Is the Oktoberfest All About Beer?

It’s that time of year again when the days are getting colder, the leaves are changing color, and pumpkin-flavored products are everywhere. A new school year is underway, the NFL dominates Sunday TV, and some people are already thinking about Thanksgiving and Christmas—and all the other stuff they can make taste like pumpkin. It’s also the time of year for Oktoberfest all across these United States. With the Craft Beer Revolution, small and large breweries, local neighborhoods and communities, and even towns and cities are organizing social gatherings in September and October that revolve around one thing: BEER!

So, what is Oktoberfest, where does it come from, and why do Americans celebrate it? Most people associate the celebration with beer, dirndls (those folk dresses that the women wear), and Munich, but few know the historical origins of what has become, perhaps, the world’s largest folk festival, which today draws over 6 million visitors each year.

Oktoberfest Celebrations Include Dancing, Singing, Eating, Playing Games, and Yes… Beer Too!

What is now known as Oktoberfest, began as a sort of wedding reception back in October of 1810. That’s when the Crown Prince of Bavaria, Ludwig, married Princess Therese von Sachsen-Hildburghausen. In honor of that union, the burghers of Munich were invited to celebrate the royal couple. Originally the festivities lasted only a few days, but in the following years, as the celebration became an annual event, the opening day was moved back into September to take advantage of the warmer, more stable weather. Over the course of two centuries the original Oktoberfest has steadily grown into a carnival with all sorts of rides and attractions. Today, it lasts almost three weeks, attracts millions of visitors from all over the world who consume about eight million liters of beer (two million gallons), half-a-million chickens, and over one-hundred-and-twenty-thousand sausages.

As the name implies, Märzen was traditionally brewed during March and designed to last through the hot summer months.

As it turns out, the original Oktoberfest was not centered around beer, although it is fair to assume that some was consumed (after all, we are talking about people here…). The Oktoberfestbier that today’s visitors are so fond of, and American brewers base their interpretation on, is a Märzen style (pronounced M-ear [like bear] tss-en). The name means “brewed in March” and it was traditionally the last beer brewed before the non-brewing season that ran from April 23rd to September 29th. Märzens are slightly stronger in alcohol than other beers, and were stored in cool, dry caves through the summer and tapped in the fall—just in time for the Oktoberfest. We owe the Oktoberfest version of this delicious, amber-colored drink to a brewer from Munich. In the 1830s Gabriel Sedlmayr, heir of the Spaten brewery, traveled to Vienna and then England to learn different malting and brewing practices. Until then, the beer scene in Munich was dominated by dunkel (dark) lagers that used grains in the brewing process that were malted to a dark color that, in turn, impacted the appearance and flavor of the beer. During his travels, Sedlmayr learned from English maltsters and brewers how to malt grain so that it was lighter in color and tasted more like bread. When he took over the Spaten brewery in 1839 and applied his new-found knowledge, Sedlmayer refined Märzen and first presented his creation during Oktoberfest in 1841. It was an instant success.

Here’s a fun fact: In Germany, where people love rules and regulations, and where they take beer VERY, VERY seriously, only six breweries have the right to call their beer Oktoberfestbier and sell it in the official beer tents. These are Augustiner, Hacker-Pschorr, Hofbräuhaus, Löwenbräu, Paulaner, and still, after all these years, Spaten.

While the original Oktoberfest in Germany has passed the test of time and established itself as a key event in the calendar, the question remains, why do Americans celebrate it on this side of the Atlantic? Sure, we like beer too, after all, we’re leading the world in craft beer production. So, is American Oktoberfest just an excuse to hold a festival to sell and drink beer? Well, we can’t speak for the other Oktoberfest organizers around the country, but here at the Frontier Culture Museum the answer is definitely: NO! For us, it’s not all about beer—it’s all about German culture. And while beer is certainly an important aspect of German culture, it’s not the Museum’s only Oktoberfest concern, there will definitely be beer.

Stable Frontier Marzen will debut at Oktoberfest 2017

The featured Oktoberfest beer for 2017 will be a Märzen, which is the product of a collaboration with Stable Craft Brewing, an up-and-coming local craft brewery. This Märzen will be on tap for Oktoberfest visitors over the age of 21 at the Cochran Pavilion while supplies last. For the curious of all ages who want to see beer made the old way, our interpreters will demonstrate beer-making all day on our German Farm.

The Museum educates the public about American frontier culture and how different European and West African people shaped this distinct culture. German immigrants to colonial America were the most numerous non-English speaking European group to settle in the colonies. They made a profound impression on American frontier culture, and ultimately on what we think of as American culture. These colonial immigrants left Germany generations before the first Oktoberfest—but the 19th century saw new waves of immigration to the United States from the German-speaking world, and with them came new and different German influences on American culture. The reason we are celebrate Oktoberfest at the Frontier Culture Museum is to show that culture, including, or maybe especially, American culture, changes constantly.

Please take a moment to look at the Museum’s event page (http://www.frontiermuseum.org/oktoberfest-2017-107/). We invite you to come to the Frontier Culture Museum on October 7th from 12:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. to explore the diverse cultural origins of the American people. And since you are here, you might as well have a glass of locally brewed German culture at Oktoberfest.

 

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