On 17 October 1810, 40,000 people converged on a field beyond Munich’s Sedlinger Gate to watch a horse race staged by the Citizens’ Militia (Bürgermilitär) in honour of Crown Prince Ludwig’s marriage to Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen. The numbers were impressive, given that the population of Munich at the time was only 40,338 inhabitants. It seems no one complained when the next edition of the festival rolled around the following year on the Theresienwiese, ushering in what rapidly became a hallowed annual autumn tradition.
Watching horse races was a leisure pursuit much enjoyed by Bavarians in the nineteenth century. Any person who owned a horse could enter the annual race. From 1810 to 1913, the horse race was the main attraction at Oktoberfest, but other forms of entertainment soon put their stamp on the festival. The Munich Rifle Association (Münchener Schützengesellschaft) organized a prize shoot in 1810 that has remained part of Oktoberfest to this day. From 1811, organizers of the agricultural fair aimed to spur peasants and farmers within the kingdom of Bavaria to ever higher quality and efficiency. Makeshift bowling alleys vied with wheel barrow races, and savvy innkeepers began to cater to the culinary needs of festival-goers.
With each passing year, more and more simply-appointed stalls popped up along the race track, provisioning hungry and thirsty guests with beer and food. At first, the guests sat on benches and tables under the sheltering blue sky, but during the 1820s stalls began offering indoor seating for those days when the sky was not so blue.
Today, Oktoberfest and beer tents go together like beer and Weisswurst, but it wasn’t until the latter half of the nineteenth century that the current Oktoberfest landscape of architectural structures dedicated to drinking beer began to take shape. 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 first “beer castle” (Bierburg) was built by the now-defunct Thomasbrauerei. Other breweries followed suit. The Thomasbrauerei’s beer castle was large enough to accommodate 800 thirsty patrons, but even that was not large enough. On the eve of the First World War, the Pschorr Brauerei turned to a simplified tent design to pack in an astounding 12,000 stein hoisters –– a capacity that has not been exceeded since.
Within the space of a mere eighty years in the nineteenth century, Oktoberfest transformed itself from a spectacular Bavarian folk festival into a festival that celebrated beer. Between 1910 and 2010, beer consumption rose from 1.2 million liters to 7.1 million liters.
Even if the Oktoberfest’s last horse race was held in 1913, the initial festival attraction lives on in Munich’s topography. We may now think of Oktoberfest as massive beer tents given over to the blissful enjoyment of Maß upon Maß of Festbier, but to this day the outlines of the Theresienwiese on city maps recall the oval of the horse-racing track.
Here’s a stein to the horses, folks.
Related Tempest Articles
Ursula Eymold (ed.), Bier.Macht.München: 500 Jahre Münchner Reinheitsgebot in Bayern, exhibition catalogue, Münchener Stadtmuseum, 2016.
Astrid Assél and Christian Huber, München und das Bier: Auf großer Biertour durch 850 Jahre Braugeschichte (München: Volk Verlag, 2009).
Peter Heß, “Das Pferderennen bey der Vermählungs Feyer Seiner Königlichen Hoheit des Kronprinzen von Bayern, veranstaltet am 17ten Octr 1810 auf der Theresens-Wiese bey München von der Cavallerie der National-Garde 34 Klaße. Ihren Königlichen Majestäten von Bayern Maximilian Joseph und Karoline in tiefster Ehrfurcht gewidmet von den Theilnehmern an den October-Festen,” kolorierter Konturenstich, 1810 (Münchner Stadtmuseum, G-IIIc/8).
Spaten beer tent and Münchener Stadtmuseum: F.D. Hofer.
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