Unraveling the History of Oktoberfest
Every year, as the days grow shorter and the air takes on a crisp, autumnal edge, something magical happens in Munich, Germany. The city comes alive with a vibrant energy that permeates the streets and fills the hearts of its residents and visitors alike. It's a celebration that has its roots in love, tradition, and, of course, beer. Join us on a journey through the history, culture, and enduring legacy of Oktoberfest as we explore why this iconic celebration continues to capture hearts and glasses across the globe.
Why We Celebrate Oktoberfest
If you and I were in Munich in October of 1810, chances are we’d already know the big news, Prince Ludwig of Bavaria was getting married. The bride? Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen. Even better news, instead of a stuffy and elite royal reception, they planned horse races… and the whole city was invited. There may not have been giant beer tents on that first iteration of the world’s largest folk festival, but I’m willing to bet there was plenty of beer.
The short version of the rest of the story goes something like this, they had so much fun that officials said, ‘Hey, let’s do this again next year.’ Then they thought, ‘Let’s make this last for a couple of weeks instead of a few days.’ In an attempt to take advantage of the weather to bring more guests (and revenue), they extended it into September while keeping an end date in October.
If we were to attend Oktoberfest in Munich this year, we would find men dressed in the traditional Lederhosen and women in a Dirndl. There would also be attractions like rides, games, souvenirs, music, competitions and food to entertain families of any age. And, we’d find beer, lots and lots of beer. This cultural observance manifests in the US, especially in the form of Märzen.
The Oktoberfest Beer
Märzen (pronounced MARE-tzen) was the official beer of Oktoberfest from 1872 until 1990. It’s a beautiful amber lager with slightly elevated alcohol and a rich, elegant malt character reminiscent of toasted sweet bread. It’s balanced by the herbal flavor of German hops. In 1990, likely due to the dominance of pale lagers, a lighter version called Oktoberfest bier or Festbier became the official beer to drink. Yet, the legacy of Märzen lives on every year from August until late Fall when the final drops are drunk. Many craft brewers around the US and the world, honor the tradition of Oktoberfest by continuing to brew and release the amber lager in time for jacket season in the Fall.
If you want the true taste of Oktoberfest, any old amber beer just won’t do. Märzen means March in German, which is traditionally when it’s brewed. Then it sits and waits for late Summer to arrive. The Märzen beer recipe is also more than the sum of its ingredients. Besides using Munich Malt, German noble hops, and German lager yeast, the beer style relies on time to ferment and mature. It also relies heavily on the decoction mashing process that layers rich textures on top of malt complexity. The Märzen style tends to be very specific on how it is made, and the specs on ABV, IBUs and SRM, or color, are fairly narrow.
Oktoberfest Near You
This September, around the US, we’ll find satellite Oktoberfests in most cities and at many breweries. Many of these celebrations are less traditional, but will nonetheless capture a little bit of the excitement of the festival in Munich. Despite the best of intentions, we’ll often find Hazy IPAs and local musicians per the taste of the crowd. At more traditional Oktoberfests, we’ll get to experience Lederhosen, Dirndl’s, Oompah music, pretzels, Bratwurst, Märzen, Festbier, and other wonderful German styles. We may not see roller coasters or Ferris wheels, but with any luck, you can bring your whole family to play games and dance. For those who’d rather test your strength by holding your beer in front of you for as long as possible, you can compete in a Masskrugstemmen, or Stein hoisting contest. Each liter Maß stein with beer weighs about 5 lbs and the current U.S. record in 21 minutes and 17 seconds.
What’s the point of all this? It’s really simple. Oktoberfest is a time to take the weight of the world off our shoulders and spend time with our family and our friends. It’s a time to create joy and take our senses on a short vacation to Munich. So, gather your loved ones and go to BreweryDB to plan your local Oktoberfest experience.