Americans love Oktoberfest, or at least what they think of as “Oktoberfest”: lots of beer drinking, and funny pictures of mustached men in lederhosen and buxom Bavarian maids. The closest your average American is likely to get to anything actually German in the coming weeks is a bottle of Beck’s and maybe a karaoke rendition of “Edelweiss.” (Which, for the record, is an American song from a movie set in Austria. But close enough!)
There is a real Oktoberfest, and it really does involve a lot of drinking. But, for one thing, it is mostly not in October. “Oktoberfest starts in September,” says Chris Morton, owner of Bearden Beer Market on Old Kingston Pike. Specifically, it starts the third weekend of September—that’s this weekend—and continues through the first Sunday in October. (This is usually 16 days, although this being a German festival there are bureaucratic technicalities that can occasionally stretch it to 17 or 18 days.)
As it happens, this is the festival’s 200th anniversary. It all began in 1810, with a public celebration in Munich of the wedding of Prince Ludwig of Bavaria and Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen. (They were married Oct. 12. Pragmatic Bavarians in later decades moved the festival up a few weeks to take advantage of fine September weather.) The tradition has been intermittently interrupted by everything from Napoleon to cholera to Nazis, but it has always resumed. After World War II, it became one of the few internationally acceptable expressions of German pomp and pride, celebrating music and food (varieties of pork, wurst, and cabbage dishes), along with a deep beer-making heritage.
Morton says he’s never been to Munich for the festival, which annually draws more than 6 million visitors. But he’s trying to bring a little bit of Bavaria to Knoxville for the next few weeks, with an infusion of German (and German-styled) beers both on the shelves of his compact, densely-stocked shop and on draft in his beer garden. He hopes to feature more than 30 German brands unfamiliar to the casual drinker.
They will include several takes on Märzen, the Bavarian lager most associated with the festival. “It’s an amber with a bit of guts to it,” Morton says. “A little sweeter profile, a little bit more of a body.” The standard-bearer for the style is Spaten, a Munich brewery that dates to the late 14th century. It is now owned by Anheuser-Busch InBev, and the old brewhouse in Munich is a museum, but Spaten still makes the same Oktoberfest beer it has been brewing since 1872.
Also high on Morton’s list of recommendations is the seasonal offering from Ayinger, which he describes as “lightly sweet, with a malty nose.” Beer Advocate magazine calls it “an exceptional and flavorful alternative for the ongoing lightening of the celebratory Märzen.” (In a sign of how seriously Bavarians take their Oktoberfest, Ayinger is not allowed to participate in the Munich celebration because it’s based in Aying, about 15 miles outside the city.)
But Morton notes that in Märzen, as in so many other styles, American brewers are making serious inroads. The most prominent is Samuel Adams, whose Octoberfest is (according to the Boston-based brewery) the best-selling Oktoberfest beer in the world. If you’ve had it, you’ve had a Märzen—and a pretty good one, too, Morton says. He’s even more enthusiastic about Festbier, from Victory Brewing in Downington, Pa. “It’s lighting the world on fire right now,” he says, gesturing at cases arranged in a prominent display just inside his shop’s front door
However you celebrate Oktoberfest, it’ll probably turn out better for you than that marriage did for Ludwig and Therese. They had nine children, including future kings of Bavaria and Greece, but Ludwig was a serial adulterer whose consorts included the British adventurer Jane Digby and the scandalous Irish dancer who called herself Lola Montez. Public outrage over his affair with Montez helped lead to his abdication in 1848. It may be fitting that the Munich field that hosts Oktoberfest each year is named for Therese; in remembering her wedding, the festival commemorates what was possibly the high point of her life with Lud.