Well, if it’s September then it must be Oktorberfest time and that means beer, dancing, pretzels and more beer. And it all began when a young lad’s eye caught the smile of a pretty girl’s face. But the question that is always asked: “Why do we call it Oktorberfest if it’s in September?” The answer to that question and why we drink Oktoberfest beer is right here but we first need to fill our steins with Märzenbier. Did I say Märzenbier? Yes, we first need to drink this beer brewed in March since Oktoberfest beer had not yet been developed. I will explain all of this and although this is not a long story but you may want to have a pretzel handy, and stay close to the beer.
The Germans have a well-established reputation for their beer drinking. Although they drink responsibly they drink often. Many workers have beer breaks similar to our coffee break. Wouldn’t that cut back on absenteeism? The young drink, but are taught how to do so responsibly. To the Germans beer is a part of life and it follows one simple rule; good beer in moderation. The temperance movement may have been discussed in Germany but I don’t know if anyone lived to tell about it? All in all, they enjoy a good brew. But what happens when good beer goes bad?
Brewing in the hot summer months in southern Germany was problematic until refrigeration was developed in the late 1800’s. The top fermenting lager yeast was prone to attack from wild yeast strains and temperature control ranged from very warm to hot. Not a good environment for brewing a cold German beer. The quality of beer was always foremost in the hearts and minds of officials and this led to the Reinheitsgebot, or more commonly known as the Bavarian Purity law. The Reinheitsgebot was a decree that only permitted barley, hops and water can be used to make beer. It said nothing about yeasts since nobody knew what that was then. Nor did it permit wheat. In as much as romantics would like to think this was to preserve Bavaria beer it was, in fact, to preserve Bavarian bread. Long before Wilhelm IV imposed the purity law, the Munich council enacted a law in 1447 that permitted only water, malt and hops. That law was to preserve the integrity of beer. But neither of these laws prevented spoilage.
To keep the beer from going bad and wasting grain, a summer brewing prohibition was introduced in Bavaria by the Wittelsbachers (the ruling house of Dukes) in 1553. Brewing was restricted from September 29 (St. Michael’s Day) to April 23 (St. George’s Day). The beer would have been called March beer, or Märzenbier, as that is the first full month it would have been stored. The beer would have been brown in color because of the way the barley was kilned. Barley is left to sprout but very quickly it is heated in a kiln where it becomes malt. Barley was killed (kilned?) at the time in kilns using wood or coal. This gave the malt off flavors as well as charring if the temperature was too high. It is the malt that gives beer its color. The yeast used to make the beer, and the alcohol, did its job by lying on the top of the liquid. This is known as top fermenting yeast and the beer would have been considered an ale. It would not be until some years latter that bottom fermenting lager yeast would be developed; making the German lager we know today. Full bodied with a well rounded malt taste.
Now we get to the wedding. In 1810, a young lad, Crown Prince Ludwig I of Bavaria proposed to a princess, Therese Charlotte Luise, princess von Saxonia Sachsen-Hildburghausen. She said yes (I can just see the invitations) and in doing so set the stage for an event that would eventually rock Munich. Obviously the prince was happy, and so were the townspeople as it gave them an excuse to have a party. They held a community fair, not unlike any other of the day, other than that they renamed the meadow in honor of the bride, Therese’s meadow (wiese), or Theresienwiese. The following anniversary, October 12th, the townspeople decided to have another fair. Starting on the wedding anniversary and finishing as it did the previous year on the 17th; the Oktoberfest was born. Some years latter the start of the fair was moved to late September to take advantage of the warmer evenings. This is what led to the confusion of the name for the October festival. Today, the Oktoberfest begins on a Saturday in late September and finishes 16 day later on the first Sunday on October. The 2005 Munich fest goes from September 17 to October 2 where they expect nearly 6 million visitors.
But Bavarians continued to drink the brown Märzenbier until an Austrian brewer named Anton Dreher produced an amber colored beer in 1841 using pale-colored malt. It was so different from the brown colored beers of Europe that it was given the name Vienna beer. The malt was given the name of Vienna malt and beer made using this malt was said to be made using the Viennese method. The first hot air kiln was invented in 1818 allowing malt to dry without charring. This gave Vienna beer a translucent copper-red color and a cleaner taste. Josef Sedlmayr of the Spaten brewery of Munich introduced an amber beer at the Oktoberfest for the first time in 1871. It was so well received by the people that it took the name of the festival and the rest is history. When we swing our steins at an Oktoberfest this year and say Prost remember the happy couple, kiss your sweetie then go for the pretzel.