Despite its name, Oktoberfest actually starts well before October. Held in Munich each year, Germany’s 188th Oktoberfest will run from Sept. 16 through Oct. 3.
In Munich, Oktoberfest is not just any beer festival. It’s a celebration of German and especially Bavarian culture. The folk festival started there in 1810 as a wedding party to celebrate Bavaria’s Crown Prince Ludwig’s marriage to Princess Therese von Sachsen-Hildburghausen. The reception lasted multiple days and ended with a horse race. Over time, Oktoberfest became an annual event at the nearly 104-acre site known as Theresienwiese (or simply d’Wiesen), which means Therese’s meadow.
The ever-evolving event has been held almost every year since, with notable exceptions during the Napoleonic Wars, World Wars I and II, and for two years during the pandemic.Pre-pandemic, more than 6 million people attended Munich’s Oktoberfest each year, with roughly 85% coming from Germany and the rest from around the world. Oktoberfest returned in 2022 with attendance of 5.7 million, but the numbers are expected to rebound this year.
The celebration takes place inside 14 big tents, with beer from just six Munich breweries: Augustiner, Hacker-Pschorr, Hofbräu, Löwenbräu, Paulaner and Spaten-Franziskaner. Most of these breweries import their beers to the U.S., though some are easier to find than others. The festival also features amusements, music, fairground booths, carnival rides and food stands.
Several designs vied for the chance to be the official 2023 Oktoberfest poster. The one at far right was selected as the winner. (Courtesy Oktoberfest Press Office/City of Munich.)
Märzen vs. Fest Bier
Josef Sedlmayr, who owned the Franziskaner brewery (now owned by Spaten) in Munich, created the first Oktoberfest beer in March 1872. He called it Märzen because he brewed it in März or March. After cellaring it in caves over the summer, it was ready to drink in September.
The name and the beer caught on in a big way. Today, this type of beer goes by a variety of names, including Oktoberfest, Märzen and Oktoberfest-Märzen. It’s essentially an amber lager, malty rather than hoppy, with rich flavors that are soft, elegant and complex. It tends to finish dry, leaving you thirsty for another mug.
Märzen is also typically slightly stronger than your average beer, so in the 1970s, Munich brewers started developing a lighter, modern Oktoberfest beer that later became known as Festbier. Festbier is similar to Märzen, but is lighter in body and strength, making it easier to drink more while sitting and singing in an Oktoberfest tent. It’s slightly hoppier and retains most of the same bready, toasty, malty characters of a Märzen. It’s also a little lighter in color, leaning more toward golden. Festbiers have been Oktoberfest standards since the 1990s.
Today, you can find Oktoberfest beers year-round, although some breweries only make them seasonally. German Märzens, Oktoberfests and Festbiers are available at most well-stocked liquor stores or groceries.
But many Bay Area breweries make their own interpretations. One of my favorites is from Richmond’s East Brother Beer Co., which makes a very traditional Fest Bier each fall. Don’t forget to pair it with your favorite German snack, such as bratwurst, spätzle, pretzels, sauerkraut or schnitzel.
Contact Jay R. Brooks at [email protected].
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