Building Oktoberfest

Mark Dredge goes behind the scenes, to find out what it takes to stage the world’s most iconic beer festival
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At midday on Saturday 22 September, Dieter Reiter, the Mayor of Munich, will take a heavy wooden hammer in his right hand and a golden beer tap in his left. He’ll line up the tap and give it two, three, maybe four thumps into the great barrel and then someone will thrust a microphone under his nose and he’ll declare “O’zapft is!” It’s tapped!

A thunderous gun salute will be heard by everyone in Munich, then the Mayor will open the tap and pour fresh Spaten beer into a stone mug, and with that the world’s greatest and most famous beer drinking event begins. But what does it take to actually make Oktoberfest? What happens in the days and weeks before that first barrel is tapped and how does the whole festival work?

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Die Wiesn is what the locals colloquially call Oktoberfest and that’s derivative of Theresienwiese, where the festival takes place, and which was named after Princess Therese whose wedding in 1810 started this great celebration. It used to be a wonderful meadow but now it’s a slab of gravel and concrete that’s so huge you could lay out – in that common measurement of uncommonly large things – 77 football fields over it.

The first job, starting in the middle of July, around 10 weeks before the opening, is to dig up the top layer of concrete to get to foundation blocks beneath them. From these permanent foundations, the external structures of the tents are erected by mammoth cranes with minute accuracy before the concrete and ground is levelled back over. There are 14 big tents and 20 small ones to build, with each big tent needing around 80 people working on it.

Pletschacher are the building company who put up, take down and run the logistics for about 80% of the tents. They also manage 23,000m2 of storage space where all of Oktoberfest’s stuff is held outside of the festival. For weeks, 1,000 truckloads will travel from that storage space and bring the tents and their contents in containers to the Wiesn and then everything is constructed like the largest, most-complicated Ikea set you’ve ever seen, with huge girders and beams, canvases and staircases, moveable walls with doors and windows, and everything else, which all flatpacks together.

Once the outside is up, which is the most important thing to do, then the second-most important thing happens: the brewery puts their logo on top. After this, a great canvas cover is stretched over the structure, the floor goes in and then work properly begins inside: internal structures like walls, bandstands and mezzanine levels are built; the tapping stations, kitchens and toilets are added; all the plumbing and electrics are fitted; and then all the tables and benches and decoration goes in. A couple of weeks before the festival begins there’ll be 800 people working on site (here’s a fun fact: when the Schottenhamel tent, which is where the first barrel is always tapped, installed electricity in the late 19th century, an assistant electrician had the job of screwing in lightbulbs. His name was Albert Einstein).

The word ‘tent’ does these structures a grand injustice and when I say ‘big tent’ I’m not being facetious. The smallest of the big ones can seat 3,000 people. The biggest is the Hofbräu-Festzelt with space for 10,000 people; dimensions inside are 85m long by 62m wide (that’s almost one football field) and it’s 13m tall, but that’s for only 7,000 people, as there’s another 3,000 seats outside. The small ones vary in size and typically have a unique focus (often food): a few do sweet treats and baked goods, one specialises in dumplings, others are duck, fish, venison, or cheese and wine, while some focus on music. Each tent is typically rented and run by a family for the period of Oktoberfest and some of those tents have been in the same family for many generations.

What does it take to staff one big tent? Over 200 waiters; 60 cooks and 30 dishwashers; 50 people pour your beers while 10 collect the empty glasses and wash them; 10 people will be selling pretzels; 20 will be playing music; around 60 will be security; 20 are office-based; and about 25 people have to do all the cleaning. In total, during the whole festival, around 13,000 will be employed at Oktoberfest.

Each big tent has just one brewery’s beer and only the ‘Big Six’ Munich brewers can serve beer at the festival: Augustiner (in two tents), Hacker-Pschorr (two tents), Hofbrauhaus (one tent), Löwenbräu (two tents), Paulaner (three tents) and Spaten (three tents). One big tent specialises in wine and then also sells Franziskaner Weissbier (which is a Spaten-Löwenbräu brand).

The tents also only serve one special festbier from their brewery (with perhaps a radler option and one alcohol-free choice). Oktoberfestbier ranges from a golden-to-amber lager, typically 5.7-6.3% ABV, and it’s only served in a litre glass. Most breweries start brewing specifically for the festival in the last week of July, though they’ll have bottles of Oktoberfest in the supermarkets from August. Every year there’s attention focused on the beer price and in 2018 it’ll pass €11 per litre for the first time (the official Oktoberfest.de website tempered this news by saying that in some tents the price of lemonade has actually gone down compared to last year).

Three seconds. That’s how long it takes to fill a mug with a litre of beer. In Augustiner tents they pour it all from 200-litre wooden barrels (which only takes about 20 minutes to empty). The others use big serving tanks. Some have numerous ‘smaller’ (small is relative at Oktoberfest) tanks around the tent, which is how they do it in the Löwenbräu tent where they have 16 tanks each holding 5,000 litres of beer and directly connected to the tapping stations. Others have a big tank of around 28,000 litres which is connected by long, wide pipes to most of the serving stations in the tent, but there’ll also be supplementary smaller tanks because of course 28,000 litres will only last a few hours...

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On the Wednesday and Thursday before the festival begins, the tanks are filled for the first time. In the two Löwenbräu tents, that first fill will be 140,000 litres, and 188,000 litres will be split between Spaten’s three tents (I was shown around by the teams from these breweries so I know more about them, hence sharing more of their specific stats). Then every night, sometime between midnight and 9am, tankers will go to the brewery, fill cold beer directly from the lagering tanks, and drive it to the tents and refill all the serving tanks. Löwenbrau might get 75,000 litres and Spaten around 100,000 litres. Every night. People drink a lot at Oktoberfest.

They eat a lot, too. There’s food in all tents and there’s a total of 143 food vendors around the festival. The most popular beer hall dish is ‘hendl,’ spit-roast chicken, and around 500,000 birds are cooked and cut in half to serve a million portions. There’s hundreds of thousands of sausages eaten, knee-knocking quantities of pig knuckles, and god-knows-how-many pretzels. But, anecdotally, you’ll be lucky to find a single vegetable on the entire, enormous campus.

After a couple of beers, you’ll probably need to pee. Well, there are 1,500 sit down toilets, of which 32 are disabled accessible. For the fellas, there’s also 1km of urinal troughs. One whole kilometre. Thankfully not just lined up against the back wall of the festival, but still, that’s a lot of trough. I didn’t ask how the port-a-potties are cleaned – some things are better left unknown and unimagined.

Around 4,000 items of lost property are handed in every year (and did you know that every item is manually registered in an old-fashioned typewriter?). There’s a few hundred mobile phones; lots of pairs of glasses, sets of keys and wallets; over 600 items of clothing; too-many wedding rings; and some unexpected items have been left or lost in recent years, including an electric wheelchair, a toilet brush, a set of dentures, a number plate, a drinking horn, and a dachshund called ‘Wasti’. As well as leaving things behind, some people try to take stuff with them and in 2017, 120,000 people attempted to take their glass out with them. You aren’t allowed to take your glass, ok (but you can buy a souvenir one).

And if you haven’t been, you might not know that the beer tents only cover half of the Oktoberfest grounds, and the other half is funfairs, rides and entertainment, with space for around 200 different attractions ranging from terrifying to traditional. The 46m-tall Ferris Wheel is the most prominent visual spectacle as it spins at the end of Wirtsbudenstraße, the boulevard of beer for all the big tents.

All of this adds up to over seven million litres of beer being drunk by over six million visitors across the 16 days of the festival. But let’s go back to day one and to midday in the Schottenhamel tent. Already on that morning there’ll have been a two-hour, seven-kilometre, and 9,000-person parade, and all the beer tents will already be full (but no one has a beer yet – imagine what that’s like!). With the tap and hammer in hand, a 10-to-one countdown begins. When the mayor has declared “O’zapft is!”, the Böllerschützen, the shooting club who have been waiting in front of the Bavaria statue, will fire their gun canon salute. The taps will be opened to the cheers of over a hundred-thousand people, the Ferris Wheel will begin to turn, and Oktoberfest will have begun for another year.

When those guns fire again on Sunday 7 October the city will know that’s it’s over, although there’s still a lot of work to do to take down those tents and box everything back up again. And they have to hurry: they have to be off-site in five weeks.

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