Every year in Munich on “Theresa’s Fields”, Oktoberfest happens. But what is Oktoberfest, exactly? How did it start? And why isn’t it taking place in October? All good questions, thanks for asking, and we’ll answer them for you below.
The ultimate wedding breakfast
In October 1810 Crown Prince Ludwig (he’d later get promoted to King) married Princess Therese Saxony-Hildburghausen. To celebrate the event a festival was held on the fields (now renamed Theresa’s Fields in honour of the crown princess) in front of the Munich city gates and all its citizens were invited. Horse races marked the close of the event, which proved so popular it was decided to repeat the horse races in subsequent years which then in turn gave rise to the tradition of the Oktoberfest.
The arrival of beer
For the first few years the festival was all about the horse racing with an agricultural show thrown in for good measure. The horse races are no longer part of Oktoberfest (or Wiesn as it’s known by locals) but the agricultural show still takes place every three years. In 1818 the first carousel and some swings could be enjoyed and this is also when the first beer stands appeared. By 1896 the beer stands were replaced by tents and halls (all backed by local breweries) with the remainder of the site given over to the fun-fair.
The here and now
From that humble(ish) wedding bash in 1810 Oktoberfest has grown to become the largest festival in the world attended by 6 million people each year. Oktoberfest is of course famous for its beer but it’s not like a normal beer festival with a vast array of different styles to choose from. Oktoberfest is a beer style in itself, and the only one served at the festival. Oktoberfest the beer has to be brewed within the city limits of Munich and it has to conform to the German purity law, known as the Reinheitsgebot (the only ingredients used to brew the beer must be water, barley, hops, yeast). If a beer ticks these boxes it’s designated an Oktoberfest Beer. There are six breweries that fit the criteria: Augustiner-Brau, Hacker-Pschorr-Brau, Lowenbrau, Paulaner, Spatenbrau and Staatliches Hofbrau-Munchen.
So what is the beer style and what does it taste like? The Oktoberfest style is a lager known as Marzen and was originally brewed in March (Marz is the German word for March) and then lagered (from the German word ‘to store’) in cold storage over the hotter summer months. It’s a full bodied beer that derives much of its flavour from the malt that will give caramel, nutty, toasted notes balanced by floral, spicy hops. Its ABV is also higher than most lagers. This darker, deeper lager is the perfect beer with which to welcome the start of autumn.
Breweries all over the world can brew Oktoberfest beers, and many do, but they can’t and won’t be served at the festival.
Camden Town Brewery’s Oktoberfest Lager is brewed with chocolate malt and offers nutty and fruity notes accentuated by subtle floral hops.
In the US Firestone Walker’s Oaktoberfest is a rich, well hopped version of the style and Brooklyn Brewery’s take on it is a copper-coloured beer that offers a sweet, bready and dry character.
Oktoberfest and food
The malt driven toasty, caramel character of Marzen beers mean they are compatible with all sorts of food. The sweet flavour of grilled pork chops will match the sweetness in the beer, and it will complement German sausages, sauerkraut and onion too all served in volume at the festival. The full body of Oktoberfest beers also have more than enough oomph to stand up to the full flavour of a steak yet the versatility to work brilliantly with a meat topped pizza, spaghetti Bolognese or a Sunday roast.
What started off as a celebration of a royal wedding has developed into the world’s biggest festival attended by more people than the population of some countries. And it’s all for one style of beer too.
Oh and the Munich Oktoberfest ends on October 3rd so it does actually take place in October, just.