I’m religiously a wine person. My interest in beer is very much like my cats’ enthusiasm for vegetables. But one touch-and-go visit to Munich leaves me in a peculiar beer-withdrawal frenzy, itching to go back to the beer capital of the world for one more sip of the cold and comforting brew.
When I first landed in Munich, I did not suspect it was going to be my personal journey from indifference to beer worship. It began with a walking tour of the city. The tour guide, Aileen, picked the quieter southern edge of bustling Marienplatz, the central square, so she didn’t have to shout over the pack of tourists and locals to be heard by her own flock of 40 odd first-timers in the city. “München (Munich’s German moniker),” she explained, “derived its name from the monks who settled the city.” I zoned in and out while fidgeting with the panorama settings of my iPhone to capture the City Hall’s towering neo-gothic facade. She was saying something about the monks brewing their own beer because the city’s water supply wasn’t fit for consumption. But what seemed like a fun fact about Munich developed into a formidable narrative. As she continued, my tiny image of a couple of bored monks holding lanterns to check the status of their only beer barrel shattered to reveal the history of German beer with Munich at its heart.
Everything in the city proudly shouts “beer”, it is what Munich is unmistakably famous for, but I had, quite embarrassingly, missed seeing the plethora of beer souvenirs and the ubiquitous Biergarten altogether. Suddenly, the dots connected.
“Can you guess the most important job of the Mayor of Munich?” Aileen asked.
“Opening the Oktoberfest!” I said, channelling my inner Sherlock Holmes.
“That’s right,” she smiled as my self-congratulatory triumph fizzed away into the obviousness of my response. Of course, it was the Oktoberfest.
My beer curiosity was piqued but my beer conversion came later that evening on a beer tour Aileen recommended. Jesse, the new guide with a new group, took us to Paulaner, one of the original Munich breweries. Our group of six planted itself around a quintessential Biergarten table. It was a Monday night, a fact of life that didn’t deter the hundreds of Müncheners bonding over their drinks. Soon my beer arrived. Beads of condensation hugged the dimpled glass of shimmering liquid gold. It was a maß of helles, Munich-speak for one litre of light brew. Next to it was some Brotzeit, a salt-freckled pretzel, to pair with the lager.
Somewhere between the Bier and Brotzeit, Jesse began the fascinating story of the Reinheitsgebot, the 500-year old German Beer Purity Law, which dictates the ingredients: malt, hops, yeast, and water.
“There’s a beer purity law?!” I was stunned as my ordinary glass of beer metamorphosed into half a millennium of carefully crafted tradition. The law, which Jesse continued to unpack, was full of tales of consumer protection, international trade, and even how the fracking industry had not taken off in Germany because the Reinheitsgebot would not tolerate polluted ground water potentially lowering the quality of German beer. It felt like the monks who had created Munich’s first beer were now the guardian angels of my bittersweet beverage, infusing it with a constitutional flavour that was both mathematical and mystical. “Prost!” Our glasses clinked.
Back home in Washington D.C., I predictably order beer. When it arrives, my eyes widen with the thirsty anticipation of a drug addict. I take a big gulp.
“Happy?” my husband asks, hoping this pint will settle my new-found obsession with beer.
“Hmmm…” My tone is spiked with disappointment. I take another smaller sip to see what this drink is. I put it down and politely distance the glass from myself.
“It doesn’t comply with the Reinheitsgebot,” I sigh, coming to my beer-avoidant senses, realising that I’m in love not with beer itself but everything that it represents in Munich. Like a purist, I know nothing served outside München would work for me. Almost reflexively, my hands slip into my pocket to grab my phone and start looking for flights. Oktoberfest isn’t far!
What, Where, When?
With over six million people consuming almost eight million litres of beer, Oktoberfest is probably the largest party on the planet, complete with music, costumes, rides, and parades. All beer at the Oktoberfest comes from Munich’s six original breweries—Augustiner, Hacker-Pschorr, Hofbräu, Löwenbräu, Paulaner, Spaten-Franziskaner—all of which strictly adhere to the Reinheitsgebot and as per Oktoberfest law, are brewed within Munich’s city limits. Oktoberfest takes place every year between late September and early October at Theresienwiese, a well-connected area in central Munich. This year, it is from September 22 to October 7 (https://www.oktoberfest.de/en/; check the website for additional information on timings and how to get there; entry to the tents is free, but it is better to make a reservation; a litre of beer starts from €9.7/Rs825, snacks from €5/Rs425).
What Should I Wear?
You are up against unpredictable autumn weather. If it’s warm enough, you can get away with a t-shirt. But carry a lined jacket for the evening when it will get colder. Bring an umbrella to avoid surprises. Feeling local? Try on a Dirndl (wide skirt dress with a tight bodice) or Lederhosen (leather shorts or pants worn with suspenders).
What Should I Absolutely Do?
Check out at least 3-4 beer tents; they are all different with unique touches of their parent breweries.
What Should I Absolutely Not Do?
Do not take your passport to the Oktoberfest! Leave it behind in the hotel locker. Also, bags with a capacity more than 3L are not allowed in the festival, so carry essentials only.
Carry enough cash (euros only), arrive early, and pace yourself so you aren’t wasted by noon.
Aanchal Anand is a travel addict who has been to over 50 countries across 5 continents. When she isn't travelling, she is typically coaxing her two cats off the laptop keyboard so she can get some writing done.