This past Saturday, September 20th, marked the start of Munich’s most famous festival – Oktoberfest! Sixteen days celebrating Bavarian culture, agriculture, and, of course, BEER.
I’m a bit sad to say that I’ve never really celebrated Oktoberfest. Sure, I’ve had beer in October, and been to October parties, and there was that one kid I knew vaguely in college who flew to Munich for Oktoberfest, but I never really paid much attention to Oktoberfestbier itself.
Traditional Oktoberfestbier is brewed in the Märzen style – named for the month of March. In the days before refrigeration it was nearly impossible for Alpine brewers to make beer in the summer, because of the various airborne microbes that proliferate in the heat. As a result, beer had to be brewed between the months of October and March, and the last batches brewed, which had higher alcohol and malt content to improve preservation, were put into cold-storage in cellars and mountain caves to stretch through the summer.
These beers actually improved and matured while being cellared, conveniently reaching a new peak in October when the hops had mellowed and the malt had become more pronounced. The resulting full-bodied, deep amber beers, with around 5-6% alcohol by volume, were something of a specialty, and when the last of the casks were brought out those folks hanging around had the unlucky task of drinking what was left to make room for the new hop harvest!
That said, there wasn’t actually any beer at the very first Oktoberfest (like many medieval festivals it originally celebrated local agricultural might and a royal wedding), but the timing ensured that didn’t last long. Oktoberfestbier itself also changed. Over the years new developments in brewing technology, and fashions of the times, led to the invention of lighter-bodied (and paler colored) Märzen beers, brewed in the style of “Vienna Lager,” and cellaring went from a necessity to a novelty, with industrialization cutting the typical cellaring time from six months to just over six weeks.
These days only beers brewed in Munich can be officially served at Oktoberfest, but breweries around the world produce their own delicious Bavarian Märzen and Oktoberfest style brews for those of us not flying out for the occasion.
So far this year I’ve had two classics – the lighter-bodied Weihenstephaner Oktoberfestbier, which is brewed in the world’s oldest brewery, as well as the perhaps more traditional and much maltier Ayinger Oktober Fest-Märzen. Weihenstephaner’s light body makes it perfect for this hot-and-then-cold September weather, while Ayinger’s sweet, full-bodied malt would pair wonderfully with seasonal German food. I also grabbed one of our local options, Idle Hands Brocktoberfest, which is almost halfway between the two German beers, smooth but with a much lighter-bodied maltiness and crisp finish.
I’m looking forward to tasting through our other options over the next 12 days! We’ve got Octoberfest lagers from Berkshire Brewing Co. and Left Hand Brewing Co., as well as Jack’s Abby’s Copper Legend and a new, hop-forward Hop Harvest Oktoberfest from Long Trail Brewing Company, just to name a few.
Even though Oktoberfest is largely about beer, no celebration is complete without classic German fare. In addition to our usual rotating selection of fresh pork sausages in the cheese case, I’m excited to grab some of Julie’s Beer Sausage, Weisswurst and Bratwurst, which will be making appearances both in our freezer case over the next few weeks and at our Oktoberfest-themed Barbecue on Saturday October 4th.
The official Oktoberfest schedule of events (in case you make it to Munich this year)
The German Beer Institute‘s overview of Oktoberfestbier styles and origins
BeerAdvocate’s overview of the Märzen/Oktoberfest style
Rob Campbell is a culinary adventurer, world traveler, science geek, and also the blog manager at Formaggio Kitchen Cambridge.