The Celebration and Tradition of Oktoberfest

The long, hot days of summer are just beginning to transition to cooler, dimmer autumn evenings. Not that anyone around the brewery is complaining, because that means it’s Oktoberfest season! Our über smooth award-winning seasonal pairs as perfectly with warm sunny days as it does crisp fall nights. But no matter the temperature, what makes Oktoberfest the perfect companion to barbecues, tailgate parties, and bonfires? We tapped Advanced Cicerone® Michael Williams to discuss the history and tradition of this celebratory brew, and why it's the ideal sipper for the changing of seasons. 

What is the Munich Oktoberfest all about? 

The Munich Oktoberfest has become an end-of-summer harvest celebration that ends on or around the first Sunday of October. Historically speaking, the first Oktoberfest took place in October of 1810 as the celebration of a royal marriage in Munich. The party ended up being such a blast that the people of Munich decided to throw the party annually! Though the name Oktoberfest stuck, they shifted the beginning of the celebration into mid-September so it could be enjoyed during the warmer weather of summer’s final days. Now, the multi-week celebration attracts millions to Germany every year.

Two people dressed in Oktoberfest garb, prost-ing with steins filled with Oktoberfest.

What role does beer play in the celebration?

A pretty big one! The first beer served at Oktoberfest was something like a Dunkel, a dark brown, malty, and substantial Munich-brewed lager. Legend has it that in 1872, a tent at the Oktoberfest celebration ran dry of Dunkel, leading to impatient and thirsty partygoers. Festival organizers were forced to substitute the slightly lighter, amber-hued, and equally flavorful Märzen-style lager. It was a hit, and the rest is history. 

What’s interesting is that Märzen (which means “March” in German) is traditionally brewed in spring. Brewing in Munich during the summer was illegal as fermenting beer in the heat negatively impacted the beer’s flavor (not to mention fire risks from using wooden brewing vessels). Thus, the slightly heftier Märzen was cellared in cool underground caves to be enjoyed all summer long and into early fall.

So Oktoberfest is a summer beer as well as a fall beer?

Correct!

Is there a difference between a Märzen and an Oktoberfest beer?

It depends on where you are! In 1990, Munich named an even lighter, gold-hued, but still robustly malty style the official beer of Oktoberfest, in place of Märzen. In addition to the style change, only the big six Munich breweries are allowed to call their beer an “Oktoberfest” (any others must be called Oktoberfest-style). However, we don’t have such naming restrictions in the United States, and most American breweries make a Märzen as their Oktoberfest beer (though some do make the lighter “festbier” style).

Mug filled with Oktoberfest, on a table beside a can, bottle, and pretzels.

What are the characteristics of this style?

You can expect a very malt-forward, smooth beer. Our Oktoberfest has a toasty, bread crust-like flavor – it’s richly malty, but not super sweet, like sugar. Our house lager yeast plays a big role in Oktoberfest’s flavor, producing a very clean, smooth, easy drinking beer. We utilize a modified version of the traditional brewing method called decoction mashing when making our Oktoberfest, too. After the mash is complete, we begin transferring to the lauter tun, but hold a third of the mash back and bring it to a boil to achieve an even deeper, richer malt flavor. Because of advances in malt production, decoction mashing isn't considered a necessary step by most contemporary brewers, but we still like that it's a traditional way to give Oktoberfest that extra bready, malty flavor without added sweetness.

What's your favorite way to enjoy Oktoberfest?

With a stein and good people. Oktoberfest is a beer that was literally made for big celebrations, so it calls for being poured into a big mug with a frothy foam cap. I have a few ½ liter steins that I’ll bust out when grilling or enjoying a bonfire in the backyard with family and friends. Bonus points if the Guardians game or a live Phish recording is on in the background. I'm also excited to attend Cleveland Oktoberfest. Great Lakes is the official Cleveland Oktoberfest 2nd weekend sponsor September 8-9, so we'll have plenty of Oktoberfest and other great beers for me--and you--to enjoy! Read up on our Cleveland Oktoberfest plans here!

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