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Beer Festivals: The Oktoberfest

The father of all beer festivals

The father of all beer festivals

Beer festivals are nothing new. With the rise of craft brewing and the sheer number of breweries, they’ve steadily grown in popularity since the 2000’s. Singapore is the latest country to cash in on the act.  In March 2016, the country sponsored their first – and I am sure not the last – Craft Singapore festival event, bringing together the world’s best beers and hand-picked cuisine from Singapore’s top restaurants and bakeries.”  That may be a bit of an exaggeration from Singapore. Only twenty-two breweries and cideries were represented, about a quarter from Singapore and just a handful of names the average drinker would recognize.

Singapore’s beer festival is modeled on recent festivals. The format is simple. Bring together a number of breweries/beer importers under one roof/fairground, ask a collection of food suppliers/trucks/restaurants to rent booths, and then charge consumers an admission fee. 

But not the Oktoberfest, the father of all beer festivals. The Oktoberfest beer festival which stands alone.

The Oktoberfest wasn’t started and perpetuated to cash in on a trend. Nor was it started to highlight the quality of Bavarian brews. In October 1810, Crown Prince Ludwig married Princess Therese, and Munich’s citizenry were invited to attend at the fairgrounds in front of the city gates. At the time, Munich’s population wasn’t even 41,000.

The original event lasted six days and ended with a horse race. That should have been the end of it. Grandiose Indian weddings can last four days, but after the fourth, everyone goes their separate ways. There’s no reunion gala the following year. With the Oktoberfest, the city decided to repeat the horse races in 1811 and add a Bavarian agricultural show.

The second 1811 fest should have been another end to it because in 1812, Bavaria was involved in the Napoleonic Wars and no event was held. Perhaps the one year break in 1813 made Bavarians pine for the ceremony all the more. The 1814 fest brought back the horse races and added tree-climbing, bowling, swings. By 1818, the fest had assumed more of a carnival-like atmosphere, with booths, prizes, and carousels.  Those five uninterrupted festival years documented that the festival could be fun and profitable, such that by 1819, the city of Bavaria took over its planning and committed to making it an annual event. 

Notice the Oktoberfest didn’t spring out of a desire to sell or drink more beer. Beer has played a role in Bavaria’s history for centuries and currently almost half of Germany’s breweries are located in Bavaria. Any gathering in Germany will feature beer – and a lot of it.  So it was natural for beer to be part of the first Oktoberfest when the celebration was a royal wedding.

Alcoholic beverages were sold from small beer booths and stands that multiplied in number with the festival’s popularity. In 1880, electricity first illuminated what were then 400 booths and tents. It was around a decade later that the Oktoberfest, once thought of as simply a People’s Festival or Fun Fair, became known to some as a beer festival.  In 1896, the beer stands gave way to the first large beer tents and halls with solid backing by the Bavarian breweries whose brews were being hawked.

At a standard beer festival, the attitude is the more breweries, the merrier. Festival organizers try to assemble a large variety.  Standards for entry are usually minimal. At a beer festival I attended in Melbourne in 2006, the criteria was simple: the breweries had to fit the definition of a craft brewery and they had to have brewing premises located in the state of Victoria. In theory, hundreds of breweries could have participated.

For the Oktoberfest, only beers brewed according to the German Purity Law and brewed within the city limits of Munich can be designated as Oktoberfest Beer. To the Oktoberfest planners, this consists of just six breweries who’ve since bonded together to form the Club of Munich Brewers:   Hofbrau-Munchen, Spatenbrau, Paulaner, Lowenbrau, Hacker-Pschorr, and Augustiner-Brau. 

Actually, there are more than six breweries in Munich brewing beers conforming to the Purity Law.  The six permitted to sell Oktoberfest beer are the Big Six, the largest breweries of Munich, and to make this static choice more palatable to the masses, the official Oktoberfest site covers their behind with the explanation that beers sold at the Oktoberfest are original Munich beer which is characterized by a long tradition, much experience in brewing, and the strict adherence of the Bavarian Purity Requirements.”

In other words, the Oktoberfest isn’t looking to expose visitors to Germany’s finest array of current beers. In America, this would be like having a beer festival and saying that only Budweiser, Miller, Coors, and other similar aged ilk were qualified to be sold.  The difference, of course, is the generally higher standard of a German macro. Anyway, rituals at the Oktoberfest are such that visitors care more when the first beer keg is tapped than the breweries providing them.

The food on offer at the Oktoberfest is, quite unlike Singapore’s first craft beer festival, not culled from the city’s finest restaurants and bakeries. Innovative fusion foods and pairings? Forget it. Wrong festival. Oktoberfest cuisine is about tradition. Roasted chicken, sausage, pork knuckles, duck, cheese, and German cakes, pies, and strudels are what you queue up for in the tents. 

The Oktoberfest is a lot like French wine.  There’s more competition than there used to be, but each, being the most renowned in its class, doesn’t have to modernize like its competitors to get attention. Admission is free (as compared to Singapore’s latest and greatest which charged US$30 entry), all the more reason to entice an estimated 7m visitors. 

About three quarters come from Bavaria.  The rest of the revelers are about evenly split between fellow Germans and international visitors who’ve heard about the world famous festival and want their own mugfuls of experience with pictures of pretty girls in dirndl dresses. 

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