Today the tents will open at the most famous beer festival in the world: Oktoberfest. That’s right, it starts in September. For those of us who can’t make it to a Munich beer tent between now and the end of the festival on October 6th, here’s the Oktoberfest entry by Conrad Seidl in The Oxford Companion to Beer, edited by Garrett Oliver.
Oktoberfest, locally just called “Wiesn” (meaning “the meadow”), is Germany’s largest folk festival, staged for 16 to 18 days on the 31-ha (77-acre) Theresienwiese in Munich from the last 2 weeks of September into the first weekend of October. Since the first Oktoberfest in 1810, it has grown into the most famous beer festival in the world, hosting about 6 million visitors every year (with a record of 7.1 million in 1985). The Munich Oktoberfest has spawned similar festivals from Cincinnati, Ohio, to Blumenau, Brazil. The original festival’s popularity is inextricably tied to its large beer tents, many with up to 10,000 seats. Each tent has its own unique décor and character. Schottenhamel (serving Spaten beer) seats 6,000 people inside and 4,000 in the adjoining outdoor beer garden, Hacker-Festhalle seats 6,950 in the beer hall but only 2,400 in the garden, and Hofbräu seats 6,898 inside and 3,022 in the garden. The smaller tents are the relatively cozy Hippodrom (3,200 inside, 1,000 outside) and the posh Käferzelt that seats 1,000 people, usually Munich’s high society. Beer is served in the iconic 1-l glasses (the so-called masskrug) only — in an average 16-day season beer sales amount to 6.5 million servings. The image of a woman wearing the traditional Bavarian dirndl and cheerfully carrying several giant “Mass” glasses in each hand is an image recognized almost anywhere.
There are strict regulations regarding the beer served at the Oktoberfest. Only the large breweries that brew inside Munich’s city limits are allowed to deliver beer to the Oktoberfest — these are Augustinerbräu München, Hacker–Pschorr, Hofbräu, Löwenbräu, Paulaner, and Spaten-Franziskaner-Bräu. The smaller breweries (including Forschungsbrauerei and brewpubs like Union Bräu) as well as those from outside town are banned. The ban on out-of-town beer once raised royal ire; Prince Luitpold of Bavaria, until recently the owner of the “Kaltenberg-brewery” south of Munich, made several attempts to bring his own beer to Oktoberfest. Although he was Prince of Bavaria, the rules held fast and his complaints were in vain, but they did make for some excellent public relations for Kaltenberg’s König Ludwig beer brand.
There is a popular myth that there is one distinctive style of beer brewed for Oktoberfest — but historical evidence shows that there have been many changes in the beers served at the festival in the past. In the first 60 or so years the then popular Bavarian dunkel seems to have dominated the festival. As is often the case, the historical record makes note of the common beer only when something notably different is introduced. This was obviously the case in the year 1872, but the following story was only reported in a pamphlet 35 years later (and quoted in many Oktoberfest publications ever since). In that particularly hot late summer Michael Schott enhamel, owner of Spaten’s tent on the Wiesn, had run out of the traditional dark lager beer — and considered dispensing beer from a different brewery. Joseph Sedlmayr, owner of Spaten-Leistbräu, desperately fearing to lose the contract suggested he sell a strong version of a Vienna-style lager brewed by his son Gabriel. T is beer was in fact an 18°P bock beer and at a probable 8% alcohol by volume (ABV) it was sold at a premium price. It may not have been “traditional” but it proved to be popular and for several years — up until World War I — bock-strength beers dominated the Wiesn. The strength of the beer has changed several times since (being at its lowest point in 1946 and 1947 at two “unofficial” and reputedly illegal Oktoberfest beer bars aft er World War II) and is now in a range between 5.8% and 6.3% ABV. For decades the reddish–brown marzenbier ruled the tents, but in recent years the style has changed yet again. Since 1990 all Oktoberfest beers brewed in Munich have been of a golden color and a slightly sweetish malty nose, with medium body and a low to moderate bitterness. According to European Union regulations, no beers except those brewed by the authorized large breweries of Munich are allowed to be labeled “Oktoberfest,” yet many American breweries brew their own versions of Oktoberfest beers. Boston Beer Company (Samuel Adams) claims to be the largest brewer of Oktoberfest beer because no single brewery in Munich brews more of the festival beer than their American competitor.
The Oktoberfest is not just a beer festival and showcase for Munich’s breweries; it is also a sort of pop-up amusement park. The popular funfair features some spectacular fairground attractions, from roller coasters to a real flea circus with live fleas performing amazing tricks that can only be seen only through a magnifying glass. The Oktoberfest is also a part of living Bavarian history. It originated in the year 1810 when Bavaria’s king Maximilian I. Joseph organized a 2-day festival (on October 13 and 14) to celebrate the wedding of his son, Crown Prince Ludwig (later Ludwig I) and Princess Therese of Sachsen-Hildburghausen. On this occasion free beer and free food were offered at four different locations in Munich and a horse race was organized in what was to become Theresienwiese (named after the princess). At the raceground innkeepers from downtown Munich had set up tents where food and beer were sold. The entire spectacle was popular enough to make a tradition out of the festival, a tradition kept alive for 200 years and only discontinued in times of war and cholera. It is often forgotten that the first Oktoberfest was a political manifestation to demonstrate national unity during and after the Napoleonic wars (when Bavaria was fighting on the side of the French). This politicized character has been revived several times — during German unification in the 1870s, under the Nazi regime in the 1930s, and after German reunification in the 1990s. And for practical (i.e., weather) reasons, the festival was moved forward in the calendar from early to mid-October in the first decades to the last 2 weeks of September in the 1870s, with only a couple of days reaching into the actual month of October. On noon of the first day of Oktoberfest, the mayor of Munich taps the first keg and proclaims “O’zapft is!” (“It is tapped!”) and the world’s largest beer party comes to life.
Bauer, Richard, and Fritz Fenzl. 175 Jahre Oktoberfest. Munich, Germany: Bruckmann, 1985.
Conrad Weidl is a journalist and author with extensive expertise on beer. You can follow him on Twitter at @Bierpapst.
The Oxford Companion to Beer is the first major reference work to investigate the history and vast scope of beer, featuring more than 1,100 A-Z entries written by 166 of the world’s most prominent beer experts. It is first place winner of the 2012 Gourmand Award for Best in the World in the Beer category, winner of the 2011 André Simon Book Award in the Drinks Category, and shortlisted in Food and Travel for Book of the Year in the Drinks Category.
Garrett Oliver, editor of The Oxford Companion to Beer, is the Brewmaster of the Brooklyn Brewery and author of The Brewmaster’s Table: Discovering the Pleasures of Real Beer with Real Food. He has won many awards for his beers, is a frequent judge for international beer competitions, and has made numerous radio and television appearances as a spokesperson for craft brewing.
Read previous Oxford Companion to Beer blog posts and watch videos: “A pint of Guinness” ; “Nothing says ‘holidays’ like beer & cheese” ; “Another lesson from Garrett Oliver: rice in beer” ; “Hosting a holiday party with special guest Christmas ale” ; “We also give thanks for beer” ; “Everything you ever wanted to know about Prohibition” ; and “The Great American Beer Festival”.