by Rick Kempen Beer Sommelier at Het Bierplein
Bavarian OktoberfestsWhat is Oktoberfest?
It’s that time of year again. Time to dig out the lederhosen and find a seat at one of those big, wooden tables. Ten years ago, it would have been almost unthinkable but these days almost every self-respecting Dutch city and village has a beer festival inspired by Oktoberfest. They’re rather unashamedly called the Oktoberfests. But what is Oktoberfest exactly? And how did it come into being?
Beer festival turns into a wedding festival
Beer festivals have been held throughout Germany for centuries and, to this day, every city with a brewery has its own beer festival. These festivals begin in March and end in late September. The most famous and largest beer festival in the world, Oktoberfest in Munich, started out this way too. The first official Oktoberfest took place in 1810 to celebrate the marriage between the Bavarian crown prince Ludwig and princess Thérèse von Sachsen-Hildburghausen.
So that the common folk could participate in the festivities, the existing beer festival was held in a large meadow outside of Munich and expanded to include a carnival and other entertainment. This meadow is still known as the Theresienwiese. Real Müncheners never say they’re going to Oktoberfest: they call it going to die Wies’n. In 1810, the festival began on 12 October and lasted a just few days. A year later, when taking stock of last year’s event, they realised that the carnival had been a real hit, so that year the festival ran for longer and over time it became a 2-week event. The start date was pushed forwards to 20 September as the October evenings were rather chilly, and this meant the festival could end on the first Sunday in October.
Beer festival began as a harvest festival
The German beer festivals we all know and love are actually nothing more than harvest festivals, similar to wine and strawberry festivals. During these harvest festivals people celebrated the harvest of the summer barley. The barley was used at the start of the new brewing season, in October, because that’s when it was cold enough to start brewing again.
But they weren’t just celebrating the new, fresh beer. Since no one could brew in the summer – yeast doesn’t work properly in warm weather and there is a constant threat of infections – they had a stockpile of beer. Whatever was left of the stockpile of summer beer, which had been brewed in April, had to be consumed to make way for the fresh beer. No waste! So everyone was summoned to a fun harvest festival to do their civic duty.
Oktoberfest is not an octo-beer-fest
The beer festivals are usually called Volksfests in Germany (“People’s Festivals”). During these festivals, socio-economic statuses are put aside and people from the same regions and even entire families gather at their local Volksfest. They obviously drink a beer or two while they’re there, but that’s never the main reason for attending. That’s an important fact to remember if you find yourself at one of these events. It’s not about getting hammered. Actually, if you get plastered at a Volksfest, you’ll be carried home by the helpful locals – if necessary, by force. And if you get drunk at the famous Oktoberfest, you’ll be banned for life from the festival tent in question.
The beer itself is brewed specially for the festival. After all, they don’t brew everything in April anymore. Historically, in October the cellars were full of Märzen – beer brewed in March. This was a bottom-fermented beer, though it was derived from top-fermented summer beers. The alcohol content was higher than in normal beers, partially in order to preserve it during the summer. The current Festival Beer is still stronger than normal beer so beware. Not only are the glasses gigantic but the beer itself is explosive and moreish.