Oktoberfest may have began with a grand horse race for a wedding, but it has become the world’s premiere beer destination and largest folk festival in history – changing the way we experience beer forever in the process.
For any Outsider who’s been to a beer festival and had a wunderbar time, we have Oktoberfest to thank. 2010 would mark an incredible 200 years since the birth of Munich, Germany’s legendary festival. Another decade on, Wies’n (as the locals call it, short for the historic location’s name of Theresienwiese) continues to grow at record pace despite the challenges of recent years.
Around 6 million people attend Oktoberfest proper in Munich each year. And that pales in comparison to the literal tens-of-millions of liters of beer poured on the festival grounds annually. This is, at its core, fascinatingly insane in the best of ways.
But how did Oktoberfest go from a royal horse race wedding – to international symbol of beer? And how did we all become so obsessed with it in the process? It’s a hell of a question that, thanks to Oxford and the festival’s official site, holds incredible answers.
Oct. 12, 1810: The Birth of Oktoberfest
“One rule still applies in the beer tents at Oktoberfest: the customer is king,” says Oktoberfest itself. If you visit their site, this is your introduction to a fascinating history.
Over 221 years, these millions upon millions of kingly customers owe everything to a wealthy 19th century civil officer. His name? Andreas Michael Dall’Armi.
A member of the Bavarian National Guard, Dall’Armi was responsible for the idea to celebrate the royal wedding of Prince Regent Ludwig of Bavaria (the later King Ludwig I) and Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen, with an egregious horse race. According to Oktoberfest’s history, King Max I Joseph of Bavaria was “impressed from the get-go” with the idea, and the rest is, well, history.
The royal couple were married on October 12, 1810 – and this marks the first-ever Oktoberfest. The inaugural festival took place on the Theresienwiese grounds, too, as it still does today.
Yet it would be almost a full century before Oktoberfest would resemble what we know today. A huge milestone came in 1910, when a whopping 12,000 hectoliters of beer were poured courtesy of the Pschorr-Bräurosl. This massive festival tent would seat 12,000 people that year – a tradition that would flourish through the 20th century.
Then, in 1950, Munich’s Mayor Thomas Wimmer would tap the first-ever Oktoberfest keg inside the Schottenhamel tent. This began the sitting Mayor’s customary “kick-off” of the festival.
And despite the popular myth, there isn’t one single beer that has stood the test of time throughout all these additions. In fact, there’s been as many radical – and fascinating – changes to the beer as there have been to Oktoberfest itself.
How Wies’n Changed Beer Forever
According to The Oxford Companion to Beer definition of Oktoberfest, historical evidence shows that for the first 60-odd years, the then-popular Bavarian dunkel beer would dominate the festival.
In 1872, a notable change went into the beer history books; one that has become an Oktoberfest staple.
“In that particularly hot late summer Michael Schottenhamel, owner of Spaten’s tent on the Wiesn, had run out of the traditional dark lager beer—and considered dispensing beer from a different brewery. Joseph Sedlmayr, owner of Spaten-Leistbräu, desperately fearing to lose the contract, suggested he sell a strong version of a Vienna-style lager brewed by his son, Gabriel,” cites BeerandBrewing.com of the change.
“This beer was in fact an 18°P bock beer and at a probable 8% alcohol by volume (ABV) it was sold at a premium price. It may not have been ‘traditional,’ but it proved to be popular and for several years—up until World War I—bock-strength beers dominated the Wiesn,” the trade continues.
For decades of the 20th century, reddish-brown marzenbier would rule the festivities. Through this, what we know as the modern “craft beer” was born.
The 1990s would see another big change for the beer of Wies’n. Oktoberfest beers in Munich would switch to golden ales with sweet, malty notes. These medium-body spirits still fuel the festival today.
In present-day America, Boston Beer Company’s Samuel Adams dominates the game with the largest brewing of Oktoberfest beers. Fascinatingly, only the local brewers of Munich can legally brew official Oktoberfest beers in Germany. As a result, Samuel Adams’ enormous output makes them the world’s largest producer of Oktoberfest beer today.
So whether you’re in Munich or Boston, raise a glass this fine October 12. And be sure to toast the last two centuries of beer innovation while you’re at it. Happy Oktoberfest, Outsiders!