The Celebration (and Tradition) of Oktoberfest

It’s been a surprisingly cool end to summer in our part of the woods. The heat and humidity August is known for was more or less a no-show, and September has been feeling a lot more like October when at the ballpark (in more ways than one). With their colorful autumn look beginning to the show a few weeks early, even the trees seem to have gotten the memo on fashion rules after Labor Day.

Not that anyone around the brewery is complaining. Oktoberfest, our über smooth award-winning seasonal, pairs perfectly with cool sunny days and crisp fall nights. But what makes Oktoberfest the perfect companion to barbeques, tailgate parties, and bonfires? I sat down with Mike Williams, Field Education Representative at GLBC and certified Cicerone, to discuss the history (and tradition) of this celebratory brew.

What is Oktoberfest?
Oktoberfest has become an end-of-summer harvest celebration that begins in mid-September and ends on the first Sunday of October. Historically speaking, it started in 1810 as a celebration of a royal marriage in Munich. The party ended up being such a blast that the people of Munich asked the royalty to celebrate every year. Though the name Oktoberfest has stuck, they shifted the beginning of the celebration into September so that it could be enjoyed during warmer weather. Now, the multi-week celebration attracts millions to Germany every year.

And beer has always played a major role in the celebration.
That’s right. The first beer served at Oktoberfest would likely have been a dunkel, a dark, malty, and relatively heavy Munich-brewed lager. In 1872, a slightly lighter style called Märzen became popular and has pretty much become the go-to version for American craft brewers today. What’s interesting is that for a time, brewing in Munich during the summer was illegal because the heat would ruin the sensitive lager yeast. Thus, the slightly heftier Märzen, which means “March” in German, was brewed in spring and cellared in underground caves so that it could be enjoyed all summer long.

Is there a difference between a Märzen and an Oktoberfest beer?
Not really. A Märzen is an Oktoberfest beer. In 1990, Munich named an even lighter style known as festbier the official beer of Oktoberfest, but there’s really little difference between an Oktoberfest and a Märzen in American craft brewing.

What can I expect from the style?
You can expect a very malt-forward, smooth beer. It almost has this toasty, light bread crust flavor that’s malty but not super sweet. Our house lager yeast plays a big role in this. It ferments out sugars exceptionally well, leaving a really clean, easy drinking beer. We utilize a traditional brewing method called decoction mashing when making Oktoberfest. After our barley has gone through the mash, we hold 1/3 of it back and heat it back up to achieve an even deeper, richer malt flavor. Because of advances in barley production, decoction mashing isn't considered a necessary step by a lot of brewers, but we still like that it's a traditional way to give Oktoberfest that extra malt flavor without the sweetness.

Everyone around the brewery seems to have their own special way of enjoying Oktoberfest. What’s yours?
With a stein! I have a ½ liter stein at home that I love to top off with a nice frothy head. I think Oktoberfest tastes best when I’m sitting on a lawn chair in my backyard. If the Tribe game is on, I’ll listen to Tom Hamilton call the game on the radio, but a Phish bootleg works just fine, too. Add some brats on the grill? Perfect.

Oktoberfest is available now in 6-pack, 12-pack, and draft at the GLBC Gift Shop, Brewpub, and distribution footprint. Celebrate the official start of Oktoberfest at GLBC with live music from the Joe Wendel Orchestra, Bavarian-inspired food specials, and a "Keep the Liter Stein" drink specials. More info can be found here.