In the pantheon of things that people once celebrated about professional boxer Mike Tyson, his gift for oratory was seldom among them. During his prime, most of his statements to the media revolved around predictable promises of savagery in a forthcoming bout or the intent to consume an opponent’s children. These were memorable utterances in their own way, but a hair shy of profound. However, he also introduced the world to one of my favorite declarations: “Everybody has a plan till they get punched in the mouth.”
The thesis here is straightforward. Even the most fully conceptualized fight strategy has the potential to implode when a rogue jab injects some cold reality into it. Still, I believe there’s a deeper wisdom to extract from it. It speaks to the folly of expecting the world to bend to your agenda. It proposes that grace during trying moments can be as valuable as the plan to navigate them. It also reminds that you should avoid being punched in the mouth, which is unquestionably solid advice.
Two months ago, I wrote an article about “training” for Oktoberfest in Munich by proxy of familiarizing myself with Burning Beard Brewing’s take on Old World beers. I was being cheeky, sure, but on some level I truly believed that recalibrating my palate was all the preparation I needed to most fully enjoy the festival. It wasn’t until my wife needed to forcibly steer me by the lederhosen away from the tents to the hotel for a 5 p.m. bedtime that I discovered Oktoberfest punched me in the mouth.
It was then that I realized that you, gentle readership, deserved more than my half-baked theories on preparing for Oktoberfest. Here are the many lessons I gleaned from my experience.
Lesson #1 – Oktoberfest is a Gauntlet
I am veteran drinker. That’s not a brag on my liver’s durability so much as to say I can typically thread the needle of maintaining an enjoyable buzz without getting particularly sloppy. Suffice to say, Oktoberfest ruined that streak.
There are a good many variables I manage in the course of a session (pacing, hydration, intended exit time, calorie intake, et cetera) that inform decisions throughout. I didn’t appreciate that Oktoberfest would be just unfamiliar enough to throw a series of tiny monkey wrenches into that elaborate machinery.
The first clogged cog I experienced was the pressure of acquiring space in a festival tent. Unless you’re traveling with a group large enough to justify the considerable coin to reserve a table, clusters of seats can be tricky to come by. An easy solution to that is to hit the grounds early and secure a spot. It’s so logical and simple that you might not even balk at arriving when the gates open at 10 a.m. and grabbing your first stein shortly thereafter. That’s by no means too early for a beer in my book, but it’s the sort of game plan that easily sets a course towards oblivion if one isn’t mindful of it.
Once seated, the festival tents have you live life by the liter, an unfamiliar volume for metric-phobic sorts like Americans. Granted, the conversion math of roughly two pints per stein isn’t that confounding, but festbiers drink so light and refreshing that it’s trivial to fly through them quickly and lose count in the process. The encounter also serves up innumerable opportunities to toast your compatriots or participate in drinking songs, causing stein contents to inevitably whittle away. Compound all that with the expectation that an empty glass signals your seat will be rendered the same shortly thereafter and there’s always an external pressure to grab just one more.
I ordinarily consume water in equal measure to my beer intake. It’s a drag, sure, but it’s a simple compensation to prevent a crusty morning-after and slow the onboarding of additional alcohol. Oktoberfest doesn’t make this easy. Water is never free and tends to arrive in much smaller volumes relative to the beer. Even if you have the wherewithal to order it, you’ll have to endure the incredulous looks from your server who will inevitably hydration-shame you with something akin to “But that’s what the beer is for!”
Long story short, eat early, get loads of water for the table, checkpoint with friends often, and don’t let the sometimes dizzying celebration break your marathon pace.
Lesson #2 – Lederhosen Want You To Pee Your Pants
Unless you are a resident of Bavaria, odds are you wear lederhosen as often as, well, any other leather breeches. The first time you don them, their historical roots as a durable outerwear for physical labor become very apparent — they are pretty darn stiff.
Even if you take the time to hike around and season your new breeches a bit before Oktoberfest (and “season” is definitely the right word here, given how poorly leather breathes), you probably won’t put much thought into exercising its most important feature: the drop-front flap. The quasi-codpiece is far more convenient than entirely disrobing to use restroom facilities, but it doesn’t quite rate as user-friendly. When multiple liters of festbier are signaling their desire for a hasty egress, those five buttons are no more yielding than the rest of the lederhosen. Pair that with the reduced dexterity that accompanies said beverage and you have the perfect storm for a Category 5 Oopsie. I strongly suggest you practice beforehand and loosen those notches up.
Lesson #3 – The Customer Isn’t Always Right
If there’s one word to describe my experience with German hospitality workers, it would be “brisk.” That’s even a little charitable, at least against an American service industry context where smiles, check-ins, and accommodations abound. I’ll go ahead and tell you now, no, you can’t get a side salad with that instead, Karen.
In fairness, there is little time for niceties when you’re keeping the motor of Oktoberfest running. The appetites for beer and food are voracious in the Weisn tents and there’s no shortage of hustle needed. However, that tends to manifest in an attitude that you are beholden to their level of efficiency as well. Failing to have your order ready on their timetable is bound to elicit some very withering looks.
This sentiment wasn’t entirely confined to the festival grounds either. One of my favorite moments from the trip was when my request for a rauchbier at a local restaurant was met with a brief moment of consideration, followed by a “No.” I paused, assuming some justification would follow, but her stoic look was unwavering. Perhaps sensing my confusion, she followed with “It’s too smoky. Here, you have this one” while gesturing to the Augustiner helles. Now I knew full well what I was ordering, but I was so jarred by the forcefulness of her decision that I couldn’t muster the will to disagree. I submissively sipped on my pale lager, hopeful that she’d notice what a good, compliant customer I was and reconsider indulging me on the next round.
All of this is to say that there’s some truth to the cultural trope of a German embrace of efficiency, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. They appreciate it and, in turn, strive to deliver it. In the chaos of Oktoberfest you’ll welcome that effort. I realized in hindsight that Proscriptive Waitress was most likely preventing a common beer-rookie pitfall and was kind enough to do it in a non-native tongue, even if it landed poorly. And yes, I did get the rauchbier for the next round with no hassle.
On a related note, these folks absolutely deserve your gratuities and, unlike what you’ve probably heard, tipping is very much a thing in Germany. Further, like everything else in their dining experience, there are unspoken rules to abide by. When presented with a bill, the expectation is that you’ll hand them cash and declare how much change you desire back after you’ve accounted for tip. A typical tip is about 10% of the tab. Failure to do so up front can signal your lack of intent to tip, which means they almost certainly are not going to allow you to have the beer you want next time, even if you are as well-behaved as I was.
Lesson #4 – Everybody Poops, But Not In Germany
Traditional Bavarian food has always looked amazing to me. I was consumed with the idea of having crispy pork knuckle and snowball-sized dumplings swimming in dunkel gravy. The fact that it did not disappoint in the slightest when I finally got it was even more amazing. Next to all that savory majesty, the neighboring grayish heap of sauerkraut they served with it looked like a sad afterthought. I promise you, it is anything but.
First off, it was legitimately tasty. Its notable lactic bite really cut through the rich fattiness of, well, everything else, and served as a robust palate cleanser. However, there is a more important reason to indulge. Vegetables make precious few appearances in the cuisine around Oktoberfest. Sauerkraut represents your most reliable source of dietary fiber. The fact that it is also supercharged dose of probiotics means that it is one-stop-shopping for your gut-health needs. If you are not a fan of the stuff, I seriously recommend cultivating a taste for it before you arrive.
Despite the minor snags in my experience, I wouldn’t have traded it for the world. I got a chance to see Bavaria at peak Bavarian-ness. I drank enough lager to officially graduate from a Crispy Boi to a Crispy Man. In the end I took a few cultural sucker punches and still managed to move forward. I’d like to think Mike Tyson would be proud of that.