Oktoberfest, The Biggest Folk Festival in World History
What if I told you that the world’s biggest beer festival centered in the mecca for beer was once focused on horse racing? What if I told you that beer wasn’t even the focus at all, and the focus was actually a wedding between two royal families in 1810? Even crazier, what if it told you that beer tents weren’t even introduced to the festival until 1824? If you haven’t guessed it yet, I’m speaking of the story of Oktoberfest, the world’s most prominent folk and beer festival in Munich, Germany.
It all started in 1810 with the marriage of King Ludwig I and Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen in Munich, Germany. The family and wedding organizers decided to have a massive celebration and invite Munich’s citizens to the festivities. The event was held in different fields around the Bavarian capital; one of the areas where the prestigious horse race took place was renamed “Theresienwine (which translates to Theresa’s meadow)” in honor of the crowned princess. One year later, the festival left such a good impression with the citizens, it left them asking for more. This left the Bavarian royalty with an exciting problem: How to throw a festival with nothing to celebrate? Since there isn’t another royal wedding, they would have to plan the following celebration differently. Insert Landwirtschaftlicher Verein in Bayern, which is the Bavarian Agricultural Association. The festival was the perfect platform to showcase the agricultural aspects of the city. The celebration went on until 1813, when the Napoleonic wars brought things to a halt. After the war, Oktoberfest was privately funded until Munich’s city made it a priority in 1819. The festival was rebranded with the promise of gaining a new crowd and generating a massive profit in Munich.
In 1850, The Statue of Bavaria was raised; to this day, this statue symbolizes the “watchful eye” of Oktoberfest. In 1881, roasted chicken tents began popping up on the fairgrounds, this tradition still continues to this day. Between the late 19th and early 20th century, more carnival rides, stages for musical acts, and food and beer tents started popping up, which eventually filtered out the horse races that the event started with. In 1950, Thomas Wimmer, the mayor of Munich, tapped the first keg in the Schottenhamel tent marking the beginning of that year’s Oktoberfest and birthing a new Bavarian tradition.
Oktoberfest draws in over 6 million visitors each year, disposing of around 6 million liters of beer, 549,899 whole chickens; 140,225 pairs of pork sausages; 97,708 pounds of fish; and 75,456 units of pork shanks – a perfect way to gain some winter weight going into the colder seasons. However, it all pays off; in 2019, Oktoberfest generated around $1.2 billion for the city of Munich. Oktoberfest takes place for three weeks, starting in the middle of September and ending on either the first Sunday in October or October 3rd. The fairgrounds consist of 29 food and beer tents, which can house roughly 1,200 people each, over 200 fairground businesses, such as carnival rides and games. Then, there is an underground station to transport festival-goers around the city. The festival employs around 12,000 people; 1,600 of them being waiters and waitresses. Some of the most popular beer tents at Oktoberfest include Hofbräu Tent, Hacker-Pschorr Tent, Shooters Tent, Käfer’s Oktoberfest Tavern, Augustiner Tent, and more.
Now, let’s get into the reason we’re all here, the beer! The Marzen style is a malty, medium-body beer with a pale to dark brown or amber color. Originated in Bavaria, the Marzen’s origin goes back well before the marriage of King Ludwig I and Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen. In 1533, there was a Bavarian ordinance that beer can only be brewed between September 29th and April 23rd. The Marzen was brewed in March. The crazy part about this is that the Marzen style is not currently served at Oktoberfest since the original beer was historically brewed in March, which allowed it to age over summer to be served to festival-goers in September.
While looking into German beer, I noticed that a lot of the beer pictured in the traditional stein glasses are more of a pale, straw color than the darker, malty color you see in most Oktoberfest beers in the United States. The reason being that in 1953, the Marzen style of beer was replaced with a lighter, full-bodied, bready yet smooth brew called Festbier, a full-body, biscuity ale is traditionally served at the festival to this day. An example would be the Weihenstephaner Festbier
However, in the United States, we still serve the Marzen style at Oktoberfest celebrations. According to Beer Advocate, some of the top Marzen style beers sold in the United States include:
- Augustiner Bräu Märzen Bier
- Mecktoberfest from The Olde Mecklenburg Brewery
- Oktoberfest from Great Lakes Brewing Co
- Hacker-Pschorr Oktoberfest Märzen from Hacker-Pschorr Bräu GmbH
- Samuel Adams Octoberfest
What would beer at Oktoberfest be without the Iconic stein mug! The stein is German in origin and was initially invented to stop the spread of the bubonic plague spread during the 14th century. Germans added a lid to the mug to ensure flies or any contaminants didn’t get into the beer. Originally made of clay, steins eventually became made of stone with a permanently attached lid for durability purposes. Over the next 300 years, there was a surge in mugs with covers attached, many of them with decorative features. Towards the end of the 19th century, stoneware had become the primary material used in creating a stein with Europe leading the way in production. Over the next few years, the world was introduced to steins made of different materials such as pewter, glass, porcelain, and silver. During the 1980s, Ceramarte, a product of Brazil, became the biggest producer of the world’s steins. As of today, the United States is the most prominent collector of decorative steins. You can actually visit one of the world’s most extensive stein collections at the American Museum of Ceramic Art in Pomona, California.
While doing research on Oktoberfest and the overall beer scene in Germany, one of the most fascinating things I read about was the Bavarian Purity Law. In 1516, the Bavarian city of Ingolstadt adopted a law that stated that beer can only be brewed with hops, barley, and water. It wasn’t until later that brewers understood the importance of yeast in the brewing process, and yeast was adopted into the Purity Law. The Purity Law was becoming regulated across different areas of Germany until 1906, when the Purity Law went into effect across the country.
Of course, it wouldn’t be Oktoberfest if we didn’t talk about the festival’s most iconic outfit, lederhosen. Lederhosen is a traditional outfit that originated in the mountainous regions of Germany and central Europe. Lederhosen is currently most popular in Bavaria, Austria, and Switzerland. For those who aren’t familiar with lederhosen’s look, men’s outfit consists of long, knee-length leather breeches (can also be short to thigh length), a plaid long-sleeve shirt, knee-high or loferl socks, and Bavarian shoes. It’s also customary to wear a vest with your lederhosen as well. The women’s version of Lederhosen is called a dirndl. The dirndl consists of a white blouse, ankle long length, and usually a lot of room in the chest area. Shoes are traditionally ballet flats or boots. One of the more fascinating things about the dirndl is the placement of the bow. The bow placed on the left means you are single, placed on the right means you’re in a relationship, the bow in the front is for children or younger girls, and the bow in the back is for widowed or a part of the wait staff. Lederhosen was initially worn by peasants in Bavaria and never meant to be a costume. Lederhosen started gaining popularity across Europe in the 16th century. The French created softer fabric versions with culottes to go with the lederhosen for casual wear rather than the more durable leather for work. Culottes is a French word describing clothes worn on the lower half of the body, usually knee-length. Culottes Specifically refers to men’s breeches or women’s split skirts or underpants. Around the 18th century, German and Austrian workers in the Alps started to use the culottes style of use but decided to go back to the traditional leather style. By the 19th century, pantaloons and trousers began to take the place of culottes in the European fashion scene, almost rendering lederhosen and dirndls entirely out of style until the 1880s. Munich began forming clubs to preserve Bavarian culture, and, in 1887, lederhosen and dirndls had become announced as the official attire of Oktoberfest.
One of my bucket list goals is to attend Oktoberfest, drink Bavarian beer directly from the source, and experience the culture firsthand. I always viewed Germany as one of the most prominent countries for beer culture and Oktoberfest as one of the single most historic folk festivals to have ever been created. I’ve never worn lederhosen, but when I get the opportunity to take the trip to Munich someday, I feel like I’d have to do it right, grab a stein, and strap on the lederhosen. With COVID-19 still a factor in today’s world, Oktoberfest 2020 has been canceled and would have marked the 210th year the festival has been going on. Hopefully, once the world gets back to normal, we would get to enjoy all the roasted chickens, Bavarian pretzels, pork sausages, schnitzel, and obviously, the amount of beer that we can handle. I’m optimistic about the return of Oktoberfest in 2021.