What’s that? It’s Oktoberfest? I thought Oktoberfest was in September. And I thought October was spelled with a gentle Anglo-Saxon ‘c’ instead of a massive, intimidating Teutonic ‘k’.
What’s up with that, anyway? Cologne with a ‘K’, Caesar with a ‘K’, commando with a ‘k’—hell, even my own last name starts with a ‘K’ when by all rights—being a homonym for that Royal rock pile in Balmoral—it should not. Inconvenient? Not only do all those misplaced ‘k’s’ overwork my laptop, but I can never order a pizza without slowly spelling out my patronym, letter by letter, lest the Castle family winds up with my double cheese and green olives.
‘Kassel’ notwithstanding, Germans have long, funny names, and the history of Oktoberfest is soaked with them. The chronicle begins in 1810 with the marriage of the son of Count Palatine Maximilian Joseph of Zweibrücken and Augusta Wilhelmine of Hesse-Darmstadt to Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen; the subsequent wedding party was held in a Munich field called die Theresienwiese. So bonkers an occasion did it prove to be that the Bavarian Royal Family figured they’d mollify the masses—reeling from poverty and near-constant warfare—by holding it every year.
And that they have done, religiously—at least when they were were not unscabbarding their swords and the peasants were not dying of cholera. Over the centuries, Oktoberfest has been cancelled 25 times—twice due to disease epidemics and twenty-three times because the uppity-ups couldn’t play nice with the neighbors. In 1813 it was Napoleon, in 1866 it was the Prussians, and in 1914-1918 and 1939-1945, it was you and me.
Short of making them give back Poland and Alsace and writing ‘I Will Not Bomb London’ a billion times on the blackboard, there seems to be no better penance for these touchy Teutons than the shuttering of the Ochsenbraterei/Spatenbräu Festhalle. Apparently, it works: They’ve been heeding Mr. Do Bee’s gentle Romper Room admonishment ever since: “Boys and girls? Do Bee a good Master Race and forget about world domination.”
And since 1947 (with the notable exception of 1980’s pipe bomb planted by right-wing extremist Gundolf Köhler which killed thirteen people—including Gundolf), sailing has been pretty consistent.
A Million Gallons of Beer on the Bar
Which is not to say that it’s been restrained—far from it. Oktoberfest is the largest, most out-of-control party in the world; it makes the Mardi Gras look like Sammy Six-Pack’s backyard weenie roast.
A few stats to offer a clue as to how off the hook it can be:
In 2010, six million revelers consumed 119 oxen, 240,000 pork sausages, seventy thousand pork knuckles, half a million chickens, 90,000 pounds of Fisch am Stiel (fish on a stick), one small tin of Spam, 34,000 gallons of wine, and—envelope please—nearly two million gallons of beer.
And that was breakfast.
(The consequence of all this beer consumption, of course, is a need for Porta-Johns, and more than 1,800 were in operation in 2010—several surrounded by Faraday Cages to prevent them from being used by cell-phoners as ‘quiet spots’, thus risking blown Bavarian bladders).
Why Pitch a Bitch When You Can Pitch a Beer Tent?
The München set-up, as overseen by a whopping Amazonian statue representing Bavarian womanhood, centers around thirty-four non-permanent tents, each with a name that settles, like those of the Bavarian Royalty, as an absurdly uneconomical waste of letters: Ochsenbraterei, Armbrustschützenzelt, Wildmoser-Hühnerbraterei, Studentenverbindungen, with a special agricultural pavilion that happens every four years called Zentrallandwirtschaftsfest.
Well, at least they’ve stopped wasting all those endangered ‘K’s’.
Each tent boasts some esoteric, often odd but always cool specialty: There’s The Crossbowman’s Tent, for example; the Glöckle Wirt, filled with oil paintings and antique musical instruments and the Münchner Knödelei, whose mission statement is ‘Preserve and spread the dumpling culture’—thus allowing us to sleep easier knowing that the Germans are making Spätzle instead of 20-mm antiaircraft cannons.
Naturally, the common denominator that joins these pavilions at the hop is beer. Sure, there’s sekt sparkling wine available, but drinking it is akin to blasphemy. What, you’d drive to Hershey, Pennsylvania to pick up some Jolly Ranchers?
Beneath the canvas, Bier ist Gott.
Oktoberfestbiers, as they are called, are a unique breed, usually Märzens, brewed in March, stored in caves over the summer, and top-heavy with malt and alcohol—some a full 2% higher than standard Munich Helles lagers. But Munich beers they are: The Beer Institute dictates that only beers brewed within the city limits may be called Oktoberfestbier, and all others must be called ‘Oktoberfest-style’, just as the 1919 Treaty of Versailles required Germany to be re-named the Weimar-style Republic-like Reich.
As might be predicted, virtually all these toasty, nut-brown, yeasty-rich Oktoberfestbiers come from the München Big Six: Löwenbräu, Hofbräuhaus, Augustinerbräu, Paulaner, Hacker-Pschorr and Spaten. The first three are currently under indictment from the Interpunktion-Erhaltungs-Liga von München (Punctuation Conservation League of Munich) to stop the overharvesting of umlauts, so legal fees are probably the reason that the price for a Maß (1 liter stein) of these beers is steadily increasing. In 2001 the average price of a Maß was around six and a half Euros—this year, it was €9.20.
The Most Wonderful Time of the Beer
So, back to Septemberfest. As nostalgic a date as October 12, 1810 is to those maudlin Münchners, autumn weather in Bavaria can be a touch squirrely, so the 16 – 18 day festival ends on the first Sunday in October, meaning that it’s held mostly in September.
My personal Novemberfest—for those interested—will be held on the Kassel Fairgrounds in my basement in about ten seconds so I can write tasting notes. If you even superficially resemble the Fräuleins in the adjoining photo, admittance is free. If not, you are required to provide several crockpots and chafing dishes filled with Leberspätzlesuppe, Nürnberger Bratwurst mit Sauerkraut and Semmelschmarrn mit Zwetschgenkompott along with a kegger of Franziskaner Weißbier and an experienced Oompah band. Oh, and a double cheese with green olives pizza, O.C.?
Hey, cut me some slack—I know that the last word is spelled wrong, but damn it, we just ran out of ‘K’s’.
Maybe bring some of those, too.
Note on the notes: These beer/ales have zero to do with Oktoberfest, and everything to do with Novemberfest—they are big, bold brews that don’t need any of that late-September girly Indian Summer crap. They want roaring fireplaces, blizzards out the wazoo and Jack Frost ripping off your nose.
The first two are Bavarian, the third comes from North Rhine-Westphalia.
Mahrs Bräu Der Weisse Bock, around $7/500ml: Big and boozy, this one pounds the ABV scales at 7.2%. Weisse bock is a style that’s quickly developing a fan base—it shows the sweet raisin, citrus, tart cherry and apple of wheat beers with the caramel-honey malt of bock with its underlying cocoa and coffee bitterness. Ultra-smooth with almost Champagne-like carbonation; bubbles stir up some sediment, giving the brew a murky character perfect for autumn.
Kapuziner Schwarz-Weizen Ale, about $3.50/500ml: Stout beers have been phenominally successful here in the States, thanks in no small part to the Guinness advertising powerhouse, but it hasn’t really spilled over to German Schwarz (black) ales. It should. This ale broods with a bitter roasted coffee bean intensity that’s mellowed by pretty notes of pumpkin pie spice and the tang of orange rind. The head is thick, khaki and loaded with visible bubbles rather than froth; the mouthfeel tag-teams between astringency and brown sugar sweetness. It finishes too abruptly to be a world-class player, but at the price, the brew is a bargain.
Uerige Doppelsticke Altbier, around $6.50/11.2 oz: The color of dark amber maple syrup, Doppelsticke weighs in at an awe inspiring 8.5% alcohol—and it’s priced to match. But the buzz factor seems nicely balanced by a massive, malt-driven palate filled with mocha, pine needles, cooking chocolate and winter spices followed up by a bit of cherry and a strong, extremely long-lasting finish initially reminiscent of grapefruit rind, followed by notes of fresh hops. Incidentally, Doppelsticke means ‘double secret’ in the Bavarian Bairisch dialect—so if you ask what’s in it, the Uerige folks may have to pull a Hansel and Gretel’s witch on you, and that, my friend, will be that.