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The story behind Oktoberfest



The world's most famous beer bash is named for October, although the bulk of the celebration falls in September. This year, Munich's renowned Oktoberfest began Sept. 18, and the last strains of oompah music faded just this week.

By its end, about 6 million people will have visited the wies'n—the festival site—drinking about 6 million liters of beer. Since the beer is sold by the one-liter portion—a heavy glass "mass"—that's just a single serving for each festival guest. From personal observation, though, I'd say that some visitors do their best to raise those consumption numbers single-handedly.

Last year, all that beer washed down 111 roast oxen, half a million roasted chickens and 116,923 pairs of sausages, consumed when the festival goers weren't busy on the roller coasters, loop-de-loops and spinning gondolas. These carnival amusements seem incongruous until you realize that Oktoberfest has far more in common with our upcoming state fair than any of our local beer festivals. Beer is essential, but not central to the occasion.

Oktoberfest began in 1810, so this is the 200th anniversary, though only the 177th fest. The first was a celebration of the wedding of the future King Ludwig I to Princess Theresia of Saxony, whose name is still honored in the venue of the festival: Theresienwiese, or Theresa's Green. Through the 19th century, the event grew into an agricultural show that drew visitors and vendors from all over Bavaria and Austria. The unpredictable weather prompted the Munich hosts to coax the starting date back from inclement October to the last two weeks in September.

The beer connection grew gradually from a few modest booths at the early fests, and, like Oktoberfest itself, it also has its month-name confusion. The reigning beer style for this fall festival derives from a beer known as "Märzen," named for the month of March. This style traces its origin to the days before refrigeration, when it was unadvisable—and, under the rigorous Bavarians, eventually illegal—to brew during the warm summer months when contamination of the beer was likely. So beers were brewed in spring and stored over the summer for fall consumption

In 1872, the new, copper penny-bright March beer debuted at Oktoberfest, the creation of the Sedlmayer family of brewers. Mellow, malty and hearty, with a drier finish than its dark predecessors, it became the model for every Oktoberfest beer produced since.

Only Munich breweries may sell their beer at Oktoberfest. Once numbering 14 or 15, qualifying brewers have been cut by closure and consolidation to a powerful six: the Sedlmayer's brewery, now Spaten-Franziskaner Bräu; Augustiner; Hacker-Pschorr; Hofbräu (the Royal Brewery) München; Löwenbräu; and Paulaner. Of these, only two are German-owned today, the rest having fallen to international conglomerates.

The beer itself, as well as the breweries' ownership, has changed. Much of the beer served is now in a lighter, crisper style, rather than the rich, nutty Märzen. If you decide on hosting an Oktoberfest event of your own, look for beers explicitly labeled Märzen, rather than the tamer Oktoberfestbier, if traditional flavor is important.

If you want authentic flavor but are less concerned with pedigree, Oktoberfest beers in the Märzen tradition have become popular seasonal treats with U.S. microbrewers. Already on our shelves you can find Oktoberfest/ Octoberfest beers from Sam Adams, Harpoon, Saranac, Brooklyn and Otter Creek. North Carolina's own Weeping Radish, established by a Bavarian brewer, offers an excellent fest beer year-round. And just last week, Foothills Brewing Co. in Winston-Salem claimed the bronze medal in the Märzen category at the biggest American beer event, the Great American Beer Festival in Denver.

For food, you may not decide to spring for an entire ox to roast, but Oktoberfest fare should be substantial and earthy. In Munich, hendl—whole chicken roasted on a spit—is eaten half a chicken at a time. Steckerlfisch—whole mackerel or trout roasted on a spit—disappears by the school-full. Roast leg of pork, roast duck, meatballs and an assortment of sausages can be paired with warm potato salad or slow-cooked red cabbage with apple. Soft pretzels pique the appetite, and radi—sharp, peppery radishes spiked with salt—whet the thirst.

Oompah bands are optional, even in Munich, where the royalties on traditional music have driven many bands to oompah versions of non-German hits (John Denver's "Take Me Home Country Roads" is inexplicably popular, although Denver's real last name was Deutschendorf), and many Oktoberfest venues promote rock 'n' roll instead.

But if you decide to replicate Oktoberfest in your backyard on, say, a one-millionth scale (roughly six guests at your place), one Munich tradition must be honored. At some point in the evening, all the guests must crowd onto a long bench, link arms and sway energetically to the music, whatever it is. Then, on cue, all raise their glasses and shout the Bavarian toast "Oans, zwoa, g'suffa!"—One, two, drink!

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