Oktoberfest: Beer and Royalty

First of all:

The Pumpkin Ale has officially hit the fridges. Ed’s also doing a few more batches. Thought you might like to know. 😉

Now that we have that out of the way, tonight is our first “Say Cheese, Say Cheers!” event of the year (don’t worry, if you’ve missed this one, there is another on November 13th). In honour of our Oktoberfest theme, I decided to do a little digging into this famous festival. Now, when I think of Oktoberfest, I immediately think of beer:

Lots and lots of beer... (image via www.wikimedia.org)
Lots and lots of beer… (image via http://www.wikimedia.org)

However, there is much more to this Volksfest (People’s Fair). It is a sixteen-day funfair in Munich, the largest of its kind in the world. And it’s been running a long time; the first true Oktoberfest was held on October 12th, 1810, to celebrate the marriage of Bavarian Crown Prince Ludwig to Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen. That first year, beer did not play a prominent role: the main attractions were horse races. In fact, the races were so well-received that they were repeated the next year, and a tradition was born.

By 1814, there are references to numerous Oktoberfest beer shacks. Gradually, the focus shifted from horses to beer. Officially, the only beer that can be served at the Munich Oktoberfest is beer that was brewed within Munich’s city limits and also conforms to the Reinheitsgebot (a German/Bavarian purity law dating from 1487—it states that only malted barley, water, and hops may be used in making beer). Thus, six breweries can produce official Oktoberfestbier:

  • Augustiner-Bräu
  • Hacker-Pschorr-Bräu
  • Löwenbräu
  • Paulaner
  • Spatenbräu
  • Staatliches Hofbräu-München

The Oktoberfestbier has its roots in another, similar beer style: the Märzen beer. Medieval brewers had difficulty brewing in the summer months. Without refrigeration, it was difficult to keep the beer at temperatures at which the yeast could properly ferment, and the beer itself was vulnerable to bacterial infection during warmer weather. As such, a 1553 Bavarian brewing ordinance restricted the brewing season from September 29th to April 23rd.

Thus, to ensure a supply of beer during the summer months, brewers produced extra beer in March. This Märzen beer (Märzen is the German word for March) was usually brewed to have a higher alcohol content and more hops—similar to the reasoning behind brewing India Pale Ales. By the time the brewing season started in the fall, the casks of leftover beer needed to be emptied to make room for new brews. This need to drink all the beer led to small, informal festivals through September and October, which were eventually absorbed in the 19th-century Oktoberfest.

Märzen-Oktoberfestbiers are usually well-aged, deep amber to dark copper in colour. Medium-to-full-bodied, the long aging time mellows out the hops and highlights their malty character. Early Märzen-Oktoberfestbiers tended to be darker than we’re used to. But then, in 1841, two brewmaster friends, Gabriel Sedlmayr and Anton Dreher, experimented with lighter malts. They added a new malt to their mix: one which was quite pale and slightly caramelized.

This was the Vienna malt. Thirty years later, the Spaten brewery released a Märzen with a slightly darker version of the Vienna: the Munich malt. This beer was also explicitly released under the Oktoberfestbier brand name.

Vienna malt on the right; Munich malt on the left.
Vienna malt on the left; Munich malt on the right.

So really, Oktoberfest has arisen from two wonderful things: a royal wedding and celebration of the new brewing season. I think we can all raise a glass to that!



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