Oktoberfest - a Festival, a Beer and a Tradition Worth Seeking Out
All photos by Nora McGunnigle. As October winds down and before the holiday beers come into the market, it’s time to take a moment to reflect upon the 2013 Oktoberfest beer season.
The Oktoberfest tradition originated in the Bavarian city of Munich in 1810 to celebrate the wedding engagement of Crown Prince Ludwig of Bavaria, and came to the United States over the following 150 years wherever German immigrants settled. In New Orleans, for example, the German population influx was one of the factors that led to the city’s reputation as the brewing capital of the South before Prohibition, leading to extensive Oktoberfest celebrations in the area that remain active to this day.
Traditionally, the Oktoberfest season takes place from mid-September to early-October. However, every year, craft breweries ruffle beer geek sensibilities by releasing their Oktoberfest lagers as early as July. This seasonal drift has been annoying craft beer drinkers for years, but breweries will keep doing it because they need to be able to have the seasonal beer in the market for as long as possible, and they contend consumers won’t purchase the beers after the season is done.
Speaking of the beer itself, the traditional Oktoberfest style is a Märzen, a full bodied amber colored beer that has a significant malt profile and is lagered for several months at cool temperatures. It’s not very hoppy and tends to be about 5-6% ABV (alcohol by volume). Not surprisingly, some of the most popular and well regarded examples of the style are German, such as Spaten Oktoberfestbier Ur-Märzen, Paulaner Oktoberfest-Märzen, and Ayinger Oktober Fest-Märzen.
But American breweries have created their own tradition of Oktoberfest beer as well. Samuel Adams’ Oktoberfest is perhaps the most ubiquitous beer of the season, and has been by far reviewed the most on the rating website Beer Advocate. Brooklyn Brewery sources specialty barley malted exclusively for them in Bamberg for their Märzen. Avery, Harpoon, Great Lakes,Victory, Great Divide, and many more provide a seasonal Oktoberfest beer every year to honor the German festival and its huge influence on brewing in this country.
In New Orleans, where I live, there are two Oktoberfest traditions that are especially close to my heart. The first one takes place at the best beer bar in New Orleans, and one of the best in the world, the Avenue Pub. Every year, owner Polly Watts works with small family breweries in the Franconian region of Germany to import small casks of unpasteurized lagers. “Some of these breweries are so small that there is no English translation on their website,” according to Watts. “Some don’t actually export kegs if their own, so to pull this off Shelton [Brothers Importing] and Weissenohe [Brewery] bought their own cooperage and they deliver the kegs straight to the farmhouse breweries for filling. The kegs then rest in Weissenohe’s caves until they are ready to ship to the US.”
Watts says that these small farmhouse breweries create these beers as a labor of love to keep German brewing tradition true to its roots. “The traditional German beer market is being overrun with mass produced beer, the same way the US was decades ago, and this whole venture is an effort to save it from extinction.” This year, the Avenue Pub tapped “anstich” casks from Mahr's Bräu, Brauerei Zehendner, and Krausz.
The second New Orleans Oktoberfest tradition is the celebration held over three weekends by the area’s German heritage and culture club, the Deutsches Haus. Founded in 1923 by the large German immigrant community, their Oktoberfest is a tradition thousands of people from New Orleans and all over Louisiana enjoy and look forward to every year. They serve beer from the Becks, Bitburger, Köstritzer, Spaten, and Warsteiner breweries in Germany, as well as a classic German Kolsch brewed in Louisiana at Covington Brewhouse. The family friendly event also provides German food and music, and many iterations of the Chicken Dance.
Oktoberfest is about more than just the beer style. It’s a tradition started more than 200 years ago that is still close to many communities in the United States. This column focused on New Orleans’ traditions, but cities across the country all embrace this fall festival as the symbol of our transition from summer into autumn. As the last days of October slip by, raise a glass and toast this brewing tradition. Prost!