catch a quick nap and pick up our car for the rest of our trip, only to return later in the evening to finish out our Oktoberfest tour. We started just inside the front gate with a dish that Drea had read about and I was surprised was willing to try – Steckerlfisch. Translating to “stick fish” this “dish” is literally a fish on a stick stuck into the ground and tilted over hot coals in order to cook. Pretty it is not, but hot off the stick, it was one of the best fishes we have ever eaten, clearly having been perfectly seasoned with butter, herbs and spices prior to cooking.

With the appetizer out of the way, we made it to our last two big tents to round out our six Oktoberfest beers. Both the Löwenbräu and Paulaner tents were packed to the gills, this being the final Friday night of Oktoberfest, so after a quick walk around the inside, we settled in to the outside seating for our final two beers. Then it was on to our final hunt, which was for a famous roasted duck tent I had read about prior to our trip.

Entenbraterei Heimer is smaller tent just off the main drag and has been run by the same family for over 40 years and offers party-goers a bit of a rest from the loud music and surging crowds. And unlike the other chicken and duck places, which “roast” their fowl in ovens, Heimer still roasts theirs on spits, which is why they are well known for being crispier than others.

Another major bonus of the Heimer tent is that have their own private bathrooms for their guests, which were cleaner than even our freshly cleaned hotel bathrooms throughout our trip. As predicted, Heimer came through with all gold stars when it came to their food and their service.

With the main beer tents closing down at 10 p.m., we were told to save side tents until after that time. However, when we made our way into Heimer at roughly 10:15 p.m., we found an empty restaurant, other than one table which seemed to be all servers. We asked if we could eat but were immediately told they were closed. Alexandra must have seen the disappointment on my face, as it was Heimer’s duck I had first read about and was the only Oktoberfest food I really had my heart set on.

Alex interrupted her cohorts and said that of course we could eat, but that because they were closing down already, we would only be able to get the roasted duck and roasted chicken, and beer, of course, but no sides. We gratefully accepted and ended up having one of the best meals of our entire trip.

I rarely order duck at a restaurant unless it is Petaluma’s Liberty Duck because it I find those to simply be the best. However, we made this exception because we had read so much about it and were glad we did. We also got a change to visit a little with Alex and learned some interesting facts.

The Oktoberfest tents are all temporary and are torn down and stored in shipping containers after the event. The second thing we learned was that some of those shipping containers are actually used as ballast in large ocean going vessels throughout the rest of the year, which begs the question – which tents have traveled to where and back again?

Alex was an absolute delight and while helping to close down the restaurant, constantly checked back in with us, always ready to answer whatever questions we had. Unfortunately, it was our last hour at Oktoberfest 2019, but Alex educated us with enough of the Oktoberfest traditions that we feel much better prepared for future visits, although all we can think about is revisiting the nice quiet Heimer’s tent, which just so happened to also be serving my favorite Oktoberfest beer – Hacker-Pschorr and another nice hefeweizen from Paulaner.

As we headed back to our apartment, we reflected back on our short time at Oktoberfest knowing we would return again soon.

More than just a giant frat party, Oktoberfest offers over 200 years of tradition, from the great food and drink to the fact that almost everyone there is dressed up in traditional Bavarian clothing. Next time, we are coming dressed to kill and with a few more days so we can enjoy the entire event without having to rush around only to see a small fraction of what there is to see, eat and drink.

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