Oktoberfest, Octoberfest, whatever way you spell it, it means that summer is over, the leaves are starting to change color and it is officially time to recognize the beginning of fall. It’s not all bad news though, if Oktoberfest has arrived, it also means the style of beer is now readily available. Most beer enthusiasts know a fair amount about this festival, but for those who only know Oktoberfest from the movie BeerFest, here’s the scoop on this most beloved of German holidays.
September 20th until October 5th (This year. The date changes every year, but it only varies by a few days) is Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany. Oktoberfest is one if the most important celebrations of Bavarian Culture and is highly regarded as on par with our Mardi Gras and Brazil’s Carnaval as one of the biggest parties in the world.
Don’t fret though, you don’t have to find your passport and hop on a jet to Deutschland to join in the festivities. Most major cities around the U.S. hold their own Oktoberfest celebrations. With a little internet digging, I’m sure you can find one within driving distance. Much like St. Patrick’s day where everyone gets a chance to be Irish for one day, this two week party lets everyone have a chance to do as the Bavarians do while enjoying some frosty brews and all the Schnitzel and bratwurst you can eat. So put on your lederhosen and fire up the accordion, it’s time for Oktoberfest!
The beer that is most commonly imbibed at Oktoberfest is the Marzen style. I couldn’t define it any better than the late-great beer writer Michael Jackson, so I won’t even try.
“From “March” in German. Originally, a beer brewed in March and laid down in caves before the summer weather rendered brewing impossible. Stocks would be drawn upon during the summer, and finally exhausted in October. In Germany, this tradition has come to be associated with one specific style. Marzenbier has a malty aroma, and is a medium-strong version (classically, more than 5.5 percent alcohol by volume) of the amber-red Vienna style. It is seasonal to the Oktoberfest, where it is offered as a traditional specialty alongside paler beers of a similar strength”
The history of Oktoberfest goes all the way back to the early 1800’s. In 1810, Oktoberfest began when a horse race was held honoring the marriage of Crown Prince Ludwig and Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen. They held the race in the fields in front of the Munich city gate and citizens were encouraged to attend. The fields were and still are called Theresienwiese (“Theresa’s fields”) or “Wies’n” in honor of Therese.
By 1818 the first beer carts showed up at Oktoberfest, marking the true beginning of this beer lover’s festival. In 1896, the first beer tents and halls were constructed. In 1950, the city began a tradition of firing a twelve gun salute followed by the official tapping of the keg by the current mayor at noon on the first day. With the proclamation of “O’zapft is! (It’s tapped!)”, the festival has begun.
The horse race that the festival was originally centered around ended in 1960, but Germans and travelers from all around the globe continue to show up in droves year after year in Munich to celebrate Oktoberfest. This is arguably the biggest festival in the world, drawing crowds of upwards of six million people each year. Some of the tents are spacious enough to host upwards of 10,000 people at a time.
There are fourteen tents at Oktoberfest, featuring the “Big Six” breweries of Munich. They are: Lowenbrau, Hofbrau, Augustiner, Paulaner, Hacker-Pschorr and last but certainly not least, Spaten.
I decided that since lately I’ve been doing more writing about beer (Although. last month’s article barely even had any beer in it) than sampling, I , my brother Matt, and magazine editor and beer enthusiast Jill Melnyk, tried a pair of Oktoberfest brews that wouldn’t seem to have much in common other than the style. I purchased one well-known German Beer and one American Craft brewery’s offering on the Oktoberfest style. We sampled Spaten Oktoberfest, one of the “Big Six” breweries of Munich, and Harpoon Octoberfest from the Harpoon Brewery in Boston, Massachusetts.
Spaten-Franziskaner-Brau is one of the most famous of the “Big Six” breweries and lucky for us, it is a fairly easy brand to find in the U.S. I picked up my six-pack of Spaten Oktoberfestbier Ur-Märzen at a local supermarket without much searching. At 5.9% ABV this is a little higher in alcohol than most domestic brews (Miller Lite is 4.2% ABV) so it is best to line your stomach with some bratwurst or weiner schnitzel before imbibing in a few of these.
Like most Marzens, Spaten’s offering has a pale, copper appearance and subtle notes of roasted malt, grains, and caramel. It finishes with an appropriate slight bitterness for the style. I wasn’t overly impressed with the first taste, but that might have had something to do with the fact that it comes in a green bottle and could have been tainted a little. Jill pointed out that from the taste, you could tell that it was high in alcohol. All in all though, we agreed that we would probably buy it again. If anything, I’ll soon be purchasing some Spaten Optimator. This doppelbock is 7.2% ABV and will be the perfect way to warm my bellow in a month or two when the temperature starts to dip.
I chose Harpoon Brewery’s Octoberfest because I didn’t want to just compare two German brands or two more well-known names. I also wanted one American effort to compare it to a long standing traditional name that Bavarians have been drinking ever since the festival began. This 5.5% ABV brew is called a Marzen, it seems like more of an American Amber. The Brewery began offering it in 1990 and has continued to do so ever since. The beer has a reddish, amber color and a sweet, almost bready, malty flavor. Definitely a great American take on the Oktoberfest style. We all enjoyed it will no doubt purchase this again.
We couldn’t come to a conclusion on a clear cut winner between the two; we enjoyed them both because of their similarities as well as their differences. But, we agreed that we are all excited for Indian summer to begin. As for the beer, if you can’t get to the real Oktoberfest, but you still want to try the same kind of brew the Bavarians enjoy, take a closer look at an Oktoberfest. You’ll be happy you did.
Chris Osburn is a 26 year old freelance writer and The Father Life‘s resident beer columnist. On top of that, he writes about professional lacrosse for insidelacrosse.com. He’s also written for Genesee Valley Parenting Magazine, the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, and ESPN.com. “Osburn on Tap” appears monthly in THE FATHER LIFE. For questions, comments, or if you have a story idea for Chris, visit his website http://www.chrisosburnwrites.com.
30 year old freelance writer and The Father Life‘s resident beer columnist and sports editor. He also writes about fine beverages for drinkingmadeeasy.com and Chilled Magazine. On top of that, he writes about college and professional lacrosse for insidelacrosse.com. He’s also written for Genesee Valley Parenting Magazine, the Democrat and Chronicle Newspaper and ESPN.com. “Osburn on Tap” appears monthly in THE FATHER LIFE. For questions, comments, or if you have a story idea for Chris, throw him an email firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, follow him on twitter http://www.twitter.com/chrisosburn