The Friday Fermentable: Oktoberfest, the Festival and the Beer

Beer is good for you, especially at this time of year. If I had my druthers (or knew what druthers were), I would be in Munich/München for the annual Oktoberfest celebration. This two week festival (22 Sept – 10 Oct this year) hosts over six million visitors and is a celebration of the Bavarian capital and its storied culture.
But why does Oktoberfest begin in September? From the Oktoberfest blog:

The festivities began on October 12, 1810 and ended on October 17th with a horse race. In the following years, the celebrations were repeated and, later, the festival was prolonged and moved forward into September.
By moving the festivities up, it allowed for better weather conditions. Because the September nights were warmer, the visitors were able to enjoy the gardens outside the tents and the stroll over “die Wiesen” or the fields much longer without feeling chilly. Historically, the last Oktoberfest weekend was in October and this tradition continues into present times.

The website of the Munich brewery, Spaten, has a little more detail of the history:

The history of the Oktoberfest begins with a wedding and a horserace. The latter was held on 17 October 1810 on a meadow just outside the city gates to celebrate the marriage of Crown Prince Ludwig of Bavaria (later King Ludwig I) and Princess Therese of Sachsen-Hildburghausen. It was a huge spectacle accompanied, of course, by mountains of food and a river of Munich beer.
The townspeople were so enthusiastic that they named the meadow after the bride, calling it ‘Theresienwiese’, and repeated the festival every year from 1819. That explains why local citizens and Oktoberfest devotees refer to the festival merely as the ‘Wies’n’.

The six breweries permitted to sell beer at Oktoberfest are Spaten, Augustiner, Paulaner, Hacker-Pschorr, Hofbräu, Löwenbräu. Of these, Spaten and Paulaner’s Oktoberfest beers are most widely available in the US. Oktoberfest beers are often called Marzen, as they were historically brewed in March and then lagered (stored) in caves during the summer months when temperatures made it difficult to brew in the days before refrigerated fermentation equipment. (A very detailed explanation of the long history of the beer can be found at Michael Jackson’s Beer Hunter.).
What I like best about the Marzen style is the heavy malty aroma with a slightly-sweet and rich flavor. Without the bitterness of substantial additions of hops, you can almost envision the fields on which the barley is grown. In this respect, Jackson refers to the beer as having a “delicate underpinning of hops.” The golden-amber color seems appropriate given the arrival of Autumn. For those who are turned off by the hop-blasting that is all too common in American microbreweries, Marzen Oktoberfest is for you.
I have yet to muster the energy to collect each year’s Oktoberfest offerings and compare the beers side-by-side. I’d be interested to hear from anyone who has had the opportunity to taste the Marzenbiers from each of the Munich breweries.

mj_natl_toast_icon.jpgSpeaking of Michael Jackson, Sunday night at 9 pm EST is the North American toast to the memory of the revered beer and whisky writer who passed away on 30 August. Details are at Jackson’s blog. Funds will be raised in a variety of creative ways to benefit the National Parkinson Foundation to provide support and research funds for the disease Michael suffered with during the last decade of his life.
You can find out about events in your community by going to the Yahoo! Upcoming site and searching for “MJbeerhunter” in your city.
Julie Johnson Bradford, editor of All About Beer Magazine, says:

Urge your favorite bar to join, or raise a glass (and a donation) on your own. Be sure you select your favorite beer for the occasion, in honor of the man who helped put it in your hand.

3 thoughts on “The Friday Fermentable: Oktoberfest, the Festival and the Beer

  1. Many years ago, en route w/ backpack from Firenze to London, I stumbled off a train in Munich at about 7 am and was greeted by the sight of a guy in lederhosen and alpine hat driving a horse-drawn wagon covered in flowers. “Ah, Bavaria!” I thought–then learned that (completely unbeknownst to me) it was the first day of Oktoberfest. Was on hand when the mayor of Munich started the fest by tapping the first keg of beer, and spent the rest of the day on a wooden bench in a huge tent drinking liters of Spaten and eating sausages and salted radishes. Whew!
    This year I’m enjoying a bottled Oktoberfest lager brewed by the Saranac brewery in NY–quite nice.

  2. You might be better off without these particular druthers, not celebrating (i)in situ(i). Unless, of course, you enjoy a giant frat house party with all its requisite accoutrements of surprisingly noisy and obnoxious alcoholically enhanced human id … 😉
    (I grew up in Vienna and studied a few semesters at the Uni Munchen)

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