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After a two-years hiatus, Oktoberfest is back and celebrating 150 years of Märzen beer

Even those who have never been to Oktoberfest know that it’s the beer festival to end all beer festivals. 6 million visitors, seating for 100,000 in 420,000 square meters, and 7.5 million mugs of beer. All in just seventeen days. After a two-year hiatus due to the pandemic, Oktoberfest is finally opening its doors again.

Simone Massenza
Simone Massenza
oktoberfest

Even those who have never been to Oktoberfest know that it’s the beer festival to end all beer festivals.

6 million visitors, seating for 100,000 in 420,000 square meters, 7.5 million mugs of beer, 75,000 bayerische haxen (Bavarian pork shanks), 1.1 million henle (spit-roasted half chickens), and 280,000 hotdogs.

All in just seventeen days.

These massive numbers can refer to only one thing: Munich’s Oktoberfest, the biggest beer festival in the world.  After a two-year hiatus due to the pandemic (it’s only been cancelled 23 times in 212 years, and always for trivial reasons like the Napoleonic Wars, cholera, World Wars I and II, etc…), Oktoberfest is finally opening its doors again.

A WEDDING FEAST WITH LITTLE BEER

On October 12th, 1810, an Italian (yes, you read that right, an Italian!), Andrea Michele Dall’Armi, a banker from Trento who had moved to Munich, organized five days of public and private festivities to celebrate the marriage between Crown Prince Ludwig I of the House of Wittelsbach, also known as King Louis I of Bavaria, and Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen of Saxony.

When it comes to partying, no one holds a candle to us!

The last of these public events and the climax of the wedding celebrations, known as Oktoberfest (literally the festival of October) took place in a simple field (“wiese” in German) on the outskirts of the city, later renamed Theresienwiese in honor of the bride. Here a horse race was held, with 40,000 Bavarians and the entire royal family in attendance. The celebrations met with such success throughout the region, that King Maximillian I, Ludwig’s father, asked to repeat them the following year, thus turning them into a regular and traditional event.

Up until 1818 it was organized privately, but in 1819 the City of Munich, seeing an opportunity to attract thousands of tourists and thus replenish the municipal treasury, obtained the rights to the event.

ruota panoramica

A TRUE CARNIVAL

The first Wiesn (as Oktoberfest is called by Munich’s residents) was quite different from what we’re familiar with today, and the focus, for more than half a century, whether you believe it or not, wasn’t beer.

Starting with the second edition, an agricultural fair was incorporated (these days organized only every four years, sort of like the Olympics and the World Cup) to promote Bavaria’s agricultural sector and economy. The Landwirtschaftliche Verein in Bayern (newly formed Agricultural Association of Bavaria) was the organizer for two editions.

In 1818 a lottery, rides, and swings were added. Today the big amusement park is an essential part of the festival and still features attractions from the early 20th century, the undeniable symbol of which, since 1979, is the Riesenrad, the iconic 50-meter high panoramic ferris wheel.

In 1826 pyrotechnic shows were introduced, and in 1869 a small Grand Guignol-esque theatre was added, the Schichtl, which is still in operation.

END OF SEASON SALES

But what about the beer?” you’re probably thinking.

Beer finally arrived for the seventh edition, in 1818, during which it was found (and could be drunk) in a limited fashion, within small and ramshackle sheds or wooden stalls, thanks to the festival’s fusion with a deeply rooted brewing tradition that existed within the city walls. Before that the nearest brewery was located 3 km from Theresienwiese.

Which beers were served? Munich Dunkel, you’ll say, Munich’s traditional beer! Sorry, but wrong! It was the Ur- Märzen!

In Bavaria, up until 1533, by order of Duke Albert V (and not the overly cited Purity Order!), brewing was prohibited between the feast days of St. Michael and St. George (April 23 – September 29), for reasons of public safety (brewing was done over an open flame in wooden buildings… which is a bit like driving like a maniac without headlights at night), as well as hygiene (in a world without refrigerators, beer could easily become a breeding ground for bacteria and wild yeasts).

So brewers accumulated large stockpiles of beer in March (hence the name), so as to have enough to last for the whole summer.

This beer, despite not having a specific style, was stronger, fuller bodied, more alcoholic and had more hops than the normal production in order to best withstand the summer months. Come September 29th, when the brewing facilities opened once again, it was necessary to empty the warehouses of all the remaining old beer. What better way than with a beer festival?

oktoberfest

HAPPY BIRTHDAY MÄRZEN

This was the situation until 1872, when the beer that was destined to change Oktoberfest forever was first introduced.

In 1833, two young descendants of brewing families, Gabriel Sedlmayr (aka Mr. Spaten) from Bavaria and Anton Dreher (perhaps the name rings a bell), were sent on their Grand Tour of Europe (still very much in vogue at the time among noble families and wealthy bourgeois). 

They spent most of their time in England, at the time an unquestionable beacon of the brewing industry, where, thanks to the industrial revolution, the first pale ales, in a world of dark beers, were born: the famous Burton Ales. The two found open doors to all of the most important British breweries, which were proud to show off their results and discoveries to the rest of Europe, from the use of carbon coke, to the creation of pale malts, thanks to the arrival of the Black Patent, the first grain oven that avoided direct contact with the combustion smoke, leaving the malt lighter and without a smokey flavor.

However, his Royal Highness’s naive brewers weren’t repaid in kind, as the young pair of German Braumeisters turned their trip into true industrial espionage, à la Mata Hari!

Gabriel and Anton were the cat and the fox. They copied everything, secretly measuring temperatures with a thermometer and even using double-bottomed walking sticks.

One would distract the brewer and the other, using the stick, would steal a sample of must or beer to analyze calmly back at their hotel. Back home, thanks to all of their “discoveries” (air quotes), and after several years of studying them, in 1841 Dreher invented the Vienna while Sedlmayr established the characteristics for the Märzen style.

This version wasn’t perfected until 1872 when, with the name Oktoberfestbier, invented by Spaten for the occasion, the 2.0 release was presented in Munich. It was an absolute success, so much so that it became the official beer of the event, and forced all the other breweries to produce one if they wanted to participate.

EVEN LEGENDS GROW OLD

These beers enjoyed uninterrupted success until 1976, the year that Paulaner, Spaten’s rival, changed all the rules. The former brewery of the Pauline Fathers (having left Calabria) wanted to sell more beer and understood that Märzen was too rich.

To sell 7.5 million mugs of beer, something quite different was needed. And so it introduced its Festbier, a lighter, less malty, and less alcoholic version that was generally milder (a sort of Sunday Helles), making it possible to drink (and sell) more…much more. The term Festbier, like the term Märzen, already existed, but, in the German culture, indicated, without exception, any special beer associated with a holiday, from Christmas beer to Pentecost. The journey continued, in a single direction, until 1990, the year in which Märzen disappeared permanently from Oktoberfest.

AND THEN THERE WAS BEER!

In 1880 beer finally became Oktoberfest’s core-business, and the foundation for the modern version was established. The citizens committee created specific licenses for breweries, which had to respect two fundamental rules: be produced in the city of Munich and adhere to the Reinheitsgebot, the legendary Purity Order, before later adding a third which required a minimal annual production of 15,000 hl.

Over the years this ensured that, due to closers, mergers, and acquisitions, there remained, like modern-day Highlanders (there can be only one!), the “Six Sisters”, or rather the only breweries today authorized to sell beer during the 16 days of Oktoberfest, and to boast, for their beers, the title of Oktoberfestbier: Augustiner, Hacker-Pschorr, Hofbräuhaus, Löwenbräu, Paulaner, and Spaten.

festa della birra

OKTOBERFEST AS WE KNOW IT TODAY

The birth of the modern-day Oktoberfest has, however, a true father (once again not Bavarian, OMG!), who answered to the name of Georg Lang. This burly and mustachioed innkeeper of Hadermühle, in the Nuremberg district of Franconia, a region that had always been in bitter conflict with Bavaria, had a brilliant idea. A stubborn and visionary businessman, though not quite a saint, he was the first to imagine and create that which would become the prototype of today’s Oktoberfest, from its atmosphere to its customs.

In 1898, through scamming and corruption he managed to obtain the license for a plot of land at the Theresienwiese, with only one magistrate voting against him, despite not being from Munich (“theoretically” an essential requirement) and despite not meeting the prerequisites for participation.

Seven years earlier, the Munich-based innkeeper Michael Schottenhamel, whose family had a stall at the 1867 Oktoberfest, had proposed a very similar pavilion project which was turned down by the committee. Then, thanks to four front-men, Lang purchased other plots adjacent to his own, tore down stalls, and built the Bayerische Riesenhalle (the giant Bavarian hall), the first large pavilion in history.

1,000 square meters, seating for 6,000, 120 employees, and 20 times bigger than any other stand at Oktoberfest up to that point. Inside the pavilion, a 30-piece orchestra (the Oberland Brass Band) played free live music on stage from 10am to 11:30pm, with Herr “Krokodil” (German for crocodile, his nickname) conducting.

Ein Prosit der Gemütlichkeit” by Georg Kunoth, the most famous Wiesnlied and today the anthem of Oktoberfest, acquired its legendary fame thanks to Lang, who distributed 50,000 booklets with the text of the songs in order to encourage participants to sing.  The orchestras of the time didn’t have singers because it was too difficult to get microphones (which had only been invented several years earlier, in 1870, by a German no less, Emile Berliner), thus those in attendance became a chorus, having fun and staying even longer, and, in turn, tempting others to participate, ultimately drinking more and spending more money!

If you want to get an idea, albeit romanticized, of what the early festival and its atmosphere were like, if you haven’t already seen it, check out the miniseries “Oktoberfest: Beer & Bloodon Netflix, inspired by the life of Lang himself. The Bayerische Roesenhall became the main attraction, and, starting the following year, all of the other innkeepers and breweries had to take action, following and emulating Georg’s example and creating the modern-day Oktoberfest. One can lose a battle, but win the war, and the Schottenhamels ultimately got their revenge. Today the Schottenhamel-Festhall is the iconic pavilion where, at 12pm on opening day, after the explosion of 12 firecrackers, the “O’Zapft is!” opening ritual takes place.

The mayor of the city, accompanied by the sound of beating drums, inserts the zwickl (tap) in the inaugural keg, and shouts “O’Zapft is! Auf eine friedliche Wiesn!” (It is tapped! To a peaceful Oktoberfest!”). Then he pours the first mug and serves it to the president of the Land of Baviera, thus kicking off the festivities.

See you in Munich, Zum Wohl!

oktoberfest