The proverbial mountain climber, when asked “Why attack Everest and brave the most hostile climate conditions in the world,” is often said to explain such death-defying madness with the simple “because it’s there.” A similar retort may be all you have to fall back on to rationalize why you’d journey halfway across the globe to join six million other thirsty tourists for the well-lubricated 16-day “Super Bowl of beer drinking.” There are experiences in life that are all the more valuable precisely because of being arduous. Man has an innate love of superlatives: biggest, wildest, drunkest. Oktoberfest is all these and many more.
OKTOBERFEST HISTORY, OR “WHY OKTOBERFEST STARTS IN SEPTEMBER”
If you’re not already familiar with Oktoberfest, you’re probably thinking, “Wow, the Germans must really love October, celebrating its annual arrival with such ardent partying each year.” The truth of the matter is that what the Germans actually love is drinking beer — so much so that they can’t wait until October to hoist their steins. The festival actually begins on the second-to-last Saturday in September each year and lasts 16 besotted suds-fiiled days. Leave it to Teutonic punctuality to be a month early for a party while the rest of the world is still striving to be fashionably late.
There’s actually more background to explain the festival than the mere arrival of October. The festival has its beginnings in the October 12, 1810, marriage of Bavarian Crown Prince Ludwig to Princess Therese of Saxon-Hildeburghasen. On that fateful day, Ludwig and the foundation for today’s Oktoberfest were laid. The original public festival lasted only a day and was held in the Munich meadow that still carries the bride’s name, Theresienweise, or Weis’n, in the local vernacular. The festival has been held there ever since then, interrupted only for wars and other minor annoyances. (Of course, interrupting an annual festival for wars in Germany is akin to interrupting a baseball game for tobacco-chewing.)
Over the years, the spectacle that is Oktoberfest grew in prominence and duration. The modern Germans, with their inimitable ability to maximize production, decided to stretch out the party to its current two-week-plus-two-day length. It’s precisely this kind of dedication to productivity, combined with billions and billions of Marshall Plan dollars, that has transformed Germany into the economic and beer-drinking wunderkind that it is today.
An interesting historical aside: the marriage of Ludwig and Theresa ended in divorce. But while the marriage failed, the party succeeded, and the original inspiration for the event has long since been replaced with a grander and nobler vision — the stalwart consumption of prodigious amounts of some of the finest beer in the world. Which brings us to our next point. What types of beer do they drink?
A love of beer is an almost innate characteristic of the German psyche, and with order and efficiency being the hallmarks of German culture, it’s easy to see how this attitude has spilled over into the production of their most beloved beverage. German beer production is governed by the world’s oldest food law, the Reinheitsgebot, or Purity Law, which dates all the way back to the 1516 mandate of Duke William IV of Bavaria (a German folk hero whose name has become synonymous with the term “Duke William IV of Bavaria”). The Purity Law mandates that German beer be composed of only four ingredients: malted barley, hops, yeast and water.
The majority of beer served at Oktoberfest is Märzenbier, meaning “March beer.” Yes, folks, the Germans, the most organized folks on earth, have a party called Oktoberfest that begins in September when they drink a beer known as “March beer.” Go figure.
There are various explanations of how this came to be. Some beer pundits claim that a Munich brewer found his beer reserves depleted at festival time and decided to serve a brew made in March. Hence the name. At any rate, the Bavarian tradition of brewing large batches of beer in March dates back to the 19th century, before refrigeration, when production needed to be finished before the weather got too warm for brewing. They would then store the reserves in cool places, generally caves or cellars, for use during the summer months.
The advent of mechanized refrigeration in the latter part of the 1800s coincided with the proliferation of railroads in Europe, which enabled thousands more of those thirsty Bavarians to travel to the Munich Oktoberfest. Even though the larger Munich brewhouses were making special festival brews, demand often outstripped supply, and one way or the other, Märzen beer became the Oktoberfest beer style known to the world. (The style has had, and continues to have, various incarnations.)
Recent changes in tastes have seen the traditional Märzen brew supplanted by paler, less robust “Oktoberfestbier” to suit broader international tastes. Most of Munich’s big brewers still produce a draft Märzen at Oktoberfest time for sale in their beer halls and festival tents. Typically, a Märzenbier will be copper-red in color, have a full-bodied maltiness, be somewhat spicy and dryish, and have heartier flavor than more common lagers. But you don’t need to know this to enjoy them. What you do need to do is work up a powerful thirst and be aware that you’ll be considered a wimp if you don’t order by the mass — a large, full liter of beer served in a heavy glass stein by a heavy German waitress who can proudly carry six of them in each hand. (That’s 12 liters for those of you who are mathematically challenged — enough beer to slake the thirst of the average small army.) The German beer waitress is clearly the highest Darwinian evolution of the waitress species. You’ll find out very quickly that hoisting even one is quite a workout.
Each of the six major Munich breweries — Lowenbrau, Paulaner, Spaten, Hacker-Pschorr, Hofbrauhaus and Augustiner — produces its own variety of beer for the festival. The massive tents that these producers sponsor hold up to 6,000 revelers and serve as the epicenters of Oktoberfest beer-swilling and malt-inspired mayhem. With such large capacities, these tents are the equivalent of sports stadiums hosting passionately contested events. And if you venture inside, be prepared to engage in Olympian feats of beer-drinking prowess. Timid souls would be well-advised to stay on the sidelines, but the hearty devotee of beer-imbibing should proudly rally to the challenge. Because, after all, it’s there.
If you should ever actually tire of beer drinking, Oktoberfest also offers an eclectic assortment of things to do. You’ll find amusement park rides, refreshment stands, side shows, carnival games, fun houses, performance stages, shooting galleries, roller coasters, bumper cars and the like. Of course, if you actually go to Oktoberfest to do anything but drink beer, you’re probably in the wrong place at the wrong time, which in Germany, as the world knows, can be a dangerous thing.
If, like Mohammed, you can’t actually “go to the mountain,” then you can certainly bring the mountain to you. That’s our round about way of saying that there are a great number of American breweries producing fine Märzens and Oktoberfest brews that you can probably procure as close as your neighborhood liquor store. So don your lederhosen this fall, toast the season with a festival brew, and have your own Oktoberfest. Here are some tasting recommendations:
OKTOBERFEST MARZEN TASTING NOTES
With the growing popularity of micro and craft brewed beers in the United States, beer drinkers have embraced richer, more robust brews, thus, Oktoberfest styles are growing more popular than ever. If you find you have an urge to embrace a robust German and you can’t travel to Oktoberfest, many North American brewers produce their own Oktoberfest brews during the fall season. If you’re a fan of more flavorful, heartier beer, you’ll want to try some of the following, which should be readily available in most liquor and grocery stores from September through November.
Full Sail Oktoberfest (U.S.)
Spaten Oktoberfest Märzen (Germany)
Ayinger Oktoberfest Märzen (Germany)
Aktein Märzen (Germany)
Paulaner Oktoberfest (Germany)
Gordon Biersch Märzen (U.S.)
Samuel Adams Oktoberfest (U.S.)
Pete’s Wicked Oktoberfest Malt Liquor (U.S.)
Old Heurich’s Autumn Fogg Märzen (U.S.)