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Gruss’ Gott! Make the most of Oktoberfest

If you think your travel guide's phonetic tips for ordering a liter of beer are enough to get you through Oktoberfest without being labeled a Saupreusse (for genteel readers, a dumb tourist), maybe you should stay home.
Young men pose with beer mugs during the last day of the 173rd beer festival Oktoberfest in Munich, southern Germany, on Oct. 3, 2006. This year's Oktoberfest begins Sept. 22.Christof Stache / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

If you think your travel guide's phonetic tips for ordering a liter of beer are enough to get you through Oktoberfest without being labeled a Saupreusse (for genteel readers, a dumb tourist), maybe you should stay home.

That's because mastering a little Oktoberfest etiquette — such as learning where, when and how to eat and drink what — is key to experiencing Munich's two-week celebration of beer and Bavarian culture.

Consider wheat beers, for example. Clink the wrong end of the tall, fluted half-liter glasses they are served in and you may end up with a lap full of glass shards and beer. (Hint — toast with the bottom of the glass, which is thicker.)

Or the beer halls (Festhallen) themselves, each of which has its own vibe. If it's omp-pah you're after, you may want to skip the youthful crowd at the Schottenhamel tent (remember, beer is on tap at age 16 in Germany).

As a Munich native and veteran of numerous Oktoberfests, I've had plenty of opportunities to witness Americans' cultural stumblings (and plenty of them just stumbling drunk). So here's my survival guide to keep you from looking like a tourist.

The history
Despite its name, Oktoberfest begins in late September. This year — which marks the 174th anniversary of the annual festival — it runs from Sept. 22 to Oct. 7.

The event began in the early 1800s as a celebration to honor Bavaria and its royal family. Booths selling beer eventually were added, and by 1896 they had morphed into the now iconic beer tents.

Today, Oktoberfest is the largest folk festival in the world, and according to the Munich Tourist Office last year it saw more than 6.5 million visitors and served up nearly 7 million Mass, or liters, of beer.

The beer
The only beer on tap is that produced by Munich's six breweries — Augustiner, Hacker-Pschorr, Hofbraeu Muenchen, Loewenbraeu, Paulaner and Spaten-Franziskaner — each of which offers regular and special festival brews.

Everything is on draft, of course. The Oktoberfest brews, which are pale ales, tend to be light and sweet with low carbonation. But beware, these special brews also are about 6 percent alcohol.

And be prepared to drink up. With the exception of wheat beers, the beer is served just one way — in 1-liter steins costing about $11. But don't ask for a liter. Ask for a Mass, German for measure.

Other brews include traditional pale ales (Helles), dark ales or stouts (Dunkles) and wheat beers (Weissbier). For those who prefer their beer adulterated, there also are mixed drinks, such as a Radler, a mix of pale ale and lemon-lime soda.

Don't be surprised if you are asked to pay more than the menu price. To discourage people from taking off with the steins, you'll pay a deposit that will be refunded when you return the glass.

Speaking of steins, don't call them that. In Germany, it is a Krug.

As a rule, everyone at the table drinks together, and all glasses are "clinked" before drinking. Not making eye contact during this exchange is considered rude. The word for cheers is "Prost!"

The tents
Where to get the beer is all a matter of your scene. Beer tents are scattered throughout the Wies'n, or fairgrounds, and can accommodate thousands of people. They nevertheless fill up fast.

To get a table, arrive before noon, or make a reservation months in advance. Otherwise, it may be standing room only. Indoor and outdoor tables have wait staff, but anyone standing can order directly from the windows for beer and food.

Assuming you get a table, they are shared. If you find an empty seat, always ask before taking it — Ist hier noch frei? (Pronounced — East har nock fry?) If you're in luck, be sure to greet the others at the table — Gruss' Gott! (Grose Gott!)

Strangers often strike up conversations, so be prepared to tell people where you are from and answer questions about the U.S. Bavarians even have a word to describe someone met at Oktoberfest, a Wiesenbekanntschaft (don't bother trying).

The food
And, of course, beer cannot be enjoyed without the proper accompaniments, preferably in the form of hearty meats.

Start the day with a traditional Oktoberfest breakfast of Weisswurst (veal sausages with herbs), sweet mustard and Weissbier (no, it's not too early), all of which can be purchased at the beer tents.

Beer's most common sidekick — the large, doughy pretzels calls Brez'n — are sold from stands everywhere. Note that the heavy use of salt is no accident; after a few bites you'll want to drink more beer. The same is true of Steckerlfisch, whole freshwater fish smoked on a spit.

Rotisserie chickens — alternately referred to as Brathuhn, Brathendl, Hendl and Gickerl depending on the dialect — are served either as a whole or a half. Vinegar-based potato salad, cooked red cabbage (Blaukraut) and dumplings (Knoedel) made from stale rolls (Semmel) or pretzels are popular side dishes.

The afternoon snack (Brotzeit) is served on its own cutting board (Brotzeitbrettl) and generally consists of bread and cheese or cold cuts with radishes (Radi). A favorite is Obatzda, a cheese spread made from Camembert, butter, double cream, salt, paprika and white pepper.

For those with a sweet tooth, traditional Oktoberfest treats include candied almonds (gebrannte Mandeln) and gingerbread hearts (Lebkuchenherzen).

The schedule
By day, Oktoberfest is dominated by families and teenagers and has the feel of a state fair. It's also cheaper. Weekdays from 10 a.m. until 3 p.m., most food and amusement vendors cut prices by up to 30 percent.

Got the kids? Tuesdays (this year Sept. 25 and Oct. 2) are family days from noon to 6 p.m. with reduced prices. And don't worry, there's a combination beer garden-playground open throughout the event.

By night, Oktoberfest is for adults, and the Festhallen are packed. Many employers have their outings at Oktoberfest, so don't be surprised to see office parties on weeknights.

Beer is served from 10 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. weekdays and from 9 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. weekends. Most tents close at 10:30, though food and amusements stay open until midnight. The festival grounds close at 1:30 a.m. and open at 6 a.m.