Nearly 40,000 people headed out to the horse race just beyond the Munich gates on that first Oktoberfest day in 1810. Families and groups of friends staked out places to sit on the meadowland heights surrounding the track and began tucking into their bread, sausage, and beer as the races began. The mood was festive at this Olympic-style race, and the event was a resounding success. After all, Munich at the time numbered 40,638 souls, and most of them came out to enjoy the race (Eymold, 327). It wasn’t long before plans were laid to repeat the event annually on what soon became known as the Theresienwiese (Therese’s meadow), named in honour of Crown Prince Ludwig’s bride, Therese Charlotte Louise von Sachsen-Hildburghausen. Try saying that even once after you’ve had a few Maß of beer on today’s Theresienwiese.
From Modest Beer Stall to Opulent Beer Castle to Massive Beer Tent –– Or, How to Keep Tens of Thousands from Going Thirsty
If the horse race was the main attraction during the early years of the festival, the merriment soon spread out along the margins of the track. Bowling was popular, as were wheelbarrow races, swings, shooting galleries, and the first carousel that graced the Wiesn in 1818. Looking back briefly to 1814, the German poet, Achim von Arnim, noted that thirsty travelers could find ample Bretterbuden (simply appointed wooden stalls) in which Munich’s tavern keepers slung beer in half-liter tin-lidded tankards (Dornbusch, 49). At first, the guests sat on benches at tables under the open air. Soon, though, the Bretterbuden expanded to offer indoor seating. As the festival began to extend over several days, provisioning all the attendees became a necessity, in particular since Oktoberfest had begun attracting festival-goers from all over Bavaria. The Bretterbuden proliferated.
With the enormous rise in prestige of the Munich breweries from the 1880s, their presence at the festival began to grow as well. In 1895, the now-defunct Thomasbrauerei built the first Bierburg (“beer castle”), a hall large enough to accommodate 800 thirsty patrons. A 1907 decision to do away with the Wirtsbudenring (a ring of 18 tavern stalls) fundamentally altered the complexion of the Wiesn, opening the door for other breweries to compete with the splendour of Thomasbrauerei’s beer castle. By 1910, all of Munich’s largest breweries had commissioned leading architects to design impressive festival halls that cited decorative elements from the Baroque and Biedermeier eras.
But even those structures weren’t large enough to accommodate the droves of imbibers who descended upon Munich each year. Breweries soon turned to massive tents to simplify the challenge of seating increasingly large numbers of patrons. In 1913, the last year before the First World War broke out, the Pschorr Brewery erected a tent so large that it could hold 12,000 stein-hoisters –– the largest beer structure that has ever stood on the Oktoberfest grounds. It wasn’t long before the beer tent replaced the beer castle, transforming the physical appearance of the Theresienwiese and shaping our contemporary imagination of Oktoberfest in the process. As of 2005, the entire festival grounds offered seating for 100,000 festival-goers; the largest fest hall is the Hofbräu tent and garden, with 10,000 seats.
Roll Out the Barrels! The Changing Fortunes of Oktoberfest Beer Styles
Ever headed to Munich during Oktoberfest and been surprised to see that they serve one beer only –– a burnished golden beer at that? Isn’t Oktoberfest beer supposed to be an amber-coloured and richly malt Märzen beer, you might be thinking? If you’re Central European, you’ve probably never been caught up in this confusion. To many Canadian and American beer enthusiasts, though, Oktoberfest remains synonymous with Märzen.
In case you’re wondering where all the Märzen went, here’s a short explanation.
During the first several decades of the Oktoberfest, breweries brought whatever they had on hand to the festival –– usually some sort of forerunner of today’s Munich Dunkel. It wasn’t until 1872 that Spaten’s Gabriel Sedlmayr began brewing a beer specially for Oktoberfest –– a Märzen beer based loosely on the Vienna Lager first brewed by Sedlmayr’s colleague, Anton Dreher, in 1841. This amber beer was a shade or two lighter than the dark beer typically available in the Bretterbuden, and that much easier to knock back. Märzenbier soon conquered the festival.
Dial “M” for Märzen: After Sedlmayr introduced the drinking world to his particular brand of Märzen in 1872, the barrels that arrived at Oktoberfest bore an “M” insignia. Each cask –– known as a “Hirsch,” or stag –– contained 200 liters and weighed around 300 kilos (Eymold, 328).
Horses and wagons: Breweries used horse-drawn carts to deliver their casks of beer not only to Oktoberfest, but to the inns and taverns of Munich right down into the 1950s (Eymold, 328).
Parades! The first parade was held in 1835 on the occasion of the silver anniversary of King Ludwig I’s marriage to Queen Therese. The parade was a spectacle of decorated wagons and inhabitants from across Bavaria decked out in the Tracht (lederhosen and dirndl) of their respective regions –– the origins of today’s Trachten- und Schützenzug procession that takes place on the second day of Oktoberfest. Back in the day, the festival parade was meant as an impressive demonstration of Bavaria’s “national” character. Festive parades were also held on the occasion of the 100th and 125th anniversary of Oktoberfest. Since 1949, the festival parade starting in Munich’s center and winding its way through the city to the Theresienwiese has been an annual opening-day tradition.
But even the reign of Märzen would prove to be temporary. In 1953, an even lighter Festbier –– Augustiner’s Wiesnedelstoff –– entered the festival ring. Soon all the major breweries had followed Augustiner’s lead, and began serving this eminently quaffable Wiesn beer alongside their Märzen. Wiesnbier displaced Märzen entirely by the late 1980s, becoming simply Oktoberfestbier.
Nowadays, Oktoberfest is about one beer, and one beer only. And only by the Maß. Which is just fine –– it eliminates the need for ordering so you can concentrate on the festivities. The servers bring armfulls of 1-liter tankards right to your table. Take one, pay up, and Bob’s your uncle.
Here’s what you can expect:
Brewed to 13.5-14 degrees Plato and lagered for eight weeks at minus one degree Celsius, Oktoberfestbier is now a protected trademark of the Munich breweries. The result is a beer somewhere between a helles Bock and a helles Lager that clocks in somewhere between 6% and 6.3% ABV. Burnished gold in colour, the beer exudes aromas of fresh bread, honeyed malt with a touch of light toast, and a mild herbal or spicy hop fragrance depending on the brewer. Medium- to full-bodied on the palate, Oktoberfestbier has a mild residual (honey nougat) sweetness, flavours of lightly toasted bread, and just a hint of hop bitterness. The beer is reminiscent of Alpine meadows, with a refreshing mineral character. Round, supple, and clean. And the epitome of what German speakers call süffig (quaffable).
Darauf ein Oktoberfestbier!
Related Tempest Articles:
O’ zapft is! Oktoberfest 2016
From Horse Races to Beer Steins: Oktoberfest Since 1810
The MaltHead Manifesto
In the Cool Shade of the Beer Garden
Ursula Eymold (ed.), Bier.Macht.München: 500 Jahre Münchner Reinheitsgebot in Bayern, exhibition catalogue, Münchener Stadtmuseum, 2016.
Bier- und Oktoberfest Museum, Munich (visited 17 September 2016).
Astrid Assél and Christian Huber, München und das Bier: Auf großer Biertour durch 850 Jahre Braugeschichte (München: Volk Verlag, 2009).
Horst Dornbusch, Prost! The Story of German Beer (Boulder: Brewers Publications, 1997).
“Münchner Kindl mit Bierkrug,” Paul Otto Engelhard/München, 1913 (postcard image).
“Augustiner Edelstoff,” Holzfurtner, Plakat, Offsetdruck, 1976 (postcard image).
Hofbräuhaus tent, Theresienwiese, Munich (F.D. Hofer).
© 2016 F.D. Hofer and A Tempest in a Tankard. All rights reserved.