Oktoberfest: your last wedding celebration of the season

Oktoberfests seem to be a dime a dozen these days – I believe there are at least 20 during the next month in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts alone.  It was my luck – or misfortune – that my first Oktoberfest was the real one, in Munich, probably around the same time I had my first Berliner Weisse.  For all of you who truly would like to appreciate your next Oktoberfest, my undergraduate German minor self has volunteered to share the history of the original festival and the standards it sets for its beer.


Oktoberfest postcard, 1998

The original Oktoberfest celebrated the October 12, 1810 nuptials of Crown Prince Ludwig, later known as King Ludwig I, to Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen.  What was particularly special, and rare, about the occasion was that the royals condescended to invite the public to celebrate with them on the fields in front of the Munich city gates.  These fields were dubbed Theresienwiese (“Theresa’s fields”), but over time locals abbreviated the name to “Wies’n.”  That first Oktoberfest featured horse races at the close of the event.

The Oktoberfest continued in 1811, with the entertainment committee adding an Agricultural Show added to the horse races.  Over time the number of amusements grew, including carousels, swings, and beer stands.  By 1896, those beer stands were replaced by beer tents and halls that backed competing breweries.  There were so many amusements by 1960 that the horse races were eliminated from the festival.

This year marks the 181st Oktoberfest.  Today, the festival draws about 6 million visitors and lasts about 16 days (depending on which day October 3, German Unification Day, falls), from late September to the first weekend in October.  Since 1950, a twelve gun salute and the tapping of the first keg by the incumbent Mayor of Munich, who declares, “O’zapft is!” (that’s a Bavarian dialect), has signaled the opening of Oktoberfest.

Only beer conforming to the Reinheitsgebot and brewed within the city limits of Munich may be served at Oktoberfest.  These beers are designated as “Oktoberfest Beer,” a registered trademark of the Club of Munich Brewers, and include Augustiner-Bräu, Paulaner, Hacker-Pschorr-Bräu, Spatenbräu, Löwenbräu, and Staatliches Hofbräu-München.  These brews were traditionally brewed in March, when it was sufficiently cool to prevent bacterial contamination of the batch, with higher alcohol content to preserve it through the summer.  Modern technology now allows for this “Märzenbier” to be brewed at the end of summer.  In 2013, revelers consumed 6.7 million liters of this beer, down from 6.9 liters in 2012.  Correspondingly, the number of brawls involving beer glasses fell from 66 to 58, and the number of Bierleichen (“beer corpses,” people who drink themselves unconscious) treated dropped from 800 to 638.


Inside the Hofbräu tent, circa 1998

My undergraduate German minor self can now rest assured that you are all prepared for the vast array of upcoming Oktoberfests.  You can make an educated decision on which beer to drink and even share some fascinating factoids with your friends.  All that’s left to do is raise your Stein and say “Prost!

Berliner Weisse: The New Champagne of North America?

By Amy Tindell

I remember my first legal purchase of alcohol fondly: I was only 20 years old, but had embarked on that Dartmouth College right of passage called the “FSP,” or foreign study program. At long last I sat on a high bar stool in a Berlin bar, eagerly taking in the long menu of beers I didn’t know, and made my selection based on name alone: the Berliner Weisse. As long as I studied in Berlin, I would do as Berliners do.

Clearly, I didn’t know what I was getting into. The bartender smiled kindly at my accented order, and inquired, “Mit schuss?” After I responded with a “Wie bitte?” – a polite form of “huh?” – the bartender explained, slowly and (not yet giving up on me) in German, that many people preferred to add “schuss,” a sweet syrup, to balance the taste of the very sour Weisse. I chose the himbeere (red raspberry) over the palmeister (herbal green) flavor. Given the unsophisticated state of my palate at the time, schuss was probably a good choice.

That day was almost exactly 16 years ago, and over those years I’d heard barely a peep from the Berline Weisse… until this summer. Suddenly American craft breweries, including Dogfish Head, New Belgium, Firestone Walker, and The Tap Brewing Company have picked up on the style and interpreted it for the modern market. Today the Berliner Weisse is a sour, fruity, effervescent, low-alcohol wheat beer. The sour taste results from fermentation with a mixed culture of top-fermenting yeast and Lactobacillus bacteria, a microorganism that produces lactic acid and carbon dioxide as it digests the wort.  Lactobacillus is commonly used in food processing; it obligingly ferments our cabbage to create sauerkraut and sours our milk to produce creamy yogurt.

These modern American breweries are borrowing from old European traditions. While the precise origins of Berliner Weisse are unknown, two stories emerge as the most popular. The first gives credit to the Huguenots, 17th century religious refugees who migrated to the Berlin area from France and Switzerland. The Huguenots would have picked up Weisse brewing techniques involving Lactobacillus and wheat malt as they passed through Flanders, home of the witbeer and lambic styles. Another theory goes back to the 1520s, with brewer Cord Broihan’s modification of a popular Hamburg beer, which he called Halberstädter Broihan. The style was perfected by Berlin brewers and became fashionable in the 1640s. Whatever its origins, by the early 1800s, the beer was sufficiently popular that Napoleon’s troops famously dubbed it as “the Champagne of the north” during their occupation of Berlin.

That first trip to a Berlin bar piqued my curiosity as to how such a beer was first made and commercialized. Some stretching of my German language skills at a local library revealed that historically, a Berliner Weisse wort was not boiled, allowing Lactobacillus already present on the grain to make its way into the primary fermentation with Brettanomyces ale yeast. As brewers perfected the technique, they learned that the yeast and lactic acid bacteria could be pitched together, and the higher the temperature range, e.g. 63–68° F as opposed to 57–64° F, the more sour the beer would become. Brewers further developed the process after that main fermentation to include kräusening the beer before bottling. This carbonation process, applied most often to lager beers but also to traditional wheat beers, adds freshly fermenting beer to bottle-ready beer, preventing yeast from becoming dormant during the second fermentation and maturation in the bottle, which can take up to two years.

A more contemporary and predictable process starts at low gravity and splits the wort in half for the first fermentation: half is inoculated with ale yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) and the other half with Lactobacillus. After about four weeks, the wort is blended, filtered, stored at 41–50° F for about 13 months. The beer is bottled with a fresh addition of kräusen that includes only the yeast (no Lactobacillus). This modern technique is frowned upon by traditionalists and tends to produce less sour beers.

Part of the reason that Berliner Weisse, along with other sour beers, have been slow to trend is that maintaining Lactobacillus in a brewery is risky, because of the high probably that it could spoil other beers through cross-contamination. Most breweries require separate, dedicated equipment for these beers.

Another reason for the slow trend is that beer drinkers are still developing their palates, and even the most sophisticated American imbibers have been too busy familiarizing their taste buds with the bitter flavors of hops to entertain the sour notes of these traditional European styles. Nonetheless, the recent boom of craft breweries has resulted in an increased willingness to experiment, both on the part of brewers and consumers. As a somewhat unique American consumer, however, I got my start at this traditional, European end of the brewing spectrum. After 16 years and many diversions in my beer education, I’m ready to return to my German roots.