What is Oktoberfest?
Oktoberfest is a large festival held in Munich, Bavaria, Germany from late September through the first weekend in October. Originally a celebration first held in 1810
to celebrate a royal wedding, the horse races that were part of the festivities were held again the subsequent year, thus starting the tradition that has evolved into what we now know as Oktoberfest.
Oktoberfest in … September?
Ever wonder why Oktoberfest actually starts in September? Well, you can simply blame it on Mother Nature. October weather in Germany is often rainy, grey and cold, so a few years after the festival was started, the date was moved to ahead to span most of late September but still end in the last weekend of October (to uphold tradition). So now you can have your beers and good weather too!
Beer 101: What IS Märzen/Oktoberfest Beer?
Märzen, also known as Oktoberfest or Märzenbier, originates from early times before the invention of refrigeration. The beer was typically brewed in March (Märzen means March in German), stored throughout the warm summer months to avoid bacterial contamination, and then consumed in the fall (September/October).
Märzen is member of the lager family, which means the beer is fermented cool and stored (in other words “lagered”) at cold temperatures for an extended period of time. It is generally assumed that brewers were fermenting the beer in natural caves or perhaps cellars dug into the limestone hillsides. This style of beer originates from Bavaria and surrounding regions.
The common Märzen/Oktoberfest beer contains 5.0-6.0% alcohol, is amber to pale copper in color, and has a malty sweetness that is balanced with mild hops. It should have good carbonation and low-to-medium bitterness. The style has been changing over the years, however, so it is not uncommon to find brew variations that are paler and drier to accommodate the larger international audience and modern tastes. It is served in a pint glass or mug.
Beers Sold at Oktoberfest
The only beers that may be sold at the Munich Oktoberfest must be original Munich beers that follow the strict adherence of the “Reinheitsgebot” (Bavarian Purity Requirements) and that are brewed by authorized breweries of Munich. However, if you happen to live in the U.S., many American breweries brew their own versions of Oktoberfest beers – there is definitely no shortage of choices to sample.
Märzen officially became a fixed style in 1841, when the Spaten Brewery of Munich introduced the first lager officially labeled as Märzenbier at that year’s Oktoberfest. In 1872, the Spaten Brewery specifically brewed another Märzen-style beer for that year’s Oktoberfest, appropriately dubbed Oktoberfestbier. The name and general recipe stuck from there and you’ll see many beers labeled with “Oktoberfest” in the U.S. and other countries. In Germany, however, the name Oktoberfestbier is legally reserved for only six breweries who many serve their beers at the Munich Oktoberfest. All other breweries may only use the Märzen designation for like-style beers.
There is not a great distinction between Märzenbier and Oktoberfestbier and brewers don’t always use these designations consistently on labels, which is why you may often see them used interchangeably.
Märzen has a very close relative called Vienna lager, first brewed by the Dreher Brewery of Schwechat near Vienna in 1841. It is not a coincidence that this beer emerged the same year as Märzen; the two brewers that created these styles were close friends and collaborated together. While Märzen is still fairly popular, Vienna lager is rarely brewed even in the city where it was born. However you’ll actually see it most often these days coming from Mexico – some common examples are Dos Equis and Negra Modelo. This is a result of late 19th century immigrant brewers arriving in Mexico from Austria.
A Little More Info…
Oktoberfest turned 200 years old in 2010, but it has not actually been held that many total times. Due to difficult times such as cholera epidemics and the first and second World Wars, Oktoberfest has actually been cancelled a total of 24 times.
Today the Munich Oktoberfest is the most famous beer festival in the world with an average of 6 million people attending every year
Have you ever attended Oktoberfest in Munich or locally in your own city? Share your experiences or favorite Oktoberfest beers with us!