Photo by Joshua Skovlund/Coffee or Die.
For the majority of my life, Oktoberfest has been just another tradition — like Cinco de Mayo and St. Patrick’s Day — that we Americans appropriated for the express purpose of drinking our freakin’ faces off. I didn’t know much about the festivities other than thinking it is held in October and that it’s of German origin. But I never bothered to look into it — until this year.
A few weeks ago, I arrived in Germany — Bavaria, to be specific — to cover a large multinational military exercise called Operation Saber Junction. That’s when I found out that Oktoberfest is mainly in September (it ended today, October 6), and that it’s not so much a German holiday as it is a Munich festival. Not only was I in Germany at the right time to attend, I was only 90 minutes away.
I had to go. As a beer drinking American of Norse descent, attending was damn near my duty.
My cameraman (who also happens to be my younger brother), two of our public affairs compatriots, and I made plans to head down for a day during the mid-exercise after action report (AAR). The only real advice we were given was to head for the Löwenbräu tent as opposed to some of the more tourist-y offerings. Other than that, I went into this experience naive and woefully unprepared for what was in store. Here are a few of the lessons I learned the hard way — so that you don’t have to — at the king of all beer festivals!
Sure, I had seen Oktoberfest portrayed in movies and the media, but I always thought that wearing Lederhosen and other traditional Bavarian clothing was just something that over-eager tourists did.
Nope. Almost everyone in attendance was wearing either some or all of the traditional clothing, and I would say that the few people I saw not wearing it were tourists. We realized this within a minute of stepping off the train in Munich and were determined to not fall short of getting the full Oktoberfest experience. Unfortunately, the only shops we could find were obviously oriented at tourists. After seeing the price tag on Lederhosen, we limited our purchase to the traditional vests and hats.
After donning our Bavarian garb just outside the store we bought it in, we made the two kilometer walk to the Theresienwiese, or Theresa’s Meadows, where Oktoberfest is held.
After arriving at what looks like a large fairground, complete with ferris wheels and carnival food stands, we searched out the Löwenbräu-Festzelt, passing under the massive roaring lion as we entered.
The Löwenbräu “tent” has had a presence at the festival since 1910 and holds 8,500 people when at maximum capacity (which it regularly reaches), but Löwenbräu beer has been served at the festival since it’s inaugural year in 1810. They actually make and serve a special Oktoberfestbier, and I assumed that the massive mugs you see in movies were an option, but not the only option. Surely they served more modest portions?
Nope. At Oktoberfest, beer is served one liter at a time. There goes any hope of moderation, I thought, as we all told our waitress, “Ein bier, bitte.”
The first round arrived and our very American group of four hoisted the massive glass mugs into the air while delivering a hardy “Prost!” I slammed my mug on the table and then brought it to my lips, tasting the fine Bavarian beer for the first time. It was good. It was really good.
That first liter went pretty fast. So did the second, and before long we were ordering our third. No problem though, right? I’m sure they water this stuff down for a big festival like this, I thought.
Look, I’m not 22 anymore. My alcohol tolerance just isn’t what it used to be — and that’s what I thought was the culprit as my vision started to resemble a tunnel and my fine motor skills started to go. But it turns out they don’t water down the beer. In fact, at 6.2 percent alcohol, it’s about twice as strong as many American beers, and I was unwittingly downing a liter at a time.
As the afternoon turned into early evening, patrons started to stand on the table, going bottoms up for all to see before turning their mug upside down over their head in order to triumphantly show all 8,000 of their new best friends that they had made their ancestors proud and not left a single drop to land on their head.
To be fair, I didn’t know that I was drinking such a strong beer at the time. After my third liter was down, I can’t accurately recall the rest of the evening, but fortunately I had a camera that was running on video mode for most of the night. Upon review of that footage, I was slurring my speech before the sun was down, and walking in a straight line was clearly out of the question by the end of the fourth liter.
Had I known the golden elixir born of the Bavarian gods was served a liter at a time — and that it was so strong — I would have starting drinking later in the day. Because that’s what responsible adults do.
But I didn’t do that. And I paid dearly.
My evening became a series of flashes between inside and out, people in Lederhosen and Dirndl’s dancing in what seemed like slow motion on top of the tables, saying “Sehr güt” to everyone I met, and apologizing for my profanity in front of the few young children present. I’d like to think I wouldn’t have started cussing until all the kids had turned in had I started drinking at a more reasonable hour. Like 8 PM. Or maybe 10.
But if I’m being honest, there was probably no stopping the trainwreck I became.
When you plan to go drinking, you should have a plan. When you plan to go drinking in a foreign country, two hours away from your Airbnb, you should have a really good, rock solid plan. In the military, we use the acronym PACE, which stands for Primary, Alternate, Contingency, and Emergency. Civilians would just call it Plan A, B, C, and “What to do in case everything goes to hell.”
I don’t recall us planning any further than P. And that was mostly my fault because I’m one of those guys that thinks everything is more fun when you just wing it. And we did have fun, thanks in no small part to a group of former U.S. Marines/current Boston Fire Department guys we found, as well as a few of my fellow South Dakotans we discovered and who shared their table with us for a while.
But we had a train to catch back home that night (we didn’t) and needed to be ready to go back to work the next day. So I should have embraced planning. This became very clear once we all got separated, had missed the train, and got so drunk that I forgot what my name was. For inquiring minds, I lost count at five liters.
This is where using another thing I learned in the military — establishing your “black and gold” — would have come in handy. Your black and gold are basically the two rendezvous points that you plan to meet at should your patrol base be overrun. If we had that in place, we would have had a way to link up after being separated. And, yes, that Oktoberfestbier definitely overran my patrol base.
You may be wondering, Why didn’t you just call each other after becoming separated? Well, that would definitely make sense. And I did try, but to no avail. I imagine liters upon liters of beer will make it somewhat difficult to detect an incoming call in a tent packed with 8,000 people doing their damndest to simultaneously guzzle Bavarian beer a liter at a time and scream the words to random Bon Jovi hits.
At some point, my phone died, making it impossible for anyone to call me back. But like the Gulf of Tonkin or the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, the consequences were far reaching. I had no way to use Google Translate, no way to navigate my way back to the train station, and no way to drop a pin to my location. Dire straits, indeed.
This development solidified the idea that I was unlikely to find my group again and that I was probably on my own. So, as one does in such a situation, I sat down at a table, grabbed another liter, and started telling my best drunk, exaggerated story to some Australians who seemed to either be laughing with me or at me … I’m not sure. Probably the latter, as the Aussies can hold their booze quite well, from what I can tell.
How did we get separated? From what I can tell, it all started with the first fight of the evening. Or at least the first fight I saw. I was actually pretty impressed by how chill and friendly 8,000 drunk people can be, but like Thanos, the drunken brawl is inevitable.
For those who’ve never met me in person, I stand 6-foot-5 and weigh in around 260. My point is, I’m not usually the first person people go for when looking for a fight. And I’m glad because the fights that did break out — well, let’s just say the German Polizei don’t fuck around.
I was standing with our two U.S. Army public affairs escorts (who deserve a lot of credit for putting up with all of this) when suddenly a fury of flying limbs tumbled out of the tent. Within seconds, about a half dozen Polizei were on top of them, knee in throat. I initially moved toward the fight in the short time before they intervened, but after things got out of control I found myself … alone. It dawned on me that I was not just alone, but alone at the time of night when people were starting to fight. And my biggest concern was not that I don’t trust other people, it’s that I don’t trust myself.
I should break from the story to point out that this article is about things I learned the hard way, and you could argue I didn’t learn this particular lesson the hard way. But I hope by bringing it up to you, future Oktoberfest-goer, that you’ll avoid actually learning this lesson the hard way. Don’t be fooled by the friendliness and cheerfulness that envelops the evening — fights can and do break out. Keep your wits sharp and fists hard, just in case.
Alone, and with the lights on the ferris wheel turning off, I departed solo and sans Google Maps to make my journey back to the main train station. I figured everyone else had already hopped on a train back, and it would be up to me to make my way home.
Well, to no one’s surprise at this point in the story, I walked about 3 kilometers in the wrong direction, and then another 5 back, before finding the 24-hour train station where we had arrived seemingly forever ago. A big shout out to the multiple Polizei officers I consulted for directions that made this possible. Your patience with this large, very inebriated American was appreciated. Unfortunately, our return train had departed at least six hours ago, and the next available train wasn’t departing for another four hours.
So, I did what any reasonable person would do in that situation: I watched bum fights and drank beer with an Iraqi Kurd who loved Americans and apparently felt obligated to buy them beer for saving him from ISIS. It should be noted (and I made this clear to him) that I did nothing to save him or his people from ISIS. But I wasn’t going to be rude and turn the beer down. My only other option, it seemed, was to join in the bum fights.
Fortunately, it couldn’t have been more than an hour before I saw my brother wander into the train station. I called out to him, and we were relieved to find each other. I updated him on the situation with the trains. We resolved to accept the invitation of a Chinese woman in a Dirndl and two German mechanics to go to the 24-hour Burger King at the train station and eat Pommes Frites and watch drunk Oktoberfest patrons pass out all over the train station. And that’s exactly what we did.
We made that next train, returning to the bowels of Bavaria with our first Oktoberfest under our belt. Sehr güt, sehr güt indeed.
Marty Skovlund Jr. was the executive editor of Coffee or Die. As a journalist, Marty has covered the Standing Rock protest in North Dakota, embedded with American special operation forces in Afghanistan, and broken stories about the first females to make it through infantry training and Ranger selection. He has also published two books, appeared as a co-host on History Channel’s JFK Declassified, and produced multiple award-winning independent films.