So, back in the day a couple kids got married …
Not just any kids mind you, we’re talking royals here. Crown Prince and eventual King of Bavaria, Ludwig I (let’s call him Louie) and Princess Therese (we’ll call her Tessie). The year is 1810 and Bavaria is an independent nation state. So when the future King and his bride announce their impending nuptials, it’s a national event and planning begins for a big party in the meadow just outside the city gates. Munich is the capital city of Bavaria and all its citizens were invited to join the celebration that included a horse race, parade, music, dancing and fine Bavarian beer. The celebration was such a hit that Louie & Tessie decided to repeat the event in 1811 and thus was born the annual celebration we now know as Oktoberfest. Today, the festival lasts for a little longer than two weeks and always ends on the first Sunday in October. This is why most of Oktoberfest actually occurs during September.
For over 200 years, folks have gathered in this same meadow to celebrate the Oktoberfest tradition. Yet for all that remains the same, many things have changed. For example, it wasn’t until 1881 that the first bratwurst was served at the festival, in 1892 glass mugs were first used for beer service. Perhaps most importantly, for the purposes of this blog, the beer served at the festival has changed. Surprisingly, particularly when compared to most American beer festivals, there are only six breweries that are allowed to serve their beer at the festival. All names you have likely seen or heard before, Augustiner, Hacker-Pschorr, Hofbräu, Löwenbräu, Paulaner and Spaten.
Early on, the beer served at the festival would have been in the style of what we today call Dunkel, a dark lager beer which was the dominant beer of the time in that region. But in the mid-1800’s beer making technology improved and lighter colored malts became more widely available. This led to the development of the Vienna, Pilsner and Helles style lagers we know today. One particular brewer, developed a recipe, that was slightly more orange than the dark ruby colored Dunkel, similar to the Vienna style, but slightly higher in alcohol, to be served at Oktoberfest for the first time in 1872. Known as Ur-Märzen, this style was quickly adopted by the other brewers and became the festival standard for over 100 years. Then in 1990, the six official festival brewers figured that they could sell more beer if they produced a version that was lighter in color with less toasted malt character and slightly increased hop flavor. The experiment was wildly successful as the total consumption grew from an average of about 5 million liters to over 7 million liters per festival. This less satiating brew would come to be known simply as Festbier.
A trip to Munich to participate in the annual festivities is a bucket list entry for most beer drinkers and it is certainly a lot of fun. However, you don’t need to board a plane to experience the beer history. The shelves and taps of your favorite local spots are most likely well stocked with several imported and locally made examples of Oktoberfest style beer. Most of them are in the Märzen category, but Dunkel and Festbier can also be found with a little digging. Seek them out, consider the differences in flavor and imagine yourself sitting on a hill in the meadow outside Munich drinking your beer from a stone mug and watching a horse race to celebrate Louie and Tessie tying the knot.