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.

German stein full of beer along side a soft pretzel

The First Oktoberfest

In 1810, Prince Regent Ludwig of Bavaria — Bavaria is the region in Germany where Munich is — was to marry Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen. The wedding celebration included a grand horse race to take place five days after the marriage ceremony, which was on October 12. The race location was to be on the grounds of Theresienwiese, which was named after the bride (“Theresienwiese” roughly means “Therese Meadow”).

A civil officer from the Bavarian National Guard then had an idea: Why not fill those five days with a public outdoor festival in the meadow in honor of the new couple?

The King of Bavaria loved and supported the idea from the beginning. Thus the first Oktoberfest was born — a five-day wedding celebration from October 12 to October 17, closing with a big horse race.

The first Oktoberfest was so popular that almost everyone wanted to do it again the following year. But with no royal wedding this time, the festival needed new organizers. So the Landwirtschaftlicher Verein in Bayern (Farmer’s Association in Bavaria) took over the event and used it as an opportunity to showcase their food and other products, thus starting some of the traditions we associate with Oktoberfest today, like pretzels and, of course, beer!

Before long, Oktoberfest came to be a beloved regional festival that spread through the rest of German-speaking Europe. The tradition eventually came to the U.S. through German immigrants and spread to cities all over the country — Huntsville, Alabama, for example!

 

Das Stahl Bierhaus' patio as seen from the sky

Blending Old and New Traditions

Oktoberfest isn’t just about keeping alive 19th-century traditions. One recent Oktoberfest pairing has been with October 3, which is a national holiday, the “Tag der Deutschen Einheit” (Day of German Unity). This day celebrates German reunification in 1990 and usually happens during the final days of Oktoberfest. It’s become such an integral part of the holiday that if the last day of Oktoberfest falls on October 2, then the celebration will be extended an additional day to include this important national holiday.

This is exactly why Oktoberfest ends on a Monday this year. While it seems odd to us that a holiday would end on a weekday, for the Germans, it means another chance to enjoy beer and sunshine on their national day off!

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.

Live Music at Das Stahl Bierhaus' Oktoberfest

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?

Oktoberfest Activities

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!

Oktoberfest Food

  • Pretzels: Often served with spicy mustard, pretzels are a perfect complement to a glass, or stein, of beer.
  • Schnitzel: These thin cutlets of chicken, pork, or turkey are lightly breaded and fried and can be eaten as a sandwich or a stand-alone meal.
  • Würstl: What’s a German celebration without gourmet sausage? Oktober würstl comes in many shapes and flavors, so save some room to try a few varieties.
  • Schweinebratren: Don’t miss out on this tender pork roast. By the way, roast chicken is just as popular.
  • Nockerl and Spätzel: Try these potato dumplings and German-style pasta to go with your rich meat dish.

German stein full of beer along side a soft pretzel

Oktoberfest Beer

Even if you’ve never been to an Oktoberfest, you’ve probably seen a range of Oktoberfest brews at Das Stahl Bierhaus. What makes them so different?

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!)

Oktoberfest Unites People

In the end, Oktoberfest is really all about bringing people together. The festival started with a wedding that brought together a prince and a princess. Throughout the years, Oktoberfest connected people across an entire region, bringing farmers and townspeople into the same space. And when Germany Unity Day became associated with the festival, Oktoberfest took on another dimension of unity, bringing together an entire nation of people who had been divided for decades.

Of course, when it comes to bringing people together, it doesn’t hurt to involve tasty food and good beer.

Interested in experiencing Oktoberfest for yourself? Join us on Saturday, September 24th, for a weekend of family fun, German brews, and a live oompah band!

Want to join the fun? Click the link to buy a ticket!

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