This article was originally published on MUNCHIES in October 2014.
Does a 16-hour workday, carrying around 12 one-liter beer mugs and battling massive crowds of revelers sound like a break? For professional photographer Sonja Herpich, working under these conditions at the Hofbräu tent at Oktoberfest is almost like an annual retreat. The Munich local started waitressing to tick off a box on her bucket list, but now sees the annual 16-day feat as a personal challenge, both a mental break from her creative work and a chance to push herself physically and emotionally.
The only reason to not work Oktoberfest is being pregnant or having a broken leg.
Just wrapping up her fifth year of waitressing at the fall fest—which draws more than six million visitors to Munich during the 16-day celebration each year—Herpich is basically a pro on all things Oktoberfest. Not only does she masterfully carry those heavy Maß beer mugs and navigate and appease the crowds each year, she also documents her experiences in a self-portrait series, taking photos each morning and evening of the fest. We spoke to her shortly after the festival closed on Sunday to get the scoop on this year's fest, life as an Oktoberfest beer maid, and end of fest celebrations.
MUNCHIES: So, Oktoberfest just wrapped up. How did it go? Sonja Herpich: Today I am very tired. During Oktoberfest, we all have the feeling that it's pretty easy; we aren't getting sick or anything. And then when you have a break like today, then you start to feel your body is very run down, and there is pain in the legs and cramps in the muscles. But this year we were so good in our organization that we all thought it was kind of an easy year; there was not that much drama with our guests and I had the feeling that people were more kind this year.
How did you get started working at Oktoberfest? Around 15 years ago, I worked selling pretzels after school. I like doing jobs like that—working hard in crowded places. I wanted to do something like that again, but not selling pretzels or souvenirs. And then on a photo shoot, I met a food stylist who's also an Oktoberfest waitress. We talked about Oktoberfest and I told her this was a wish for me, to work there. And then she thought about it, and I met the other girls, and that was my way to come into the team.
And what made you interested in doing it? For me, it's a kind a self-experience. Some people hike through the Alps to find how far they can go, to discover "Am I able to do that or not?" Oktoberfest is something like that for me. Am I able to do it? Am I strong enough? These are the questions each year. Being a photographer, you think all the time, "Should I take the picture from this side or that side?" No one tells you, "Now it's done." You have to have the right feeling the picture is done.
At Oktoberfest, it's just easy work. I don't need my brain there. It doesn't matter if I bring the beer from the right side or the left side. I only bring beer and it's pretty easy. For my brain, it's kind of a holiday. It's a kind of auszeit, a break time of your normal life.
What is a typical day like? The hardest days are on the weekend. We have to start around 8 or 9 in the morning, and when we come to the tent there are hundreds of people waiting for the doors to open. We go in and everything is empty and cold, and we prepare our service, cleaning the tables. A half an hour later, the security guys open the doors, and then people are freaking out, running into the tent, screaming, looking for tables, and celebrating that they have a table. We stand on the sides and look at what's going on, at what happens, and then we start to sell beer around 9 or 10. It's a lot of work to bring the first round of beers to all the people, and then, yeah, you start to make them drunk. [Laughs] The whole day you are doing the same, selling beer and selling food. People are standing around everywhere, people dancing, screaming, jumping, and you have to figure it out, move through the people. Everyone wants to have your beer. You have to protect everything, all your pockets; you can't leave anything unattended.
In our tent, at 3 PM all the people have to leave, and we have to clean up again. And then it's a kind of new morning, because at 4 PM we have companies who reserve tables and then we start again with new people who are not yet drunk. We work all afternoon until the last beer order at 10:30 PM. Then the people have to move; it's pretty fast, the security guys come, they shut down the lines and tell the people to go. And then we clear the area, bringing the empty glasses back to get cleaned, cleaning the tables, and having our own beer. And then we go home, so I'm home at midnight.
How many beers can you carry? I can carry 12 beers. There's a technique to taking the beers—it looks heavier than it is. It's heavy, but if you have the right technique, it's OK. It's so funny, you bring the beers, and the boys or the tourists say, "Wow, I want to try it," and then, "It's so heavy, oh my God, I can't do it," because they do not have the technique.
So when it's all over, what's the first thing that you want to do: drink a large beer or take a long, hot shower and get a massage? Both. We had a lot of beer yesterday at the end, and also today we had a glass of champagne to celebrate that it's done, that it ran perfectly, and that no one from our team was hurt. And tomorrow my waitressing team is going to a wellness hotel to have a massage and good food and some quiet time. So I need both beer and massage.
What was the best thing that happened this year? The last night is really special. When the Oktoberfest is done, there is a special program for all the waitresses. The whole tent had sparklers. They shut down the lights, they played "Angels," by Robbie Williams. During the whole Oktoberfest, you aren't allowed to stand on the tables, but at the end all the waitresses stand on the tables, screaming, crying, and celebrating that it's done. It gives you goosebumps. It's amazing. Everyone is so happy.
Did you run into any really bad situations during the festival? One really, really bad experience was that one of our guests had a horrible accident. He was sitting on a fence, screaming and laughing, and then he fell backwards. He fell directly on his neck and didn't get up. I called the security guys and the first aid guys came and helped him. I went to my colleagues and started crying because it was so hard to see that. He was having fun, partying, celebrating with his friends, and two seconds later that happened.
And you had to just keep going on with your job. Yeah. The people two tables over hadn't seen that, so all the people around had no idea what happened and they were all screaming, "Bring me beer!" You have those bad pictures in your mind and you have to keep going, working like nothing happened. I couldn't do it. I needed a break, to have a beer, to start crying, and then a half an hour later I could go and do my job again. This was horrible. There are a lot of accidents, but normally you only see the results, like bloody hands.
It's a really tough job. Yeah, it is. The people come there with one thing on their mind: getting drunk. People lose control when they get drunk and they do horrible things. And you are directly in the middle, not drunk.
Will you do it again? Oh, for sure I'll do it again. The only reason to not do it is being pregnant or having a broken leg. I will do it every year, for sure, for life. My colleague has been doing it for 19 years and she's amazing. She showed me everything: how to carry the beers, how to handle the guests, how to manage everything. Because you have to protect your area, you have to be nice, but you also have to be tough, to tell the people, "This is the line. You cannot go over the line."
Do you have something lined up next or are you just relaxing? Both. I'll go with my colleagues to have a little rest at the wellness hotel and then I have to work on the weekend. Then I have a short little holiday with my family because I have a little baby— she's a one-year-old, and we're celebrating her birthday for a couple of days in the mountains. And then it's back to normal life. I have a solo exhibition at the end of October in Munich, and I have to organize everything. There is a lot of work still waiting there. So only a short rest for a couple of days and then it's back.
Thanks for speaking with me, Sonja.