Friday, September 12, 2014

Oktoberfest Refresher Course

Yea, I get pretty excited about this shit.
September is the best month of the year. We finally get a break from stifling humidity and blast-furnace breezes, the vegetables are producing like crazy, deer season opens, the trees start turning, hops, barley, and grapes are being harvested, and, of course, Oktoberfest! You may be wondering why I would include Oktoberfest in with all the other great things in September. No matter the engineering precision the Bavarians are known for, you can't always say the same about their linguistic accuracy.

Contrary to popular belief, the majority of Oktoberfest actually takes place in September. The one-true Oktoberfest officially begins two weeks and a day before the first Sunday in October. This puts the official start of the Fest at September 20th this year. So with the beginning of Oktoberfest looming, I thought I'd put together an Oktoberfest primer to get you in the mood.

Himmel der Bayern

Bavarian Heaven
Oktoberfest is a Bavarian thing and really only a Munich thing. Over the years, I've talked to a lot of people who believe that Oktoberfest is held on every street corner in Germany basically all year long. However, the official Oktoberfest is held only at a special fairground named the Theresienwiese (the Wiesn) near the center of Munich. The Wiesn is named after Therese of Bavaria, whose wedding to Ludwig I, King of Bavaria, was the reason for original festival in 1810. There are plenty of other folk festivals throughout the rest of Germany in the autumn, but none rivals the size and renown of Oktoberfest.

My wife knows what's up with dirndls!
In actuality, many Germans, especially those from the north, view Oktoberfest the same way someone living in New York might view a Midwestern state fair. A bunch of vulgar drunk hillbillies doing hillbilly things. Now, we all know that this is basically what state fairs actually are, but we don't care because it's just too fun to drink beer, eat fried food, peruse the prize cocks and bulls, and end up throwing up on the tilt-a-whirl.

What most people don't realize about Oktoberfest is that it is essentially same as one of our state fairs, just with more highly organized drinking and singing. It is actually considered the largest folk festival in the world. And if you are ever lucky enough to visit, you'll see why. The fest includes parades, carnival rides, food stands, and even livestock and tractor shows. The music is pretty much all tubas, accordions, and alphorns, and the vogue fashion on the Wiesn is peasant clothing from the 19th century. (And one cannot underestimate the importance of the dirndl.)

Das Bier

Notice the name. "Oktober Fest-Märzen."
The Ayinger Brewery is south of Munich. 
All the Volksmusik and history aside, now the focus is mostly on the beer and beer tents. (If you can still consider these 8,000 person capacity canvas structures a tent.) However, Oktoberfest beer as a style doesn't really exist as we typically imagine it over here. "Oktoberfestbier" is actually a legally protected designation in Germany, and only beers produced within the city limits of Munich can be called that. What's more, the typical beer served on the Wiesn is actually relatively light in color, body, and flavor--perfect for drinking by the liter.

The beers we think of as Oktoberfest beers are more accurately described as märzens and are quite a bit different than what's served on the Wiesn these days. Märzen (literally, March beer) was historically the last beer brewed at the end of winter and would be the only thing available to drink in the late summer and early fall months. Before Louie Pasteur and modern refrigeration, it was difficult to impossible to brew beer in the hot warm summer months without it spoiling from airborne bacteria and yeast. To combat this, brewers made stronger and hoppier beers at the end of winter that would keep well during long summer storage in caves.

Märzen is what is typically brewed by craft breweries the world over for this season, and I'm glad for it. Although I have had my share of it, I'd rather skip the Wiesn beer for a good hearty märzen this time of year. A perfect Oktoberfest märzen for me is one that has a rich yet smooth malt sweetness up front, and a balanced, dry finish. This gives you the great rich flavor you get from the specialty Munich malt, but allows you to keep drinking all day long.

Some of my favorites that you can buy around here include Ayinger Oktober Fest-Märzen, Free State Octoberfest, Left Hand Oktoberfest, and Boulevard's Bob's 47. The key, though, like any lager, is that the beer is fresh and has been treated well, i.e. always kept refrigerated and out of the sun. I haven't had a chance to try out the KC Bier Co Festbier yet, but based on the freshness factor (and the fact that KC Bier Co just brews great beer) their fest beer might just end up being our best bet locally. 

Stay tuned next week for a full rundown of all the Oktoberfest events here in town! Eins, Zwei, G'suffa!


  1. Thanks for the rundown on Oktoberfest. Considering its strictly Munich/Bavarian origins, I wonder how many of the German-American communities that celebrate Oktoberfest (read: Hermann, MO) have any sort of links to that part of Germany? It seems like it's probably just a pan-German heritage event these days, but it would be interesting to know how it got started over here...

  2. That's a really good question and something I hadn't thought about before. German-Americans emigrated from all over Germany. I believe that most of the Germans in Kansas actually originated in Russia, part of the so-called Volga Germans, and many of the Germans in Missouri immigrated after the revolutions of 1848. Those immigrants were primarily protestants and liberals from Prussia, especially from the areas along the Rhine. So you would think that these groups wouldn't have anything to do with the Bavarian (and primarily Catholic) traditions.

    I have a feeling that most of these various German groups had their own festivals and traditions that they celebrated pre-war that got lost during the German cultural backlash during the world wars. Maybe the groups just saw Oktoberfest and the Bavarian culture was just the most accessible return to traditional German culture? That would definitely be something interesting to investigate more.