Oktoberfest in Munich

Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany, runs from the second-to-last Saturday in September through the first Sunday in October. It began more than 200 years ago as a wedding reception – featuring a horse race – after the Bavarian Crown Prince Ludwig married Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen. Over time, the horse race was phased out and beer took center stage (and more days were added to accommodate more beer drinking). It is now the largest beer festival in the world.

Why does Oktoberfest actually begin in September? Originally, it was a one-day event, but after growing to two weeks long, it was shifted into September to capitalize on the better seasonal weather (sometimes it snows in mid October) and longer daylight hours.

Oktoberfest officially begins after the mayor of Munich hammers a spigot into the first keg and loudly pronounces, “O’zapft is,” which means, “It’s tapped!”

The Oktoberfest Beer Style

The first beer tied to Munich’s Oktoberfest was a robust lager that came to be known as Märzen or Märzenbier, which means “March beer.” More on par with a modern-day dunkel, it was full-bodied, rich and toasty, and it had a medium-to-high alcohol content. In recent times, however, it has lightened up to a paler version of the original, mainly to appease the masses that seem to prefer a lighter, drier and more sessionable beer.

Märzenbier comes from the days before refrigeration, when March was the last month in which brewing was possible because the warmer months brought on airborne microbes that would spoil the beer. After the final batches of Märzenbier were brewed, they were stored in cool caves or cellars during the spring and summer months. The aging beer was drawn upon during the summer, and the leftover beer was consumed ceremoniously at Oktoberfest.

Oktoberfest beers of today are typically between 5 and 6 percent alcohol by volume (ABV), medium-bodied and golden to copper-orange in color.

Märzenbier and Oktoberfest style designations are often used interchangeably, and sometimes they’re even lumped in with the Vienna lager, which is a lighter cousin of Märzen with a slightly different malt bill. Up until last year, the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) even lumped the two together in its style guidelines. Adding to the confusion, some “festbiers” of today are actually more on par with the helles lager.

Even though Oktoberfest, also known as fest or festbier, is considered a beer style in the United States, it is not in Germany. Oktoberfestbier in Germany only applies to the beers that are served by the six Munich breweries at the Oktoberfest event. Even though these six beers are similar in style (i.e., malt-forward pale lagers), they do not necessarily have to adhere to any sort of style guideline. Similarities are purely coincidental.

When comparing Märzens with Oktoberfests, some claim Märzens tend to be slightly richer, darker, toastier and a pinch stronger than Oktoberfests. Oktoberfests, on the other hand, tend to be brewed with lighter, less-kilned malts and a higher percentage of German Pilsner malt, and they can have a more pronounced bitterness level. Both beers should have a pleasant maltiness that isn’t too sweet or cloying (with no more than a small amount of crystal/caramel malt), complemented by a restrained yet balanced hop bitterness.

These are all general descriptions, of course. Commercially, these beers vary greatly. What it really comes down to is what a brewery decides to call its beer that is brewed within this genre.


Chuckanut’s Fest Bier

Chuckanut’s Fest Bier emphasizes the use of Vienna malts for a smooth and highly drinkable beer. Its malt flavors and aromas are delicate yet rich and complex. Hop flavors and aromas are pleasant and aromatic, and they provide an incredibly balanced level of bitterness. This is one of the finest Oktoberfests / Festbiers out there, so get it while it lasts.

Chuckanut’s Oktoberfest event

There are some awesome events planned for this year’s Bellingham Beer Week (like this, for example), but don’t miss out on Chuckanut’s Oktoberfest, which will be on Saturday, Sept. 12, from noon to midnight. Entry is free.

“Our Oktoberfest will be massive!” says Mari Kemper, co-owner of Chuckanut Brewery & Kitchen. “We have never really done one here, so it’s a first. We will be opening up the entire grounds – including the patio and the parking lot – so there will be plenty of room for everyone.”

Festivities include a bouncy house and face painting for kids, lots of delicious food (think brats, pickled eggs, sausage & cheese sticks, pretzels, franks and popcorn for the kids), yodeling and costume contests, and live music from four bands, one of which is a very traditional German Oktoberfest band.

Of course, there will be beer as well. Lots of it. “We’ll have quite the lineup of beer pouring inside and outside,” says Kemper, “including our own Radler (grapefruit soda combined with Fest Bier), Fest Bier, Dunkel Lager, Pilsner, Alt Bier and Kolsch, plus the BBW NxNW Lager.” Chuckanut also will be selling special half-liter Oktoberfest mugs.