What is Oktoberfest?

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First Posted: 9/15/2014

Every year we congregate at various festivals and bars to celebrate Oktoberfest. The celebrations are typically German in orientation and filled with German foods, music, lederhosen and of course beers, lots of beers. However, do you know why this celebration takes place every year?

In Munich, Germany, each year Oktoberfest is held as a 16-day event running from late September, this year starting September 20, into early October. Each year more than 6 million people from around the world attend the event; this is a great deal larger than the celebration that began as a wedding.

On October 12, 1810 Crown Prince Ludwig, later to become King Ludwig I, married Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen. The citizens of Munich were in attendance to the festivities held on the fields in front of the city gates to celebrate the royal event.

Horse races in the presence of the Royal Family closed out the event that was celebrated as a festival for the whole of Bavaria. The decision to repeat the horse races the following year gave rise to the tradition of the Oktoberfest. Eventually the festival was prolonged and moved ahead to September to allow for better weather conditions. Today, the last day of the festival is the first Sunday in October and has become more of a seasonal celebration.

But what about the traditional Oktoberfest beer, where did that come from you ask? Well that is a bit more recent, but not much.

In 1841 the Viennese brewer Anton Dreher released a new beer with a reddish copper color and rich malt character. The beer was an instant hit with many locals and soon Gabriel Sedlmayr from the Spaten brewery in Munich tried and loved the beer and soon was using a similar malt bill to brew a beer he called Märzen which means “March beer.”

Before mechanical refrigeration was invented, brewing beer year round was not possible, so instead stronger beers were brewed in early spring and laid down in ice filled caves until the following harvest year in September and October, which coincided with the Oktoberfest celebrations.

At one time Märzen and Okotberfest beers were one in the same, but over time the two have separated in some circles, you can still of course find beers with Oktoberfest Märzen proudly displayed on the bottle, but some beers stray into similar styles, but are not in line with traditional Märzen beers.

Today the tradition has become a huge celebration of all things German including some of the rich and traditional German beers. So next time you raise a glass of your favorite Oktoberfest, toast to the rich tradition the beer and festival comes from and be thankful for such a bountiful harvest of great beers this year.