October starts early in Munich. It has started early for well over a century, all the better to celebrate Oktoberfest. This huge festival – thought to be one of the largest in the world – starts on September 22 and runs until October 7 in 2012.
Oktoberfest is held in an area called Theresienwiesse (Theresa’s field), known locally as wiesn, for short. The name recalls the origins of the festival, which began to mark the marriage of Crown Prince Ludwig of Bavaria to Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen in October 1812. That year, the festival ended with a horse-race – an event that was discontinued in 1960.
The date was moved back one month simply because the weather in September is slightly warmer and more reliable.
The festival has its own history. A parade become part of the event in 1835, and is still continued, with people in traditional costume marching through the centre of Munich to the Theresienwiesse. Costumes – men in lederhosen, and women in dirndl skirts – form much of the popular image of the Oktoberfest.
The event was always popular, but only in the last 50 years has it become such a giant world-renowned event. These days, it attracts countless visitors, mostly from Bavaria. Many drink considerably more than a single litre of beer: More than six million mugs of beer were sold in 2006.
For a few years, the event had the reputation as a licence for drunkenness, but there have been moves to dispel the image while still providing a diversity of acitivities.
In fact, Oktoberfest now comprises many events, beginning with the tapping of the first barrel of beer. Bavarian beer, of course, and Munich beer in particular, is the focus of everyone’s drinking attention. Beer is at the heart of this annual event, with special beers brewed for the occasion by Munich breweries. The tradition was for Marzen beer, that is, beer that was brewed in March and laid down in caves. It was a particular style of lager, amber-red in colour, with Viennese malts to give a particular depth of flavour, and prized German hops.
The local Oktoberfest breweries are Augustiner, Hacker-Pschorr, Hofbrau, Lowebbrau, Pauliner, and Spaten. They brew a Marzen-style draught beer for sale in the beer halls, and some of them make a lighter more international style known as Oktoberfestbier.
There are 14 large marquees on site. For 2008, the Augustiner festhall seats 6,000, with room for another 2,500 outside, and manages to include two children’s days during the festival. The ochsenbraterei serves ox beef, teamed with Spaten beer and traditional brass bands. The Schutzen-feltzelt is one of the smaller tends, seating just over 4,000 people, who eat suckling pig with coleslaw, drink Lowenbrau and listen to music. Fish lovers should head for the Fischer-Vroni tent, where a range of fish are cooked on skewers, the beer is Augustiner, and the music local. In the Hacker tent, rock bands perform – making a change from brass bands.
Food and music are very much part of the event. There are sausages in the hundreds of thousands, including weisswurst sausages (white sausages made with veal or a mixture of veal and pork) served with mustard. There is also sauerkraut and coleslaw, beef (including oxtail), grilled pork knuckles, rotisseried chickens, goose and duck. There is potato salad, pretzels, and sweets that include apple strudel and sugared almonds.
Such is the power of Oktoberfest in Munich that numerous others have sprung up throughout the world, mainly in the US. Mostly, the events have been developed in areas with strong German immigrant populations. There’s a huge event in Cincinatti, where the website declares it to be the country’s largest and most authentic Oktoberfest, no doubt to distinguish it from that of Fredericksberg Texas, the one in Tulsa, or the one in La Crosse (Wisconsin) and the Canadian event in the twin towns of Kitchener-Waterloo.