Germany’s history with beer is a storied one to be sure and the German style of beer-making is easily the most proliferated and widely accepted standard the world over. One could point to different moments throughout history as being the crucial point that led to Germany’s zymurgical ascension – the formation of the Hanseatic League, the Reinheitsgebot, etc. – but perhaps none seems as relevant to the modern imbiber as the marriage between Crown Prince Ludwig of Bavaria and Princess Therese of Sachsen-Hildburghausen, now known as Oktoberfest.
While those other tales of German beer lore are worth telling and I fully intend to do so at some point, Oktoberfest is by far the most significant event in the country’s beer-making history for no other reason than it remains an excuse for large numbers of people to get drunk and eat pretzels in ridiculous clothes. And who isn’t ok with that?
But where did it all come from? Is there some secret utility in wearing lederhosen that makes it easier to drink more lager? Why the heck is it in September? Why all the fuss about some no-name prince’s wedding? And seriously, what is the deal with the weird hats?!
It may at first seem peculiar to you that such an enduring (and weird) tradition would be the result of such a mundane event. As always, there was a little more to it than that. You see, Ludwig’s father, Maximilian I, was only just awarded the keys to the kingdom. Napoleon’s diminutive ass had literally just dissolved the Holy Roman Empire’s 844 year rule of Central Europe in 1806 allowing Bavaria to once again become its own kingdom. Making a big stink about his son’s wedding would go a long way towards establishing Bavaria and securing the new kingdom’s autonomy. Germany at the time was approaching consolidation but the Bavarians were (still are) nothing if not a fiercely independent people.
Ironically, it was perhaps another moment in beer history that ultimately led to Ludwig I abdicating the throne to his son, Maximilian II, when he issued a tax on beer that resulted first in riots, then in revolution. But that’s another story.
So a celebration was in order and the decree was made for a two-day festival to be held on October 13 and 14. Free food and beer were made available at sites around Munich and a horse race would be held at the local racegrounds where innkeepers set up tents to sell food and beer. The site of the main event took the name Theresienwiese, after the princess herself and became the site of official Oktoberfest for the next 200+ years.
Over time, the festival grew and evolved. An agricultural fair was added in 1811 and a carnival element was introduced in 1818 but the beer we now associate with Oktoberfest did not appear until later still. Brewed by the Spaten Brewery of Munich, marzenbier made its debut at the festival in 1841. Closely resembling the Vienna lager style developed around the same time, many slightly different versions were brewed by Spaten and the other Munich breweries until 1872 when the first beer bearing the name Oktoberfest appeared, setting the standard and becoming the official beer of the festival.
True Oktoberfestbier is a legally protected style in Germany only available to the six traditionally operating breweries of Munich (Augustiner, Hacker-Pschorr, Hofbrau, Lowenbrau, Paulaner, and Spaten). Anything else is just marzenbier, though outside of Germany, all bets are off. Marzenbier should be made from Munich malt, coming in with a golden amber color which has gotten lighter over time thanks to technology and consumer preference. Hop bitterness should be subdued in favor of a sweeter malt character with toffee and bready flavors accompanied by full-bodied mouthfeel. American versions tend to more closely resemble the hoppier and slightly darker Vienna lager style.
Bratwurst stands were the big hit in 1881 but in 1896, the breweries got smart and started marketing their beers by backing the construction of beer tents, a tradition that lives to this today and likely informs the entirety of your perception of what the festival is all about. Each tent serves its brewery’s beers and does its best to outdo the competition with signature food and lavish decoration.
Oktoberfest is now the world’s largest folk festival and has been celebrated nearly every year since its inception except during times of war or, you know, cholera outbreaks. Participating in Oktoberfest even today is like stepping back through time. Despite adding additional attractions, the beer tent culture remains largely preserved via specific legal regulations designed to to do exactly that. The signature lederhosen and dirndl outfits are simply a nod to traditional Bavarian garb. Believe it or not they were the workwear of the day, reserved for hard physical labor, whatever that meant to Bavarians at the time. Oh, and those hats are called trachten and the brush-like plumes are called gamsbart, made from the beard of the chamois, an antelope-goat mashup that lives in the alps.
As to why Oktoberfest was moved from the middle of October to the middle of September, the logic is actually pretty practical. Growing in popularity, the event was extended from a two-day celebration to a two-week rager and eventually moved to September for the better weather conditions.
So there you go – don your lederhosen, grab your stein and be sure to check out Intuition’s Oktoberfest celebration kicking off Jax Beer Week on September 17th. While you’re there be sure to interrupt as many side-convos as possible, because if you’re going to dress up like an idiot you might as well behave like one too.