Guten tag! It’s that special time of year where you get to embrace your inner German (whether you’re German or not) and enjoy the festivities of Oktoberfest. Perhaps this year, you’re feeling more introspective than usual, wondering why you’re celebrating and not just how many steins of beer you’ll drink. Well, we’re here to give you the rundown on everyone’s favorite lederhosen holiday.
So what exactly is Oktoberfest? Why do we go out and drink like there’s no tomorrow surrounded by strangers? And why do they call it Oktoberfest when it starts in September? Don’t worry; all your questions will be answered. Read on to find out!
History of Oktoberfest
Traditionally, Oktoberfest started as a Bavarian celebration of beer, culture, and beer again but has quickly spread to all parts of the world where Germans can be found. The first, largest, and original Oktoberfest ”Volksfest,” or beer festival, began in the city of Munich, where it continues to this very day. Millions of beer drinkers take their pilgrimage there every year to experience a trademark Bavarian welcome while enjoying everything the festival has to offer.
If you’re wondering why Oktoberfest mostly happens in September, the reason is purely a practical one. Over time the event was moved up to allow for better weather conditions. September nights are usually much warmer, so visitors can enjoy the outside areas better. Oktoberfest’s last day has always been the first Sunday in October and still is to this day.
Visitors of Oktoberfest enjoy traditional German foods, listen to music, and drink the famous Oktoberfest/Marzen beer. Festivities begin in mid-September and end at the beginning of October. The mayor of Munich sets off the fun and games by tapping into the first keg, yelling "O' zapft is!" (or “It's tapped!”), and gives a glass to whatever honored person is in attendance.
The festival came into existence on October 12, 1810, to celebrate a royal marriage between Crown Prince Ludwig of Bavaria and his new wife, Princess Therese von Sachsen-Hildburghausen.
In a unique turn of events, the wedding festivities were opened up to the public for all to enjoy. Most importantly, the royals provided everyone with free beer and food! It was such a hit that the town decided to make it a yearly tradition to keep the peasants happy… Sorry, the locals.
The festival ended five days later with a horse race held in a field which was named “Theresienwiese” or “Therese’s meadow,” which it is still called today. A year later, in 1811, the horse race tradition was combined with the state agricultural fair to create an even bigger event.
As the years went on, more festive elements were added. It actually took until the late 1900s for the beer/food booths to transform into the trademark beer halls that everyone knows and loves.
What Happens at Oktoberfest?
Oktoberfest is a festival themed around one thing: drinking beer. So that’s what everyone there does! According to statistics collected from the event, the total beer consumption during Oktoberfest is somewhere around 2 million gallons. That’s a lot of beer.
Some of the main events you wouldn’t want to miss at Oktoberfest are as follows:
- Tapping of the keg by the Munich Mayor
- Parade of Landlords and Breweries
- Costume and Riflemen’s Parade
- “Böllerschießen” Cannon Salute
At its heart, Oktoberfest is about people coming together to have some fun—they just happen to be wearing traditional garb, like lederhosen and dirndls. The event is themed around music, games, beer, amusements, beer tents, and interesting cultural touchstones.
Some of the famous food you’ll encounter at a traditional and authentic Oktoberfest celebration are:
- Smoked sausages
- Steckerlfisch (grilled fish)
- Schweinebraten (roast pork)
- Schweinshaxe (grilled ham)
- Obatzda (spiced cheese spread)
- Käsespätzle (basically German mac and cheese)
We’re getting hungry just thinking about it.
Music is another essential part of the Oktoberfest experience. It may be strange if you’re not used to that kind of music, but it's not all horns and bass like pop culture would have you assume. Germany's music has developed significantly over time, and part of the fun is seeing the evolution at festivals like this.
Famous Foods at Oktoberfest
Eating is almost as important as drinking at Oktoberfest, so you’ll need to be prepared for what kinds of things you’ll eat with that stein of beer.
The main foods that have become associated with the 16-day festival are all German favorites. One such item is the German pretzel, a salty snack that goes perfectly with an ice-cold beer.
Other foods that are necessary to try at the festival include bratwursts and sauerkraut, a famous combination that stimulates the senses. Bratwurst is a type of German sausage commonly made from beef, veal, or pork, while sauerkraut is deliciously fermented cabbage. Together, they’re unstoppable.
Lastly, you’ll need to try Wiener schnitzel. This is a thin, breaded, pan-fried veal cutlet. It is one of the best-known specialties of Germany and one of the national dishes of Austria.
Authentic Oktoberfest Beer
It’s not all fun and games at Oktoberfest; there are some ground rules.
The main festival regulations decree that only beer from Munich's six breweries can be served to thirsty patrons. The six brewers are Spaten, Hacker-Pschorr, Paulaner, Augustiner-Bräu, Löwenbräu, and Hofbräu. The beer from these breweries must also pass a purity law (Reinheitsgebot), which was introduced in 1516 to make sure beer was up to the standards that those 16th-century peasants were accustomed to.
Marzen beer (a very special beer that follows specific criteria) is brewed in March specifically for Oktoberfest. It is known for having a gravity 2% higher than regular beers, and it’s been served to people at the festival since 1818. These beers have changed over time, with the original styles being darker Bavarian Dunkel and slowly replaced with an amber-hued Märzen, which is now the “official” beer of the event.
All the main breweries of the Club of Munich Brewers brew their own versions of Marzen for the event. Traditionally, Oktoberfest served lagers of around 5 to 6 ABV, often being dark lagers, but slowly, the color has lightened up.
If you’re not in the mood for beer? This famous event even has a wine tent called Weinzelt for those who prefer to avoid beer.
Types of Beer
Of the Oktoberfest brews, the beer served is almost always lagers. Ales are much less common and, while not illegal or anything, you’ll be the odd person out if that’s what you’re drinking in your beer tent. The type of lagers available actually vary significantly, so there’s a bit to know.
At the original festival in Germany, only specific breweries are allowed to sell their beers within the tents. At other Oktoberfest events across the world, though, it’s a different situation entirely. According to the European Union, only beers brewed by the six Munich breweries can be called “Oktoberfest” (just like how Champagne can only be from the Champagne region of France to have that name).
All other breweries are required to call their seasonal lagers “Oktoberfest style” beer. But crafty breweries with over-paid marketing departments have found ways to get around this hurdle with clever turns of phrase.
Oktoberfest beers made in America are inspired by the kinds served in Munich but are usually notably different from German beers. The Brewers Association explains that this style of beer has two different types: German-Style Wiesn and American-Style Marzen. Both styles of this seasonal beer are known for roasty, malty notes that go perfectly with colder weather.
If you’re looking for an Oktoberfest feeling beer that’s a bit closer to home (assuming you’re from America, that is), then you can’t go wrong with a Munich style beer such as Grand Royal from the Oxbow Brewing Company. It’s a pale lager brewed with European malts and noble hops, rocking a solid 5% ABV.
Otherwise, almost every brand of beer you're familiar with has an “Oktoberfest” style during that special time of year that is worth trying. Brands from Yuengling to Sam Adams to the Ross Brewing Co. all release their own style in celebration of this beer-themed holiday. Crack them all open to see which puts you in the mood to devour a sausage in a Tyrolean hat.
Beer for One, Beer for All
Oktoberfest is, simply put, all about having fun. It’s about getting together with friends and family regardless of circumstances to drink lots of beer together. Really, it doesn’t get much better than that! It doesn’t matter how involved you are in Germanic culture, where you’re celebrating, or what you’re drinking as long as you’re doing it together.
And if you’re looking for a place to find the perfect beer to celebrate your own Oktoberfest on your own time, check us out at TapRM for all your beer desires. Prost (aka toast)!