It turns out, the beer bash was hardly the invention of college fraternities or football stadium concessionaires. While college spring breakers may have inadvertently elevated beer drinking to an art form, people in Germany have been throwing back great brews in style for nearly two centuries.
By Ralph DiGennaro
Having had the pleasure of visiting Munich during Oktoberfest, I was struck by the way the entire city parties together, en masse, all day and into the night. Around each corner and in every cavernous beer hall, there wasn’t a single German without a beer stein dripping with foam in one hand and a giant wurst in the other. And while I spoke virtually no German, I could still sing and clink with the best of them.
Oktoberfest: The Party
The first Oktoberfest actually didn’t start out as a Bavarian festival, but rather as a public celebration of the “Oktober Wedding” of Crown Prince Ludwig I (who later became King Ludwig I) and Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen. The story goes that on October 12, 1810, all of Munich was invited to join in the royal celebration at a festival held in a meadow in front of the city gates. There was music, dancing, horse racing and beer, beer and more beer. The revelry continued through the night and into the next day. And the day after. And the day after that. More than two weeks later, the world’s longest beer bash finally ended.
It should come as no surprise that the hoopla surrounding Leopold and Therese’s wedding was repeated the following year in Munich, establishing the tradition of Oktoberfest.
Oktoberfest: The Beer
At the time of the first Oktoberfest, March was usually the last month to brew good beer—anything crafted in warmer months would invariably be plagued with an unpleasant taste and aroma. Because alcohol is a natural preservative, these beers were intentionally made with a higher alcohol content. The result was a full-bodied, amber-color lager with a mild hop flavor that featured a slightly sweet, malty taste.
It just so happened that the royal wedding came at a time of year when the spring’s stockpiled beers needed to be depleted in order to make room for the new fall production. The optimal method for disposing of the previous season’s brew? Let the people drink it. All of it. Even if it took more than two weeks to drain every stein in the city.
And so that special spring brew became the official beer of Oktoberfest, taking the name to boot. These days, Oktoberfest beers crafted in Europe by and large tend to be lighter in color and body than their ancestors. However, American breweries have taken to turning out Oktoberfest beers that are higher in alcohol, richer in hop flavor and aroma and deeper in color than those of Europe.
Coming To America
World War II put a decided crimp in the Oktoberfest celebrations in Europe. But when the conflict was over and Germans began immigrating to North America, Oktoberfests began sprouting up throughout the American landscape. So pervasive and popular has this festival become in the United States that it is now home to one of the largest Oktoberfest celebrations in the world.
Each September, Cincinnati hosts nearly 700,000 enthusiasts who jam the streets of “Zinzinnati” and polka their way around seven soundstages and through a maze of food vendors offering bratwurst, sauerkraut and thousands of gallons of, you guessed it, beer.
OKTOBERFEST BY THE NUMBERS:
6 million attendees flock to Munich for the party each year.
14 million liters of beer are downed by revelers
600,000 spit-roasted chickens are consumed
300,000 pork sausages are consumed
1,440 toilets are available for visitors