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oktoberfest
a primer
by erik lars myers (@TopFermented)
9.23.09
pop culture

This past Saturday marked the beginning of Oktoberfest 2009. For the next 2-ish weeks, it'll be nothing but polka, sausages, and tasty, tasty Oktoberfest beer, no matter where you turn.

What's that I hear you say? It's only September? Why so it is! It so happens that Oktoberfest begins in September and didn't even originally involve binge drinking.

A quick dive into history

The first Oktoberfest wasn't a beer festival at all. It was a commemoration of the wedding of Crown Prince Ludwig I to Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen on October 12, 1810. The good people of Munich were invited to - and held - a five-day festival to celebrate the marriage. The main event was a horse race. Each year thereafter, an anniversary party was put on and it turned out to be a lot like what we would think of as a state fair. There were horse races, agricultural shows, a fair, and probably even the 19th Century version of deep-fried Snickers bars: pork knuckles.

After a time, the city began to allow beer on site, and small beer stands started appearing. They were formally replaced by beer halls sponsored by local breweries around 1896. Today, there are gigantic beer tents - still sponsored by local breweries - that, for most, are the main attraction of the festival. The horse races were concluded in the 1960's and the agriculture show is held only once every four years.

Due to its popularity, the festival was lengthened to sixteen days and the date of the beginning of the festival was pushed back so that the festival would end on the first Saturday in October, mainly so that party-goers could have pleasant weather to binge-drink by. After German Reunification, the schedule was changed slightly so that if the first Saturday in October were to fall on the 1st or the 2nd, the festival would last through October 3rd, which is German Unity Day.

Admission to Oktoberfest in Munich is free, but you can't drink without a table reservation. Plan ahead, though! Reservations often sell out in early spring.

Oktoberfest, the beer

What we think of as Oktoberfest beer has been around much longer than the Oktoberfest festival itself. In fact, the beer style that Oktoberfest is based on - Märzen, also known as Vienna Lager - pre-dates Oktoberfest by almost 300 years. Of course, that is at least somewhat conjecture based on a Bavarian brewing ordinance from 1539 stating that beer may only be brewed between Michaelmas (Sept 29) and St. George's Day (April 23), due to brewing being a fire hazard during the dry 16th Century summers.

It is likely how the tradition of brewing beer in the winter and spring and lagering (in German lager means "storage") in cool caves and cellars through the summer started, even though lager yeast itself - the organism that creates these clean, crisp beers - wouldn't be isolated until 1840.

Märzen is an amber lager. It was historically brewed in the winter and spring for consumption through the summer months. Flavor-wise it is light and crisp, with a nice smooth malty finish and no discernible hop bitterness. It is now difficult to find in its place of origin, but it was brought to Mexico by Austrian immigrants; you can still find it today in the form of Negra Modelo. New forms of Vienna Lager are widely available through American craft breweries.

The origin of Oktoberfest bier is credited to Gabriel Sedlmayr, of Munich's Spaten Brewery, who adapted Vienna Lager for his own brewery soon after the isolation of lager yeast. Flavor-wise it is almost identical to Märzen, but tends to be a bit drier and more crisp.

Traditional Oktoberfest biers that you would find at the festival are widely available in the U.S. Keep an eye out for Spaten, Paulaner, Hacker-Pschorr, Löwenbräu, and Augustiner. In addition, many American Craft Breweries make their own versions of Oktoberfest that are almost all worth trying. Beer Advocate currently lists 372 beers under a search for Oktoberfest.

Oktoberfest in America

As can be seen in every other slightly ethnic pseudo-holiday, Americans appear to love the chance to caricature other nationalities and drink in public. As it is for St. Patrick's Day and Cinco de Mayo, so it is for Oktoberfest. The difference is that in this one, the Germans apparently beat us to the caricaturization and we lustily follow in their footsteps with polka bands held high.

You will be hard pressed to find an urban area, or even a small conglomeration of pubs, in the next two weeks that isn't celebrating Oktoberfest in some fashion. Beer Advocate features an event calendar than can help you narrow down what might be near you, and it's well worth it.

Oktoberfest festivals often feature good german sausages and sauerkraut, potato pancakes, and other wonderful starchy, fatty, German foods that go perfectly with an crisp Oktoberfest beer. You can usually raise a glass and swing it in time with a good polka band, do a chicken dance or two, and croon along to the time honored classic In Heaven There Is No Beer.

So dust off your lederhosen, grab a felt hat, stick a feather in it, and raise a pint to dead King Ludwig and Queen Therese for bringing us this excellent excuse to drink some of the most well-crafted beer we'll have all year.

Prost!


ABOUT ERIK LARS MYERS

Writer, beer drinker, brewer. Not necessarily in the order. For more, check Top Fermented and Mystery Brewing Company.

more about erik lars myers

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