Was Ist Oktoberfest? A brief history of Germany’s biggest festival and the beer that defines it

Photo by Tj Turner

Photo by Tj Turner

Munich’s Oktoberfest is the biggest and best-known of Germany’s many Volksfeste. These “people’s festivals” feature beer and wine tents plus live entertainment, parades, and carnival midways and rides. Tied to the agrarian rhythms of planting and harvest, or sometimes in commemoration of seasonal markets or liturgical events, Volksfeste are held in spring, summer or autumn to celebrate local food, drink, and traditions. They make use of temporary structures erected in the same location each year; many have been observed for centuries.

Volksfeste are celebrated all over the country, from Erfurt’s Bratwurstfest to Rostock’s Hanseatic regattas, but Oktoberfest, with two weeks every September filled with Tracht costuming of lederhosen and dirndls and the iconic image of servers with hands brimming with Maßkrugs, that captures the imagination. And it all started with a wedding …

A Little Ditty About Ludwig and Therese

On October 12, 1810, Crown Prince Ludwig I, son of Maximilian I Joseph of Bavaria, was married to Therese Charlotte Luise of Saxony-Hildburghausen. Maximilian invited the citizenry and arranged for free food, beer, and horse races in a field outside Munich that has ever since been known as the Theresienwiese (literally “Therese’s field”) in honor of the princess.

The first horse race on the Theresienwiese in Munich on 17 October 1810 (first Oktoberfest) // Painting by Wilhelm Alexander Wolfgang von Kobell

The first horse race on the Theresienwiese in Munich on 17 October 1810 (first Oktoberfest) // Painting by Wilhelm Alexander Wolfgang von Kobell

It was a good enough time that the locals kept observing the anniversaries, more and more beer was trucked out for the growing crowds, music and entertainment options expanded, and we have been partying every year since.

All this subsequent revelry was borne out of great upheaval, though. In 1809, Therese was on the shortlist to marry Napoleon but got hitched to Ludwig instead. Bavaria went to war both alongside and against continental superpowers France and Austria. Relationship status: complicated.

Right around the turn of the 19th century, Bavaria was just coming off several hundred years as an often picked-on part of the Holy Roman Empire, surrounded by more powerful states and divided by internal squabbles. During the 1700s it was caught up in the wars of succession in Spain and Austria; rule passed to an outsider from the Palatinate named Charles Theodore, who attempted to swap some Bavarian ducal properties with Austria in exchange for an imperial title. He was…not popular. Charles Theodore fled when the French army invaded and defeated the combined forces of Bavaria and Austria.

A treaty was signed and the French left, but Austrian forces stayed in an attempted land grab. Maximilian became the new Elector of Bavaria and formed a successful alliance with the French against Austria. After another treaty in 1805, Bavaria expanded its territory and became a kingdom, Maximilian became king, and then Bavaria fought with Austria (among others) against France in the Napoleonic wars.

Against that tumultuous backdrop, that first Oktoberfest of 1810 was an important signifier of unity, stability, independence, and prosperity. Those themes have resurfaced in the Oktoberfests of dark times (during the Nazi regime in the 1930s, when the blue and white motif of the Bavarian flag was replaced with Third Reich red and black) as well happier times (like after Germany’s reunification in the 1990s).

Oktoberfest Now

Some Oktoberfest statistics for you:

  • An average of six million people attend every year; or to think of it another way, twice the entire population of Iowa going to Munich at once.
  • Its tents—each affiliated with one of Munich’s “big six” breweries—hold thousands of revelers apiece. The Hofbräu tent, with a capacity of almost 10,000, is the biggest.
  • In 2018, the tents collectively ran through 7.5 million liters of beer over the course of the 16-day festival. That’s 66,000 barrels, or to think of it another way, the entire beer output of the state of Oklahoma in 2018.
  • The Löwenbräu tent is guarded by a 4.5-meter animatronic lion statue that hoists a Maß and roars “Löwenbräu” every minute.
  • The world record for the number of one-liter Maßkrugs carried at once is 29.

Two hundred years later, Oktoberfest is still held on the Theresienwiese (now usually just abbreviated to Wies’n). All the beer poured at the festival must be brewed within Munich city limits, which effectively bars all but the “Big Six” of Munich: Augustiner, Hacker-Pschorr, Hofbräu, Löwenbräu, Paulaner, and Spaten.

The Beers of Oktoberfest

Politics, history, statistics… meh, which way to the beer? But first, which beer? And when? I need you to appreciate this on as many levels as I do.

If you close your eyes and think of Oktoberfest, you are picturing a brilliantly clear red-gold lager in a (probably very large) dimpled glass mug crowned with an even mat of white foam, offering up waves of warm, toasty malt with echoes of caramel. It is about 6% ABV, and it is so good, you guys.

That’s a great beer you’re imagining, and I want one too; however, that’s not what they would have been imbibing at the inaugural fest in 1810. Given the malting and brewing technology of the era, attendees of the original Oktoberfest were likely drinking something we’d identify as dunkel: a dark, bready lager with mild roasty, chocolatey undertones. Malt was dried over direct heat, which made for dark beers, and possibly some smoky character as well.

Homebrew Recipe: Oldtoberfest Smoked Rye Lager

By the mid-1800s, advances in malting and kilning technology (indirect heat!) allowed for the production of lighter-colored, lighter-flavored malts. A couple of brewing friends, Anton Dreher of Vienna and Gabriel Sedlmayr of Spaten in Munich, took what they had learned about making pale malt and got together for an epic collaboration, where they pretty much invented amber lager.

Dreher’s Vienna lager and Sedlmayr’s Munich version shared the same cold fermentation, coppery color, and toasty, biscuity character. Dreher’s Vienna was a bit hoppier and drier, while Sedlmayr’s trended malty and round; he called it Märzenbier. We have now arrived at the beer you were imagining.

Märzenbier wasn’t a new concept—März being German for the month of March, often the last part of the winter where, before the days of industrial refrigeration, a brewer could rely on cold enough temperatures for the slow, cool fermentation of lager. Brewers would prepare a slightly stronger beer in March to last through the summer, until the cessation of fieldwork, the harvest of the new grain crop, and the arrival of cool weather in the fall allowed the resumption of brewing. Plus, they had also figured out that the microbial load of the air was much higher during the warm months, which led to more incidence of beer spoilage. (The Bavarians actually passed an edict in the 16th century that made brewing in the summer illegal). Up until the Dreher-Sedlmeyer collab, Märzenbiers would have looked a lot like the dark, bready and slightly roasty lagers mentioned above—the milder toasty flavor and copper color was something new.

The new amber Märzenbier from Sedlmayr’s Spaten brewery was a hit at the Oktoberfest of 1841 and was quickly adopted by other brewers (Dreher’s Vienna became an international sensation as well, and lives on, among other places, in the brewing traditions of dark Mexican lagers like Modelo Negra). In 1872, Spaten dubbed their Märzenbier—which had been brewed specifically for that year’s festival—Oktoberfestbier, and here we are today.

Today “Oktoberfest” is a protected name that can only be used by Munich’s big six breweries. That is, at least in theory—in practice a number of craft brewers here in the States and elsewhere have adopted the term for their iteration of the seasonal lager. German brewers outside town use the term Märzen instead.

Märzen reigned supreme at Munich Oktoberfest until the 1970s when Paulaner rolled out a beer that was intended to be lighter and less filling than Märzen. By the 1990s, the Big Six breweries all had adopted the blonder, lighter Wiesn style named for the meadow where the fest is held. Ostensibly brewed for more modern tastes, Wiesn—or Festbier, if you’re using the 2015 BJCP style guidelines—is a bit akin to an overgrown Helles lager, with bright, crisp flavor supplanting the toasty maltiness of a Märzen.

So, in summary:

  • Oktoberfest is the beer served at the official Munich Oktoberfest. The exact style has changed over the years. The beer served at the first Oktoberfest in 1810 would have been more of a smoky dunkel.
  • Märzen is the darker style that reigned at Oktoberfest from 1841 until the 1990s
  • Festbier, or Wiesn, is a blonder, lighter style that supplanted Märzen at Oktoberfest in the 1990s.

Whatever is in your glass, whether you’re Team Ludwig or Team Napoleon, whether your lederhosen are too tight for dancing or just right for yodeling, raise a Maß this September to the indelible mark Oktoberfest has left on worldwide beer culture.

Interested in blind tasting 48 Minnesota-made Märzens and festbiers? Get your ticket to Unlabeled No. 2: Oktoberfest happening on September 20 at Upper Landing Park in St. Paul.