October 23, 2018

The History of Oktoberfest, Lagers, & Lederhosen


Lagers & Lederhosen

The weather is changing, the days are shortening, and one of my favorite beers is finding its way onto the shelves. I don’t just mean the rich caramel flavor of this Märzen style lager, but the 206 year-old celebration itself, Oktoberfest!

What began as an event to commemorate the marriage of Crown Prince Ludwig to Crown Princess Therese outside the city gates of Munich, Oktoberfest has now become a worldwide celebration.

Events are held in places around the globe like Argentina, China, Australia, the United States, and of course Munich, Germany. Each of these festivals have their own unique flair, but have some things in common: German culture, merry making, and a profound focus on beer. To be more specific, Oktoberfestbier.

Oktoberfestbier is a Märzen beer, meaning that it is brewed in March. In the years before the first Oktoberfest, brewmasters would work overtime in springtime to make sure their beer stores wouldn’t deplete throughout the summer months.  What they brewed had a higher alcohol content and they added more hops than a typical beer at the time to guarantee its drinkability all summer long. They stored casks of their concoction in caves and cool cellars to lager them. The lagering casks would then be accessed as consumption demanded, but sometimes too much beer had been brewed.

As fall started, grain and hops harvests would come in from the fields, and the coolness of Alpine winter was on its way. This culmination of fresh ingredients and ideal weather to stave off infection meant it was time to brew. But that new beer needed somewhere to go, so the casks of summer surplus had to be emptied. In today’s words, it was time to drain the kegs. The casked beer naturally found its way into Munich’s fall festivals, and now we can’t think of Oktoberfest without thinking of Oktoberfestbier.

In 1810, the first Oktoberfest had approximately 40,000 attendees; two hundred years later, in 2010 I was one of 6.4 million visitors to the Wies’n. I took a train 150 kilometers from Salzburg to Munich. I arrived shy of midday to the bustling city in the foothills of the Alps. Young and old were dressed in traditional Bavarian clothing - the men in Lederhosen and collared shirts decorated with designs and colors representing the town they hailed from. This was also true for the Mädels (women), who wear Dirndls; think St. Pauli girl.  It didn’t seem like a single person in Munich was wearing modern clothes.

After reestablishing that I hadn’t fallen backward in time, I walked the short distance to the Wies’n with friends. We were quickly overcome by the smells of roasted chicken, candied almonds, and grilled Wurst. The crowds outside the massive tents were in good humour, speaking in different languages, and enjoying the electric atmosphere. Inside the tent, we immersed ourselves in the universal dialect of beer. Clinking steins with people across the table was a must, as was singing German songs with lyrics you couldn’t pronounce. Greatest of all was to see people from all around the world enjoying time together, all thanks to beer.

The first Oktoberfest saw the nobility invite the forty thousand citizens of Munich to enjoy horse races outside the city gates. Today, Munich invites the entire world to experience a piece of their culture. Whether it’s an Argentine in a Dirndl, an Australian with a Stein, or a Minnesotan wearing his Lederhosen (me), we all take part in a time honored tradition, drinking the barrels dry.

Prost aus Minnesota!