The start of Fall means a lot of different things to a wide variety of people. Halloween, back-to-school, crunchy leaves, Facebook feeds filling up with artsy pictures of Pumpkin-spice lattes and snarky quips about how much white girls love them. For many Coloradoans, it means dusting off the ski and snowboard gear and getting that last hike in under the orange-and-yellow aspen trees. For beer aficionados around the world, however, the start of Fall means one thing above all else: Oktoberfest. The iconic festival runs for 16-18 days, ending on the first Sunday of October every year. Giant mugs, accordions, those goofy hats, scantily-clad bar maidens — nothing quite says Fall and beer like the famous festival in Munich and its countless offspring across the world.
While a near-household name in many places now, Oktoberfest actually has remarkably humble beginnings and isn’t nearly as old and “timeless” as you might imagine. It all began with a wedding: Crown Prince Ludwig of Bavaria was set to marry Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen on October 10th, 1810. Like many people with titles involving “Prince” and “Princess”, they decided to throw an extravagant party outside the gates of Munich to celebrate and invited people from all across Bavaria to partake. A parade to honor the royalty — Crown Prince Ludwig would ultimately become King Ludwig I in 1825 — celebrated the history, culture, and traditions of the region.
The highlight of the event wasn’t actually beer, but a massive horse race, which was the finale of the original event in 1810. The city decided to bring the horse race (and the parade) back in 1811 as part of a new yearly festival to celebrate the Bavaria’s storied agricultural heritage. The horse racing continued until 1960, and a harvest festival is held every couple years in conjunction with the modern-day festival. However, it wasn’t until the turn of the 20th century that beer became a prominent part of the event (the iconic glass mugs, called Maß, were first debuted in 1892), as the festival evolved to be a more modern “carnival”: complete with rides, attractions, and refreshments. It should be said, however, that beer has played a major role in much of the history of Bavaria, so the inclusion of beer into the Oktoberfest festivities isn’t all that surprising.
The rest, as they say, is history. The festival has only been canceled 24 times over its 207-year lifespan, most of these due to the wide variety of wars fought in and around Germany over the last two centuries, along with a couple cholera epidemics. In 1980, an improvised pipe bomb was detonated by a right-wing radical at the entrance to the fair, killing 13 and injuring over 200 in a case that was never completely closed and remained politically sensitive for years. But the festival survived, and nowadays it brings in around 6 million people and serves well over 7 million liters of beer, making it the largest beer festival in the world.
Waves of German immigrants in the 19th century brought Oktoberfest to the world, and Oktoberfest-style celebrations were used to bring German immigrant communities together across Canada and the United States. By the turn of the 21st century, Oktoberfests could be found across the world, from Australia to India, China to Chile. In fact, the third largest Oktoberfest, after Germany and Canada, is found in Brazil.
Now, one might be inclined to ask, why on does a festival with the name “October” start in late September? While the original wedding festival took place in mid-October, the event organizers found that the weather would often get too cold or gloomy by mid-October. As such, the festival crept forward over the years, resting in mid-to-late September instead.
Whether you’re celebrating in Munich, Argentina, Palestine, China, or Denver, nothing quite honors the history and resonance of beer like filling your mug from an Oktoberfest keg. O’zapft is!!