(Note: This is a modified version of a piece I wrote for the Stormcloud Brewing Co. Cloudspotter members.)
Time to pull out your beer steins and dust off your lederhosen – it’s time for Oktoberfest! As seasoned beer drinkers, I’m sure you’re all familiar with Oktoberfest, but I wanted to give you a more in-depth lowdown.
Oktoberfest is a two-week long celebration that takes place in Munich, Germany (Bavaria’s capital). This year it would have started Saturday, September 19, but is cancelled due to COVID-19. While Oktoberfest has largely become associated with beer, it is so much more than that! It boasts the title of “world’s largest folk festival” – and for good reason. According to The Telegraph, “in addition to eating, drinking and dancing, visitors can enjoy colourful parades, a variety of fairground rides, and for those not themselves in traditional Bavarian gear, admire those that are.”¹ The main festivities are located in a meadow just outside of the city’s epicenter, and hosts millions of people every year. There are massive tents set up, “with colourful façades, long wooden tables and benches, and frequently on more than one level”¹ with some holding “between 5,000 and 11,000 people, both inside and in the attached exterior beer gardens.”² There are many types of cuisine, but the most well known are traditional Bavarian fare, including sausages, chickens, giant pretzels and wild oxen. To keep up with the times, there are even vegan options!² Don’t think for a minute that this is an adult-only affair – there are plenty of activities for folks of all ages. Every Tuesday of Oktoberfest is Family Day, and there is a family section (called Familienplatzl) that is open all two weeks.³
The first Oktoberfest took place in 1810, and with few exceptions has happened annually ever since. The inaugural Oktoberfest wasn’t a festival at all – it was a wedding reception for Bavaria’s Crown Prince Ludwig and Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen, complete with feasting, drinking, and a horse race!⁴ The celebration was so well received that the locals wanted more the next year. That year the festivities were sponsored by the Bavarian Agriculture Association (Landwirtschaftlicher Verein in Bayern) as they recognized it as an excellent venue to highlight their wares. As the popularity increased, the economic gains for Munich became obvious, and it became an annual event.⁵
It is a common belief that there has only been one style of beer served throughout the history of Oktoberfest, but there is an abundance of historical evidence to counter that claim. According to the Oxford Companion to Beer, “In the first 60 or so years the then popular Bavarian Dunkel seemed to have dominated.” Then, in 1872, when a brewery ran out of their Dunkel, they served a much stronger Bock (18°P at a probable 8% ABV), and sold it at premium prices.⁶ These Bock-strength beers were popular leading up until World War I, after which the strength of the “standard” Oktoberfest beer fluctuated (between 4-9% ABV.)⁷ For decades after the World Wars, Märzenbier was THE beer style served at Oktoberfest. This style was traditionally brewed in March and lagered in cold caves over the summer, making it perfectly timed to serve late September at Oktoberfest.⁸ According to the BJCP Style Guidelines, American craft versions of Oktoberfest are generally based on the Märzenbier style, despite it not being what is currently served at Oktoberfest. Since 1990, the majority of beer served at Oktoberfest is a style called Festbier. In comparison it is less intense and less richly toasted than a Märzen. Festbier is a lighter, more drinkable but still malty version that (according to the head brewer at Paulaner) they wanted to be “more poundable.”⁸
To read more about these different beer styles, check out the Beer Judge Certification Program Style Guidelines here.
•According to German and European Union regulations, no beers except those brewed by the authorized large breweries of Munich are allowed to be labeled “Oktoberfest.”⁶
•Oktoberfest draws about 6 million tourists every year.⁴
•7 million liters of local beer are poured each year.⁴
•A liter of beer costs between $11.48-$12 (US dollars)¹
•In 1854, organizers were forced to cancel Oktoberfest in the face of cholera outbreaks.⁴
•Over 200,000 pairs of sausage are consumed.¹
•In 2018, Lufthansa (Germany’s largest airline) had their flight crews dressed in traditional Bavarian garb and serve fresh draft beer mid-flight.¹⁰
•Some of the most ridiculous things to land in the Oktoberfest lost and found include a pet grasshopper, a set of dentures, a segway, a fishing rod, a garden gnome, and a dachshund called ‘Wasti.”¹
Whether you’re going to Oktoberfest in Munich or a version of it stateside, It doesn’t hurt to know some lingo!
Wiesn – means “the meadow;” what Oktoberfest is called locally.⁶
Masskrug – iconic Oktoberfest 1 liter glasses.⁶
Dirndl – a traditional alpine dress which was once only worn by the proudest of Bavarians. Today, it is popular among all nationalities at Oktoberfest. A dirndl tied on the left means you are available; on the right shows you’re taken; in the center means virgin; and in the back means widowed or waitress.⁹
Lederhosen – traditional leather pants (with or without suspenders.) Though most Germans would never don a pair of these leather trousers, some Bavarians wear them year-round.⁹
Prost – Cheers!⁹
O’zapft is! – “It is tapped” – the phrase uttered by Munich’s mayor to mark the opening of the first beer barrel and the commencement of the drinking.¹
Wiesn Brezn – Bavaria’s famous, giant salt-encrusted pretzel.²
Bratwurst – regional sausage usually served with a bread roll.²
Halbes Hendl – half a roast chicken.²
Bierleiche – “beer corpses”, or – less morbidly – “snoozing drunks”⁹
Kotzhügel – “puke hill” – a hill in the festival where many Bierleiche rest – and perhaps occasionally empty their stomachs.⁹
1. Bridge, Adrian. “Everything you need to know about Oktoberfest – including how to book a last-minute trip.” The Telegraph (London), September 17, 2018. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/destinations/europe/germany/munich/articles/Oktoberfest-Munich-guide/
2. Schulte-Peevers, Andrea. “10 Secrets to Doing Oktoberfest Like a Local.” Festivals + Events. AFAR, July 23, 2019. https://www.afar.com/magazine/10-secrets-to-doing-oktoberfest-like-a-local.
3. “Every Tuesday is Family Day at Oktoberfest.” Oktoberfest.de. https://www.oktoberfest.de/en/information/children-and-family/every-tuesday-is-family-day-at-oktoberfest.
4. Latson, Jennifer. “How Oktoberfest Has Weathered Stormy Times.” Time. AFAR, October 12, 2015. https://time.com/4065335/oktoberfest-history/.
5. “The history of Oktoberfest.” Oktoberfest.de. https://www.oktoberfest.de/en/magazine/tradition/the-history-of-oktoberfest.
6. Seidl, Conrad. In The Oxford Companion to Beer, edited by Garrett Oliver, 624-25. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.
7. “The History of Beer At Oktoberfest.” American Homebrewers Association. https://www.homebrewersassociation.org/how-to-brew/the-history-of-beer-at-oktoberfest/.
8. “BJCP Beer Style Guidelines.” edited by Gordon Strong and Kristin England, 2015th ed. N.p.: Beer Judge Certification Program, 2015. https://www.bjcp.org/docs/2015_Guidelines_Beer.pdf.
9. Porter, Erin. “Every German Word You Need to Know for Oktoberfest.” TripSavvy. Last modified August 20, 2019. https://www.tripsavvy.com/german-vocabulary-for-oktoberfest-1520087.
10. “Lufthansa’s traditional dirndl crew flights celebrate Oktoberfest with onboard “beer on tap”.” Lufthansa Group. Last modified September 19, 2018. https://www.lufthansagroup.com/en/press/media-relations-north-america/news-and-releases/2018/q3/lufthansas-traditional-dirndl-crew-flights-celebrate-oktoberfest-with-onboard-beer-on-tap.html