By BeachRock Bill
Thoughts of cooler evenings, turning leaves, and full flavored German beer come to mind, but beyond that, most Americans don’t have a clue what it is (a festival in Munich) and how it began (a wedding celebration for a future King). So the SCCBB thought it would be fun to give a little history and insight into this yearly celebration and to sample and discuss some of the beer styles served over the years.
Oktoberfest’s origins stretch back to the October 12, 1810 marriage of Prince Ludwig of Bavaria (future King Ludwig I) to Princess Therese von Sachsen-Hildburghausenon, who fortunately would give up her last name upon marriage.
The citizens of Munich were invited to attend the festivities, which took place on a huge open field in front of the city gates, and included horse races, food, music, dancing, and of course beer!
Romantics will appreciate that to honor the Princess, the field where the event was held (and still is to this day) was later named “Theresienwiese” (Therese’s Meadow)–a name that has a much better ring to it than the second choice debated–Sachsen-Hildburghausenonwiese. Either way, over time the name has been abbreviated down to Wiesn or Meadow–definitely easier for attendees to say after a few beers.
It’s not surprising that given all the free beer being served, the marriage party on the meadow was a hit with the locals of 1810, and the region’s agricultural association saw an opportunity, offering to re-create the wedding celebration into an annual event to instill Bavarian patriotism, promote local farming, and of course to turn a profit from attendance and beer sales.
Today, this annual festival, held the last two weeks of September through the first weekend of October, has grown to be the world’s biggest county fair–with games, rides, horse racing, music, dancing, a plethora of food, and of course beer. Dozens of tents are sprawled across Therese’s Meadow, with the sole intent of selling beer- massive and massive amounts of beer.
In my imagination, this beer is served to me in huge mugs by fair maidens in Dirndl dresses, but I will have to wait and see, if and when I ever decide to make the trek to Munich, if this is true.
A History of the Beer Styles
Admittedly yes, I have never personally been to Oktoberfest in Munich and was somewhat ignorant when it came to not only its history but to the style of beer on tap. Here in America, most people including me always equated Oktoberfest beer with the malty caramel-colored lagers, or Märzens, that arrive at local breweries and on store shelves from big U.S. players like Sam Adams and Sierra Nevada. In fact, for much of the last century, this was the case, but in researching this post, I was surprised to find that a couple decades ago Märzens were replaced at the festival by a lighter, easier drinking golden lager, aptly nicknamed a Festbier.
And just as Festbier supplanted Märzen, Märzens came before a century of various other lighter and darker beers, stronger and weaker styles that were popular in their era. It’s speculated the most likely brew served during Therese and Ludwig’s time was along the lines of the Munich Dunkels of today–a dark ruby-brown, malt-forward lager that is full-bodied yet crisp, with just a touch of sweetness.
Wanting to get three historical examples of an Oktoberfest beer, I went in search of a FestBier of today, a Märzen typical of the festival’s recent past, and a Munich Dunkel to get a feel for what Ludwig and I would be quaffing together at his wedding celebration.
Only beer from Munich’s largest brewers may be served on the Wiesn. Weeks before the festival begins, the breweries present their newly-brewed Wiesn beer (today in the Festbier style) which increases the anticipation of those waiting to attend.
“Tents” of all sizes are erected throughout the Weisn for serving food, wine, and of course beer. It’s a widely publicized fact that the approximately 7 million festival goers will consume millions of gallons of beer during the festival’s run. I think it’s safe to say that beer consumption is what gives this celebration its worldwide notoriety.
The lucky six breweries currently invited to fill the beer mugs at the festival are Augustiner, Hacker-Pschorr, Hofbräu, Löwenbräu, Paulaner, and Spaten. And they go all out constructing the perfect “tent” settings in which to chug their wares.
Octoberfest in San Diego
As the last week of September winds down, and the first weekend of October is upon us, signifying the end of Munich’s Oktoberfest festival, I decided to put on my lederhosen, grab my mug, and sample three of the historic beer styles I’ve selected for my Oktoberfest celebration in San Diego–a Munich Dunkel, a Märzen, and a Festbier.
OK, I’m actually wearing board shorts and flip-flops, but you can picture me any way you want.
Partying with the King
Moving in chronological order, I decided to start with a Munich Dunkel. Many German beer styles are named after their color and Dunkel, meaning dark, is no exception. I was happy to find a six-pack of Munich Dunkel from Hofbräu, which also happens to be one of the six big breweries allowed to sell at the festival itself.
This 5.5% ABV lager pours dark ruby brown with a medium tan head, and rich malt aroma showing a copious amount of old-world hoppy spice. There is also a hint of chocolate on the nose along with a subtle vibe of toasted bread crust. The malt carries over onto the first sip, and the richness balances perfectly with a restrained bitterness. The best part as it hits my tongue is the huge pillowy mouthfeel (which I love so much in Hazy IPAs) which manages to be super creamy without being overly sweet.
Finally, despite all this upfront maltiness, the beer finishes pleasantly clean and crisp. I’m not an expert on German beer, but my guess is this is one excellent version of the style. That being said, there was a lot going on, and it didn’t strike me as being very chuggable, so I can see why the festival over time transitioned to lighter styles.
I’ve been reluctant to review the brewery where I work for fear of bias, but when looking for a classic Märzen as a 20th-century example of the festival’s beer, I needed to look no further than Westbrew’s Oktoberfest Lager. Westbrew’s brewery is located on the “Hop Highway” in Vista, and they also have two satellite tasting rooms- one downtown by Petco Park, and one just off the beach in Del Mar (where I’m a Tapster).
Open just shy of two years, Westbrew has from the start managed to make some of San Diego’s tastiest beer–it’s the reason I like working there so much. Last year’s batch of Oktoberfest Märzen was a huge hit with customers, It’s my opinion that this year’s batch turned out to be even better! I grabbed a sixer feeling it would be a great example of the style–and because I get 50% off!
Westbrew’s Marzen pours a beautiful deep amber-orange with an off-white head and good clarity. There is a noticeable and pleasant bready toasted malt aroma.
Märzen means March in German, and the name dates back to the 1500’s where Bavarian brewing ordinances forbade brewing over the hot summer months for fears the boil kettle fires would get out of control and burn the town down. So brewers would brew as much as they could in March before the shutdown. It was brewed hoppier, maltier, and higher in alcohol so it would last through the long summer. Thus the Märzen, or March beer was born–or so the legend goes, this may be all bullshit…
I digress, back to Westbrew Oktoberfest’s bready aroma, which carries over into a wonderful crystal malt creaminess in the mouth. There is just a hint of up-front sweetness while still managing to seem pleasingly dry. A moderate amount of hop bitterness balances out all the maltiness, and I suspect some new school hops have been used to help keep the beer crisp-feeling and to play off its creaminess. The finish is clean and dry and makes me crave another sip, make that chug. I love this beer!
Societe Fest Bier
We finally move to the Festbier. Figuring it would be a hard style to find here in the States, or anywhere for that matter apart from the festival itself, I was excited to find that Societe Brewing added a beer they call Fest Bier as part of their seasonal rotating series. So I grabbed a six-pack to bring home and try.
Coming in at a low 4.6% ABV, the Societe Fest Bier’s alcohol content is somewhat lower than the more typical 6%+ offerings in this year’s tents (I’m guessing attendees would feel disappointed paying so much for such a low alcohol beer), but personally, I welcome the lower ABV, and find it doesn’t sacrifice any flavor to achieve it.
The lager pours medium gold with a white head, and on the nose has a pleasant clean fermentation profile that butts up against a grainy-sweet aroma. Mouthfeel is more soft than creamy, with a moderate malty start moving into a pronounced hop bitterness and finish (it was here I could tell I was drinking a Societe beer). Maybe a higher ABV would have helped balance the bitterness better–the richness of the Munich malt and sweetness of the crystal malt had to do all of the heavy lifting.
In the end, I liked this beer a lot, although I couldn’t see myself chugging another huge mug of it.
So in the end, I learned a ton about Oktoberfest, its history, its traditions, and its beer. I felt all the samples I chose for my journey were delicious, and despite their differences in color and body, all shared that rich malty creaminess that a big Munich malt bill brings. Bias or no, if I had to choose one beer to go back and refill my giant mug with at the Oktoberfest tent, it would have to be the Westbrew Oktoberfest. It was extremely crave-worthy.
Kudos to my team at my Westbrew in Vista for making such a classic and drinkable version of the Märzen style.
Until next time, auf wiedersehen from San Diego.
9 thoughts on “Oho! Oktoberfest!”
Any photos of you and Helen dancing in dirndl and lederhosen?
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Yes. And they are X rated
You have been doing some research my friend and of course the beer is served by pretty young maidens with large …….. isn’t it?
“Westbrew Holiday Ale” next month?