Seasonal beers are a blessing. Many craft beer companies have their own schedule of seasonal beers, ones that pair flavors and brewing styles with appropriate times of the year. Christmas ales full of cinnamon and nutmeg, Irish Red brews around St. Patrick’s Day, and a summer full of citrus, honey, and refreshment. Fall is now here, when we all turn to earthier flavors. We look at spices, apples, pecans, and of course, pumpkins. But, there is another style of beer that becomes very popular at this time of year, because of a very large festival in Germany. Oktoberfest is a festival that lasts around two weeks, beginning in mid-September and ending in the first few days of October. And for this fine festival, a special brew called a Märzen is brought out and enjoyed by the masses.
On October 12th, 1810, Prince Ludwig was married to Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen. There was a festival planned that day for all of Bavaria, and that festival included parades, horse races, drinking, and food. The festival grounds were renamed Theresienwiese (Therese’s Field, now known as Wies’n) in her honor, and the festival was a smash hit. However, an event like Oktoberfest is not made in one year. Due to the popularity of the festival, it was repeated at about the same time in 1811. This time, however, an agricultural festival was included. As time has progressed, the beer tents became beer halls (1896), and amusements, from carousels to bowling alleys, were added to make each year bigger and better. By the 1960’s the horse races were all but over, occurring once every three years or so. But, the festival itself had become the juggernaut that we all know and love, making us familiar with beer steins and lederhosen. It has become a celebration of German culture in the United States, where we borrow many of the similar tradition for our much shorter festivals.
Food and beer are the big reasons so many people attend Oktoberfests throughout the country. Initially, the October celebrations had less to do with a parade and a royal family, and more to do with a specific kind of beer. Before refrigeration, it was very hard to brew a good beer during the summer. In March (the German translation of the month being März), brewers would make a mad rush to brew as much beer as they could to drink and sell over the summer months. It was a very malty, darker beer, with a little more hops in it as a preservative. It was kept in storage in caves – lagered, as they put it – which increased the richness of the flavor as well as the content of the alcohol. When October came around again, and it was safer (and legal) to brew beer again, any beer that was not sold or used had to be consumed to empty the barrels. This beer was called Märzen, and it had a little more kick (6 to 8% ABV) and flavor than typically enjoyed. This beer became incorporated into the festival, and also became a reason to make sure the Red Cross was always on hand. Since most people are used to drinking lower strength beer, they drink as much Märzen at Oktoberfest as they do during a regular night out. With the higher strength of the brew, more people get drunk and pass out, so many in fact that the Germans developed a name for them, the Bierleichen, or “beer corpses”. Not only is there beer, but there is a wide range of food available, from any of the wursts you can think of, to German pastries like strudels and plum cake (Zwetschgenkuchen), and many, many ways to eat potatoes and sauerkraut.
One of the reasons it took Oktoberfest so long to pick up speed was the number of interruptions it suffered in the early years of its existence. Not three years after the festival started, it had to be cancelled because of the Napoleonic War. It was cancelled outright nineteen times for a variety of reasons, twice for cholera outbreaks in the region, and multiple times for a variety of wars, including World Wars I and II. In the years following World War I, it was cancelled due to hyperinflation of the Deutschmark, where people were taking wheelbarrows of cash to buy bread and milk. In the years after some wars, it was not cancelled, but scaled back to a smaller “Fall Festival”. After each interruption the festival came back with greater strength, new tents, and more entertainment for the masses. Dire events could make give the festival a break, or a smaller scale, but the festival was popular enough to come back stronger after each upheaval.
This weekend Dayton celebrates Oktoberfest at the Dayton Art Institute, September 24th and 25th, 2011. While it is considerably shorter than the sixteen days they celebrate in Munich, it will be just as festive. A wide variety of beers will be available, such as Wiehenstephaner (one of the oldest breweries in the world) and Warsteiner from Germany, a wide variety of Oktoberfest beers from Harpoon, Great Lakes Brewing Company, Leinenkugel, and Spaten, was well as other local favorites. The food will be plentiful, the music will span from polkas to jazz, and there will even be a home brew contest to add more unique flavors. From a simple wedding ceremony on a lawn in front of a palace to a celebration that draws over six million people from around the world and spawned similar celebrations in cities globally, Oktoberfest has grown in size and scale. Step out this weekend and enjoy the variety, the atmosphere, and the tradition of a festival that has been two centuries in the making. Prost!