Every few weeks, Sophie writes about Beer, Brewing and Bites. Her stories are witty, educational and worth a read!
Oktoberfest! - September 16, 2019
Last September I was lucky enough to travel to Salzburg, Austria on business. A quick review of air travel options suggested that my best means of getting there was a connection through Munich, Germany. If you thought notions of Salzburg and “The Sound of Music” were dancing in my head, well…yes. But really, my heart started beating faster at the thought of being in Munich in the midst of Oktoberfest - the international folk festival best known for its celebration of beer.
“Oktoberfest” is a bit of a misnomer, as the festival actually begins in mid- to late-September and ends on the first Sunday of October. Originally held in October 1810, Oktoberfest started as a wedding celebration in honour of Bavaria’s Prince Ludwig and Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen. For five full days, the locals of Munich were invited to gather in a large meadow to eat, drink and be merry. The event included music parades, shooting displays and a horse race. Apparently, everyone had so much fun, they decided to make it an annual event (including the horse race). This year marks the celebration’s 186th season. It has become the world’s largest folk festival, with more than seven million visitors each year. And it still takes place in the same meadow as the original celebration. Aptly named “Theresenweise” (“Therese’s meadow”) in honour of the bride, the meadow is simply referred to as the “Weisn” and lies a short distance from Munich’s town centre.
At 10 am on a Sunday morning during Oktoberfest, I exited my Munich hotel and caught the S-bahn street car to Heimeranplatz, a short walking distance from Theresenweise. Immediately upon exiting the street car, I was swept up in a mass of humanity orderly making their way down the street toward the meadow. It was like walking amidst a crowd of urban weekday commuters slowly making their way toward a train station, except most of these people were dressed in lederhosen and dirndls (the traditional Bavarian dress with full skirt, apron and tight bodice). I come to find out that 70% of Octoberfest attendees are Bavarians. This festival truly remains a local celebration, and lots of families attend - dressed up in their full Bavarian regalia. Once through the entry gates of the Weisn, it is like a grand carnival. There are rides, concerts, and souvenir booths. But what stands out are the tents. They are massive and full of what I really came for…food and beer.
Each year there are 15 main beer tents that sprawl across the Oktoberfest grounds and seat from 3,000 to 10,000 people inside. Surrounding these are outdoor beer gardens that seat thousands more. The only beer available comes from Munich’s six major breweries - Augustiner, Hacker-Pschorr, Hofbräu, Löwenbräu, Spaten, and Paulaner. And there are no half-measures for consumption. All of the beer is served in a 1 litre glass called “ein Maß” (pronounced “mahs”). These huge steins are usually delivered by buxom bar maids dressed in dirndls who can carry three to four in each hand. Bratwurst, pork knuckles, roast chicken and giant pretzels all make for an excellent accompaniment to help soak up the foamy suds in your glass.
I was amazed by the freshness of the Oktoberfest beers (and the fact that I didn’t get a hangover after consuming multiple litres). The six Munich breweries produce their beer based on the rigid constraints imposed by the German purity law of 1516 called the “Rheinheitsgebot” which states the production of beer must be limited to the use of barley, hops and water; (the original law didn’t include yeast, as its contribution to fermentation at the time was unknown). The most popular version of Oktoberfest beer is the “Helles” (which translates to “pale” or “light”). It was first introduced by the Spaten brewery in 1894 as a lighter version of the darker ales in Munich at the time. Back in 1810 when the festival originated, beers in Munich were dark lagers (called Dunkels). By 1872, a more amber-coloured beer called Märzen was introduced as Munich brewers benefitted from improved kilning methods that allowed them to use paler malts. Today’s Oktoberfest beers are unique in that they don’t necessarily adhere to a style - they are more geared to the event. However, these festival beers are almost all lagers and public tastes have geared most of them to be the lighter, golden-coloured version. Often the label will simply read “Oktoberfest” or “Festbier”.
If you’re a fan of a maltier tasting beer, seek out the traditional Märzen. It’s a bronze coloured, smooth, slightly sweet beer with a deep toffeeish, almost spicy flavour and aroma. It was originally developed by a Viennese brewer named Anton Dreher, so you can sometimes find it labelled as a “Vienna-style lager”.
If you’re travelling to Munich, hurry up and get there. This year’s Oktoberfest runs from September 21 to October 6 and its well worth the experience. However, you don’t have to go to Bavaria to get a taste of the festival. You’ll find a myriad of local craft brewers’ interpretation of Oktoberfest biers released this time of year. And if you’re in the area, stop by Mahone Bay this October. Word on the street is that an Oktoberfest event is just around the corner. Look to Saltbox Brewery’s Events Calendar for more information.