OKTOBERFEST is almost over. That’s right, it’s not even October yet, and the famous German beer celebration is already winding down. You see, Oktoberfest always begins on the second to last Saturday of September and ends on the first Sunday of October. This year, that meant a Sept. 22 beginning and an Oct. 7 end. Nine days in September and only seven in October, seems like perhaps it should be called Septemberfest.
The festival originally celebrated the marriage of Bavarian Crown Prince Ludwig (later King Ludwig I) and Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen on Oct. 12, 1810. The couple invited all of Munich to a celebration in the fields outside the city; fields they nicknamed Theresienwiese (Therese’s fields). A horse race helped commemorate the event.
That horserace was repeated the following year and an agricultural show was added, giving rise to a tradition. The merging of the wedding commemoration and local harvest fairs led to the incorporation of beer, Munich’s local bounty. In 1818, a carnival was added; by 1896, the first beer tents appeared. From then on it was all about the beer.
Oddly enough the beer style traditionally served during Oktoberfest is Marzen, which is the German name for the month of March.
The reason simple: Lager beer was popular in Bavaria long before the advent of artificial refrigeration. But summer was not a good month to brew beer — summer heat often caused fermentation problems, not mention spoilage problems. The ingenious beer-loving Bavarians solved this problem by brewing a strong lager beer in March (before the summer heat), packing it in the last winter ice and storing it in caves. The result was a smooth delicious beer.
By the end of summer, right before the beginning of the new brewing season, the Bavarians often had a surplus of Marzen so they endeavored to use Ludwig’s annual wedding celebration as a way to get rid of it.
Here are some other things about Germany, Oktoberfest and beer:
• The Reinheitsgebot, or German Beer Purity Law, the oldest food purity law in the world (1516), lists three ingredients for beer; malt or wheat, hops and water. Ironically, the most important ingredient in the manufacture of beer — yeast — was omitted. Yeast wasn’t discovered until the late 1800s with the invention of the microscope.
• The Reinheitsgebot had more to do with commerce than purity. Hops was a primarily Bavarian product and by stipulating hops as the only flavoring agent for beer, the law virtually guaranteed the royal family would maintain a monopoly on its production.
• Ludwig I abdicated his throne after his tax on beer caused riots in Munich.
• Princess Therese was originally going to marry Napoleon Bonaparte; instead she married Ludwig, who rewarded her by cheating on her regularly. Ludwig’s infidelities (along with his tax on beer) are believed to have caused the unrest that led eventually to his abdication.
• Lager beer can be dark or light. Lager refers to being “stored” in a cool environment. The yeast in lagered beer sinks to the bottom of the fermentation tanks and the beer brews from the bottom up. Ales are warm fermented, and the yeast in them brews from the top down. Ales like lagers can be both light and dark. Lager and ale today refers to the type of yeast used.
• Bavaria didn’t officially become part of Germany until 1919, after World War I.
• Bavaria’s current Prince Ludwig is the great-great-grandson of Ludwig III, the last king of Bavaria.
• The original Oktoberfest celebration, Oct. 12, 1810, would no longer fall within the parameters of the modern-day celebration.
So as you wind down your Oktoberfest celebration do not forget that it was the confusing nature of German politics that led to a primarily September celebration being branded with an October name celebrated with a March beer.