Oktoberfest started in Munich, Germany but the beer festival concept has spread throughout the world, including hundreds of events in North America, and several large Oktoberfests in South America and beyond.
by Lucy Saunders
Get out the lederhosen and steins—it is the season for Oktoberfest. Before you tap the keg and turn up the oom-pah, here's a bit of history about the event and the beer style both named Oktoberfest.
The first Oktoberfest was not really a festival at all, but the public celebration of the wedding of Crown Prince Luitpold I and Princess Theressa of Bavaria on October 17, 1810. Held on a large meadow in Munich, the party featured a horse race, beer, food, music and dancing.
Anniversary celebrations continued each year, usually starting in late September and ending in the first week of October. Oktoberfests have been held in Munich for almost 200 years (with the exception of wartime). As immigrants from Germany came to North America, smaller Oktoberfests sprouted up in their communities.
Now, it's Munich vs. Cincinnati, vying for the title of the world's largest Oktoberfest. In Munich, close to a million people show up to consume 10 million pints of beer, some 750,000 spit-roasted chickens, and more than 800,000 wursts and sausages. (Sadly, traditional oom-pah bands are slowly being replaced by taped music—one disgruntled festgoer complained about hearing "La Macarena" more than 200 times during last year's fest in Munich).
In Cincinnati, close to 700,000 people jam the streets of "Zinzinnati" during late September, jostling to music from seven large entertainment stages, while dozens of food vendors serve bratwurst, sauerkraut and thousands of gallons of beer.
These giant fests set the stage for similar Oktoberfests across North America: Kitchener-Waterloo in Ontario, Canada; Helen, Georgia; Grand Prairie, Texas; Amana, Iowa; Poughkeepsie, New York; Denver, Colorado; Ft. Lauderdale, Florida and even the 150th Napa Oktoberfest in the heart of California's wine country. This year, the Alisal Guest Ranch & Resort in Solvang, California, introduces its Oktoberfest Weekend with the Danskjold and Firestone Breweries on Oct. 31, extending the season of Festbier well into autumn!
Oktoberfest is not only an event, it is also a style of beer. The traditional style guidelines describe an amber-gold lager, robust at 5.2 to 6 percent alcohol by volume (ABV), bottom-fermented and lagered for at least a month, with pronounced malt flavors from Vienna malts, usually accented by the German noble hops such as Hallertau and Tettnang. An Oktoberfest is brewed very much like the reddish-amber Marzen beer that was served at the Crown Prince's wedding in 1810. Before the revolution in brewing caused by refrigeration, Marzen beers were brewed in March, lagered or cold-stored in caves for 10-12 weeks, and ready to drink by the late summer or early fall.
Oktoberfest bier was introduced in 1872, through a collaboration with Spaten brewery's Gabriel Sedlmayr, and Anton Dreher of Vienna, Austria. Nowadays, imported Oktoberfest biers tend to be lighter in color and body than the traditional Marzen style, while American craft breweries are creating festbiers that are often slightly higher in alcohol, richer in hops aroma and flavor, and redder in hue than the European festbiers.
Augustiner, Hacker-Pschorr, Hofbrau, Lowenbrau, Paulaner and Spaten are the traditional German brewers of Oktoberfest beer, since all brew or bottle beer within the city limits of Munich. Other German brewers of similar festbiers include Ayinger and Beck's of Bremen. American craft breweries, such as Capital Brewery of Madison, WI; Stoudt's of Adamstown, PA; Danskjold of Solvang, CA; Frankenmuth in MI; Gordon Biersch of Palo Alto, CA; Firestone Brewery of Solvang, CA; Samuel Adams; August Schell Brewery of New Ulm, MN; Rio Grande of Albuquerque, NM; and Pete's Wicked Ales of Palo Alto, CA, also produce beers (both ales and lagers) that overlap with the Oktoberfest style (some in name only).
What goes best with an Oktoberfest? If a stein is in one hand, the other usually holds a wurst or sausage. At the Munich Oktoberfest, the food is served in gargantuan portions: haunches of oxen and whole chickens are spit-roasted, and myriad sausages are steamed and served with sauerkraut and onions. American sausage-makers, such as Usingers of Milwaukee, Gerhard's of Napa, Bruce Aidells of San Leandro, Bradley Ogden Sausages by Saag's of San Francisco, and Amy's of New York, all make flavorful sausages—beef, chicken, pork or veal—often flavored with fresh herbs and seasonings—that complement the bready, malty notes of an Oktoberfest beer.
Yet in Munich, all patrons are served at tables, so by no means limit your Oktoberfest cooking to simple fare eaten out of hand. The following recipes will help you create an Oktoberfest menu that celebrates the fall harvest's abundance.
Cooking with Beer
Taste-Tempting Recipes and Creative Ideas for Matching Beer & Food
by Lucy Saunders
Time-Life Books, $12.95
154 pages, 1996
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This page modified August 2010
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