Oktoberfest: Past and Present
One Soldier’s Crazy Idea
Fall is coming, and for many people, that means a new season of Oktoberfest. This year is particularly special because it’ll mark the resumption of Oktoberfest in Munich (where the festival began) after a two-year hiatus due to the pandemic. Let the keg-tapping resume!
But what is Oktoberfest exactly? A type of brew? A beer-drinking party? A traditional German costume contest?
As you’ll find out, all of these are part of Oktoberfest, but this excellent fall festival is so much more.
Let’s start from the beginning — when Oktoberfest was just one soldier’s crazy idea.
Where Does Oktoberfest Come From?
When most people think of Oktoberfest, they think of a celebration of beer. But while beer is undoubtedly a part of Oktoberfest today, the origins of the festival don’t have much to do with barley and hops at all. Instead, it all began with a wedding and a horse race.
Why Is Oktoberfest Actually in September?
One of the more bizarre things that people notice about Oktoberfest is that it’s barely in October at all. For example, Oktoberfest 2022 in Munich will begin on September 17 and end on October 3. And our own Oktoberfest in 2021 happened on the last weekend of September. What’s the big idea?
Remember how Oktoberfest was originally a much shorter celebration? Well, that festival originally took place exclusively in October. But as the party gradually got longer and longer, people found that it was much better to extend the dates backward into September rather than forward into the rest of October.
With warmer weather and longer days, September is just a better month for celebrating! People in the early days of Oktoberfest — before electric lights or those portable patio heaters were invented — could stay out later to explore the festival grounds, and there was less chance of an early chill settling in to shorten the fun.
That said, the “Oktober” roots of the festival were never forgotten, which is why the last weekend of Oktoberfest is always scheduled to happen in October.
What Can I Expect at an Oktoberfest?
The great thing about Oktoberfest is that there’s truly something for everyone. Contrary to what you might think, there’s more to Oktoberfest than drinking beer. Keep in mind that the first Oktoberfest didn’t involve much beer at all and was a lot more about enjoying an outdoor festival.
So, what can you expect at a typical Oktoberfest?
After noshing on your schnitzel and spätzel, there are plenty of exciting Oktoberfest activities that are fun for the whole family:
- Stein-holding contest: Lots of people can drink beer, but few are strong enough to hold it for very long. Contestants hold out a liter of beer in front of them, keeping their arms parallel to the ground. The person who can hold their beer the longest is the winner.
- Oompah bands: No Oktoberfest is complete without this iconic German brass band. In addition to traditional tunes, be ready to hear some modern favorites with a tuba twist.
- Games and rides: Some Oktoberfest festivals feature rides and games similar to what you’d see at a typical carnival. Enjoy, and good luck!
There are two main styles of Oktoberfest beer. Marzen and Festbier. Marzenbier (or March Beer) are so named because they were originally brewed in March and cellared through the summer, showing up at Oktoberfest events. These Marzens were and still are malt forward, rich, and have a slightly higher ABV than your typical beer topping out around 6.3%. In the 1970s Paulaner developed a lighter version of the Marzen style as they thought the traditional Oktoberfest was too filling. Today we refer to this style as Festbier as you often see this style of beer at large events, not just Oktoberfest. Their idea caught on as Festbier is the default beer served at the modern Oktoberfest in Germany.
But here’s a secret: the beer of choice during the first years of Oktoberfest was completely different and has changed over time. In other words, an Oktoberfest beer can be whatever you want it to be. Just don’t forget to say Prost! (Cheers!)