Originally published in the September 2021 Issue of the Old Town Crier Magazine
“Grab the Yank!!” I hear from behind me.
It’s September 2004, Oktoberfest. I’m in Munich, Germany at the festival with my friends. And yes, Octoberfest does begin in September, not in October. Modern tradition is to have the festival in the last two weeks of September so that it can end on the first Sunday in October, close to October 3rd, German Reunification Day. We are in the Ochsenbraterei (Ox Roast) Tent sponsored by Spaten. There are two huge oxen roasting on spits in one corner of the tent. Each major brewer in Munich erects a tent at the festival. These so-called “tents” are nothing of the sort. They are enormous structures that are more like warehouses than tents. The larger ones hold approximately 6000 people. Imagine a Walmart that has been stripped bare, a band stand placed in the middle, then the rest of the space filled with picnic tables, that would be one tent.
This trip is a religious experience for any beer drinker. It’s the world’s biggest kegger. Over 16 million people from all over the world will make the pilgrimage to Munich during the two weeks of the festival. This is my first of my five trips to Munich for Oktoberfest. I’m a rookie. And I’m not paying attention to the Australian and Irish group behind me. We had been laughing and joking with them earlier. I’m too busy dancing on the bench of our table and slaughtering German drinking songs at the top of my lungs with my buddies while trying to maintain control of the giant one-liter stein of beer in my hand.
I should be paying attention.
“Grab the Yank!” I hear again. And what I stupidly do not realize is that I am the Yank.
I’m suddenly grabbed from behind and lifted into the air. I crash onto the tabletop behind me, my beer spilling all over me. I look up to see the Aussies and Irish laughing at me.
“We have decided that you are drinking with us!” one Irishmen shouts as he raises his glass and spills part of his beer on me.
A big Aussie points at me and bellows, “There’s only one rule! No shagging my sister!” The others roar in laughter.
He didn’t actually say “shagging”.
His sister then strikes him several times for his indiscretion. She’s hitting him hard. He’s a big guy. I can tell that she’s hurting him. Which means that she could hurt me. I will very much obey his rule.
Someone else is now shouting at me again, but this time it is in German.
“Nein! Nein! Nein!”
There is a security guard now towering over me. He begins to lecture me in German. I do not speak German. This is one of those situations where one does not need to speak the language to understand. You’re not allowed to sit, stand, or, evidently, lay on top of the table. I had learned this lesson the night before at the Hofbrau Tent when a friend told me that we were allowed to dance on the tables. She was wrong. The security guards there reacted the same way. If nothing else, I was learning the culture of the place.
The Irish and Aussies pull me up. I spend the next hour partying at their table.
The festival in Munich began on October 12th, 1810. It was a celebration of the marriage of the crown prince of Bavaria, who later became King Louis I, to Princess Therese von Sachsen-Hildburghausen. The celebration was originally an agricultural fair with horse races. In the 20th century it developed into the huge beer tent festival we know today. Approximately 2 million gallons of beer are consumed during the festivities. It is truly the world’s biggest kegger.
The beers we drink in the tents in Munich are different than most of the Oktoberfest beers you will find here in the States. Our Oktoberfest beers tend to be Marzen style. Marzen was the original style of Oktoberfest in Germany as well. Marzen is a dark, rich, malty beer that the Germans would brew in March, Marz in German, and then age throughout the summer. It would be ready to drink in September or October, just in time for the festival. Starting in the 1970’s, German brewers began brewing a pale, lighter tasting lager, as the traditional Oktoberfest beer, or Festbier. The change was initiated by Paulaner originally, but all the others had made the switch by the 1990’s. The reasoning was simple. The lagers were less filling, lighter in alcohol content, and therefore easier to consume during a long day of drinking.
Does that mean that the American Oktoberfest beers are actually closer to the traditional beers the Germans produced for the festival? The answer is no, not really. Although Marzen was the traditional style, the American brewers are not held to the strict standards of the German Purity Laws, or Reinheitsgebot. These laws limit the ingredients for beer to just barley, hops, yeast, and water. And tradition dictates Oktoberfest beers must use Munich malt, noble hops, and Bavarian lager yeast. American brewers are free to use whatever ingredients they want. And many use caramel malt in addition to, or instead of, the Munich malt. This makes the American Festbeirs sweeter and more caramel-like in flavor than their German cousins. The American brewers have the advantage of experimenting with flavors and techniques that the German brewers do not.
Many local brewers in America will brew both styles, and a few different types, for Oktoberfest. Try both styles. See which one excites your palate.
Oktoberfest is a time of joy and merriment. It’s a time to gather with friends and hoist a pint, or liter, to health and good times. And it’s a great opportunity to expand one’s palate. These beers are only brewed once a year, so jump on the opportunity.
As for me, my Oktoberfest chops were honed in Munich. When September comes around, my preference is that beautiful German lager.