O’zapft is!

A history of Oktoberfest – the most famous beer festival in the world


Humble beginnings

Since 1810, there has been a special celebration taking place in the city of Munich during the autumn, but a lot has changed since the first ever ‘Oktoberfest’. The tradition of the festival began as a celebration of the marriage between Bavarian Crown Prince Ludwig and the Saxon-Hildburghausen Princess Therese. The highlight of the occasion was a horse racing event which drew 30,000 spectators. It was Andreas Michael Dall’Armi, Member of the Bavarian National Guard, who suggested this unusual wedding celebration, and King Max I Joseph of Bavaria was immediately impressed. The grounds where the celebration was held were named after the bride. Theresienwiese (Theresa’s Meadow) in the west part of the city of Munich is where the festival still takes place today, known as the Wiesn.

As the annual gathering morphed into an agricultural event and fair, the city of Munich took the organisational helm. The celebration got bigger and more decadent with each passing year. In 1850, a traditional costume parade became part of the festivities. Other additions to the event included goose chases and tree climbing competitions. As technology advanced, mechanical fairground rides became a regular feature, and an expanding rail network meant that the festival became accessible to more people from across Bavaria. Beer and food were served alongside the various entertainments and festivities, but the event was still far from a beer festival at its core. By the end of the century, the small food and beer booths had grown into large tents. The last annual horse race took place in 1960, though the modern festival still incorporates an agricultural element every four years.

What characterises Oktoberfest beer?

Modern-day Oktoberfest beer is known as Märzen. It is a bottom-fermented lager beer, typically golden to amber in colour. Munich and Vienna malts give the beer notes of toasted bread, honey and caramel. As the name suggests, this was typically brewed in March and conditioned through the summer. Prior to the availability of refrigeration, brewing season was from autumn until spring, as conditions in the summer were too warm for fermentation. Beer brewed in the temperate weather of spring could be aged underground through the hot summer months in deep cool cellars, ready for drinking by late summer or early autumn. 

The Märzen of today was not always the festival beer style. In the earlier days of Oktoberfest, the beer served was closer to a Dunkel, a rich and dark beer with chocolate notes. The story goes that Spaten brewery ran out of their darker beer at one of the events and began serving a lighter style, paving the way for the ‘Festbier’ of the modern day. 

Trouble brewing 

Oktoberfest is sadly not going ahead in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, marking the 25th time that the festival has been cancelled due to exceptional circumstances. The very first cancellation of the event was in 1813 – only four years after the festival’s inception - due to the war with Napoleon. The latter half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century were especially difficult years, and there were several cancellations of the festival. A cholera epidemic forced the festival to skip a year in 1854, and again in 1873. The First World War prevented the event from going ahead from 1914 until 1918.

By 1920 the strains on the economy caused by the war were evident. In 1922, the cost of beer rose from 5 or 6 marks per litre to 18 marks per litre in the space of just a few months and continued to climb. By the following year, price increases in Germany were out of control and the Oktoberfest scheduled for 1923 was cancelled due to hyperinflation. For some businesses and farmers, there was an opportunity to profit from the situation by paying back debts with ease, but recipients of fixed incomes faced grave financial hardship. 

In 1933 the Nazis rose to power, and Jews were forbidden from working on the festival site. Further, Jewish board members of the Löwenbräu brewery were forced to resign. Senior Nazi figures used the event to demonstrate their closeness to the people, though Hitler, a strict teetotaller, never himself visited the festival as a guest. By the 1936 festival, all flags on the festival site were replaced with the Nazi flag. The utilisation of the festival by the Nazi’s propaganda effort reached new levels in 1938 when Hitler ordered the rename of the event, following annexation of the Sudetenland (comprised of parts of former Czechoslovakia). It was to be called Großdeutsches Volksfest (Greater German Folk Festival). The Nazis arranged for the transport of Sudeten Germans to the event. However, this rebrand was short-lived; from 1939 until 1945 the event was cancelled each year due to the Second World War.

New traditions are born

Following the war, a somewhat more muted version of the event took place until 1948, known as the ‘Autumn Festival’. Whilst still in the spirit of the traditional Oktoberfest, there was an important difference; Märzen beer could not be served due to rationing, and a much weaker style was served in its place. Fortunately, the party spirit was back with a bang in 1950. A new tradition began (which is still observed today) whereby a gun salute accompanies the tapping of the first keg by the Mayor of Munich. The Mayor loudly declares “O’zapft is” (“it is tapped”) and presents the very first litre of beer poured to the Minister-President of the State of Bavaria to signify that the festival has begun. 

The 1970s saw the origin of ‘Gay Days’ at the Oktoberfest following the efforts of local activists. The modern Rosa Wiesn (Pink Meadow Oktoberfest) party takes place in the Bräurosl beer tent, beginning on the first Sunday of the event. It is one of the largest annual LBGTQ+ events in Munich.

Not the average beer festival 

Beer is at the heart of the modern-day event, but there are also fairground attractions, traditional Bavarian performances, and local cuisine. The festival is well known for its traditional folk and oompah music. Unlike at many beer festivals, attendees must be seated in one of the huge tents to be served. Each tent is associated with one of the city’s largest breweries, with the largest accommodating close to 10,000 drinkers at any one time. At the festival, beer is served in a thick, sturdy dimpled glass known as a Maßkrug, which holds exactly one litre. In the 1970s, the official Wiesn clay beer stein was introduced, and a new design is released annually.

Six Munich breweries pour at the festival each year. Augustiner is the oldest brewery within the Munich city limits, founded by monks in 1328. This brewery is the only one which still uses Hirschen (wooden barrels holding 200 litres each) for storing the beer. The youngest of the Munich breweries is Paulaner; records show that the Paulaner Monks first served beer in 1634. The Paulaner brewery was severely damaged in a bombing raid in 1944 but was rebuilt by 1950. Hacker-Pschorr, Hofbräu, Spaten and Löwenbräu complete the Oktoberfest brewery line-up. 

Whilst the festival is still named for the month in which it began, it has since been moved to September to allow for better weather conditions. In recent years, the event has attracted in excess of 6 million drinkers, who chug their way through 7.3 million litres of beer over the course of a sixteen-day event. 

Fuel for festivalgoers 

The Oktoberfest experience is larger than life, and the food is no exception. Heavy and decadent meals are common, rich with roasted meats and plentiful carbs. All-day beer drinking is hungry work, and vendors make it easy for visitors to line their stomachs at regular intervals. Stalls selling fresh Brezen (the golden brown soft doughy pretzels) can typically be found every few feet at the festival and are served with butter or mustard. Roasted chickens are also a festival tradition. First served at the festival in 1881, it is estimated that approximately 480,000 spit-roasted chickens are consumed at each Oktoberfest event nowadays. This dish is known as Hendl; whole chickens grilled on a spit with herbs and spices. 

A day of grazing on Brezen and Hendl amid many litres of delicious Märzen beer might leave many craving a light breakfast the morning after as a momentary detox from the indulgence of the day before, but even breakfast in Bavaria can be a rich affair. Weißwurst is a traditional Bavarian sausage, first enjoyed in Munich in the mid-19th century. It is made from pork, veal and spices, and is customarily eaten before midday. Historically these sausages were made early in the morning, designed for eating prior to lunchtime due to being highly perishable. According to locals, a Weißwurst should never hear the church bells. The technique for eating a Weißwurst is to peel the skin and suck out the meat; not one for the shy or fussy eater.

Brighter days ahead 

The modern festival is a beer drinking event of epic proportions that guests from all over the world visit to enjoy German beer in a joyous, and often raucous, environment. Unfortunately, 2020 is not the right year for such an event, so this season’s event is cancelled. Bavaria’s Minister-President Markus Söder and Munich’s Lord Mayor Dieter Reiter held a press conference in April to share the sad news that this year’s event could not go ahead. “We are living in different times” said the Minister-President, expressing disappointment that this year’s festival cannot go ahead due to the risks posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. “We have agreed that the risk is simply too high.” The Lord Mayor echoed his disappointment. “It’s a quite sad day for me today,” he admitted. “We hope that next year we can make it up together!”

The disappointment of the 2020 event cancellation is just a small blip in the story of this 210-year-old event. Something tells me that Oktoberfest 2021 could be one of the biggest and best of all time; a hope worth drinking to. Prost!

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