The next time you open a wedding invitation from a cousin who wants you to travel to Bermuda to help celebrate their big day and feel like things really have gotten out of hand, know that it could be worse. Oktoberfest, the world’s biggest festival and originally a celebration of the Bavarian Crown Prince Ludwig’s marriage to Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen, is still running more than 200 years after they tied the knot.
Originally, the whole thing was held in October and culminated in a series of horse races. It has since been moved mostly to September (for better weather), extended to just over two weeks, and ends with the celebration of German reunification. From the beginning, the local Munich government has played a key role on the organizing committee and still restricts the beer served to the city’s six major breweries.
The Oktoberfest season is when most of us read, write, or speak more German than the rest of the months combined. Here are a few key words to know.
Lederhosen: Not really folk dress so much as the once-popular everyday attire for working-class Bavarians. The word actually only refers to the leather shorts and not also any accompanying suspenders or knee socks.
Dirndl: Is the complementary dress and apron combination for women.
Wiesn: The local, vernacular word for the festival comes from the name of the open-field venue known as the Theresienwiese.
Maß: A mug of beer – exactly one litre, these days – in Bavaria.
Beer is sold in over 20 tents at Munich’s Oktoberfest. It is all brewed by Paulaner, Augustiner, Hacker-Pschorr, Lowenbrau, Spatenbrau, or Hofbrau-Munchen and the German Beer Institute is a bit prickly about letting everyone know that if it’s not made by one of those six it should be labeled “Oktoberfest-style beer”. By style, they fit under the “marzen” group that includes slightly-strong beers that were traditionally made in March at the end of the brewing season. These were then stored in cool caves and doled out slowly for summer consumption. When brewing picked up again in the fall the casks had to be emptied to make room, so one good booze-up at the end of September was in order.
Sure, you can get a giant pretzel or sausage at Oktoberfest, but that’s certainly not the limit to options. Roast chicken, grilled pork knuckle, and all manner of dumplings are also traditional offerings.
Munich has the original and by far the largest Oktoberfest celebration, but the idea has definitely spread around the world. Both Vancouver and Kitchener-Waterloo both have long-standing Oktoberfest traditions. Just east of Ottawa, Beau’s All-natural Brewing has put together a newer, but very successful entrant to the field. Outside of Germany, possibly to avoid having to explain further, Oktoberfests tend to be held in October rather than September.
Whether you make the pilgrimage to Munich or celebrate Ludwig and Therese’s wedding closer to home be sure to pace yourself. Marzen tends to go down easy and you wouldn’t want to lose track of how many Maßs you’ve had.