In the distance, a faint “doot” can be heard, repeating itself over and over. You are in a field, disoriented and confused. The events of last night are foggy. Why are you here? Where is here? —INGRAIN, Fall/Winter 2019
STORY / Beau Forbes
A massive tent can be seen in the distance, alternating stripes of blue and white, inviting. People are streaming to it from miles around. Is this Heaven? As you approach closer, the sounds become more clear: “Doot DOOT doot dOOt Doot DOOT” in a perpetual refrain, a thrumming that vibrates your bones, building and building. Smiling faces surround you as you join the crowd heading toward the entrance. Looking down, you see yourself clad in plaid and… leather suspender shorts? A hat is on your head, with a delightful feather.
The tent interior is glorious, expansive, and wide. At the end of the hall stands a man blowing an enormous horn, as long as a ’70s station wagon, dooting with all his power. Is this Valhalla? The horn quiets down, and an authority figure walks towards a giant wooden cask, wielding a wooden hammer in one hand and a brass object in the other. He deftly places the shining golden shaft against the cask—and then, with a mighty THWACK!, slams the brass object into the cask. Turning to the assembled multitudes, he yells, “ZU TAPFT!”
The crowd joins in and repeats the hallowed phrase as beer, glorious golden beer, begins to gush forth from the cask in exuberant volumes. And then you remember where you are…not Heaven, not Valhalla. Nay, even better. THIS IS OKTOBERFEST!
So why do a bunch of Germans gather in the middle of a field outside of Munich every year and go crazy over beer for TWO SOLID weeks? What drives these seemingly reserved people into such a frenzy that they throw aside their usual decorum and restraint and give themselves over to downing liter after liter of strong golden lager while an oompah band pounds out the hottest doots and toots they can manage?
To understand Oktoberfest, you have to understand Bavaria.
GUTEN TAG, Y’ALL
Welcome to Munich, located in Southern Germany, in the state of Bavaria. Among Germans, Bavaria is considered the Texas of Germany. It’s down south, strange clothing and customs abound, and the folks are…unique. When they decide it’s time to party, bah gawd, it’s time to PARTY, and party hard. Like Texans, Bavarians are fiercely independent and once formed an independent nation in their own right. Five years after the United States had wrapped up the Civil War, Bavaria only reluctantly joined the German Federation (in part because of an invasion by the French). There is still a Duke of Bavaria, and many citizens consider themselves Bavarians first and “Germans” second.
Okay, so what is Oktoberfest? And when is Oktoberfest? I’ll do you one better: WHY is Oktoberfest? The answer involves royal weddings, tax law, and food safety in equal measure.
SAY REINHEITSGEBOT 3X FAST
Way back in the 1500s, adjuncts and additives were common in beer, but not yummy stuff like what you’d find in today’s barrel-aged stouts, where brewers might add chocolate, vanilla beans, or citrus zest. We’re talking about nasty stuff. Let’s say you are a bar owner in the year 1500 and want to bring in more customers. Instead of, say, improving service or treating your customers better, you tell them your beer will get them loosey-goosey and is cheaper than anybody else’s. Then you go to the back of your bar and slip some nightshade into the beer, which causes hallucinations, mania, and, in large enough amounts, death. See how this could be bad?
Partly in response to the rise of dangerous beer adulteration (as well as a lot of tax-law jargon that we don’t need to get into), the Duke of Bavaria decided to strictly limit the definition of beer in Bavaria to three ingredients: Water + Malt + Hops. (Yeast would come later.) Eventually this legal definition of beer spread throughout Germany, raising the quality of beer across the board. Reinheitsgebot, as the law would come to be known, didn’t just stop with beer ingredients; it would even define brewing seasons.
JUST TOO SMOOTH
Before the advent of refrigeration, most brewers tried to avoid making beer in the summertime. It just made sense; warm beer goes bad fast. (Turns out, all of those ads about having an “ICE COLD” Bud hearken back to a fact of life in medieval times.) In 1516, Duke Wilhelm of Bavaria decided to eliminate this problem forever. With the passage of the Reinheitsgebot that year, brewing was outlawed in the summer months. Brewers were compensated for producing as much beer as they possibly could for summertime drinking before the cutoff date.
By necessity, brewers began storing their spring ales in cool caves over the summer, which led to the creation of yeast that preferred the cooler temperatures…lager yeast! This is the direct step that fueled the development of lager yeast, the most popular type in the world. Evolution in action, folks.
Usually those lagers were completely consumed by the time brewing became legal again in September. But when there was an excess, that beer had to be drunk to empty the storage casks and allow for more beer. Breweries would have a big party on the lawn outside of the city to move the beer from cellar casks to citizen consumption. This beer was malty, strong, and smooth from lagering in the caves for six to seven months. Everyone would go all-out partying for the day, and then the brewers would go back to work.
Alas, this was fun, but it wasn’t Oktoberfest. The annual tradition we know as Oktoberfest today was formalized thanks to…a royal wedding!
Imagine if Prince Harry and Meghan Markle had decided to throw a weeklong drinking party instead of a one-day parade; that’s what we’re talking about here. In 1810, nearly 300 years after the passage of Reinheitsgebot, Ludwig the Crown Prince of Bavaria married Princess Therese of the Duchy of Sachsen-Hildburghausen (say THAT three times fast). In one of history’s coolest moves by a set of royals, the couple decided to hold a beer bash for ALL of the city’s citizens instead of hosting an austere wedding ceremony.
They set up massive tents on the fields immediately outside of town, had some horse races, and then proceeded to dole out lager after strong, smooth, malty lager for nearly two weeks. Imagine: Everyone had such a good time, they decided to have another tent party the next year. And the year after that. And the year after that…More than 200 years later, the locals haven’t stopped yet.
BROWN OR BLONDE
So what is an Oktoberfest-style beer? Today it means two different things. Prince Ludwig I and Princess Therese would have been knocking back steins of dark, amber-colored lagers with a rich, malty taste and notes of toast, caramel, and rye bread. At around 6.0% to 6.5% ABV, these beers were nourishing as well as delicious. Locals drank them every year, from the early 1800s until the late 1980s, running the entire gamut from Beethoven to Nirvana. This amber lager is the classic Oktoberfest beer that most Americans associate with the festival.
But there was a problem with the amber Oktoberfest beer, and it wasn’t a German problem. Too many tourists were having a few too many, unable to handle multiple liters of this higher ABV beer style. Brewery after brewery eventually began offering a lighter-colored and slightly lower-alcohol “Oktoberfest” beer that was fashioned more like a modern Helles (light-colored) instead of the older-style Dunkel (dark) beer. Thus, modern “Festbier” was born. Still malty and delicious, this style of lager is a little bit easier to drink and slightly lower in alcohol (5.8% to 6.0% ABV). A big hit, golden-colored Festbier was adopted as the standard Oktoberfest beer in 1990.
So why is most of the Oktoberfest beer you see on store shelves STILL amber-colored? It’s simple: Americans prefer the old malty style to the brighter new style. Craft breweries began making the amber-colored Oktoberfest-style beers in the 1980s (before the official switch to Festbier), and we consumers got used to it. Germans still make a lot of amber, malty Oktoberfest, too, but they ship almost all of it overseas to the good ol’ USA. So be proud, Americans. YOU are the reason one of the great beer styles of the world is still alive and thriving.
Dust off your lederhosen, slip into your dirndl, and put on your Tyrolean hat. It’s time to party Southern (German) style!
IN CASE YOU WERE WONDERING...
Which is better and what should be sought: the old guard amber lager or the new-school golden lager?
The answer is…both. They are each delicious, and a fabulous accompaniment to pork in all of its rich, fatty aspects. Fry up some schnitzel (breaded pork chops) with a side of sauerkraut and pan-roasted fingerling potatoes, open up several beers in the Oktoberfest and Festbier style, and you have a dinner worthy of Southern German royalty.
Why is the festival called Oktoberfest if it starts in September?
The original weeklong party/royal wedding took place entirely in October, but eventually the start date was moved back a few weeks to mid-September, when the weather is warmer. In keeping with tradition, Oktoberfest still always ENDS in October. So this October, let’s raise a glass to Ludwig and Therese, the happy royal couple who had possibly the biggest wedding/beer bash in history. Thanks to them, we have one of the best parties in the world and one of the best beer styles.