A Guide to All Things Oktoberfest – the History, Culture and Food

Bier, Brezeln and Bratwurst – the three German words almost everyone is familiar with. All of those delicacies are also among the many stars of the world famous Octoberfest in Munich which starts today. Can you think of anything more German than a lady in a Dirndl with big jugs (of beer, of course)? Even though most people have heard about it, most don’t know much about it. So think of this blogpost as your Octoberfest guide teaching you something about the history, culture and most importantly food of this famous folk festival.

First of all let me apologies to you for this post being a little late, but I figured it would make most sense when the Octoberfest actually began. This week has also been really busy and this took a long time to research and write. Tackling the Octoberfest has been an undertaking. Saturday mornings also have a tendency to turn into my personal test kitchen and I spent all morning baking my own birthday cake for tomorrow. My Sunday post may be a little late to, unless I could just cut the cake by myself in the morning. Considering that it’s my birthday that is okay, right? Anyway, I have whined and excused myself enough. Hopefully you enjoy this post about the Octoberfest!

What Is the Octoberfest?

The Octoberfest is the biggest folk festival in the world, the original festival takes place in Munich, Bavaria. It always starts on the first Saturday after September 15th and ends on the first Sunday in October, unless those are the first and second day of the month in which case it is extended until the anniversary of German unification (Oct. 3rd). The festival has its origin in the early 19th century yet it evolved and throughout the century into the Octoberfest we know now. It is famous for its beer served in a glass jug (called a Maß containing one litre) that has to have been brewed in a traditional Munich brewery, its food (more on that later) and the famous traditional costumes called Trachten consisting of Dirndl and Lederhosen. The Octoberfest is also called Wiesn because it takes place on the Theresienwiese in Munich.

A Short History of the Development of the Octoberfest

The Octoberfest in its earliest form originated in a celebration honouring the wedding of crown prince Ludwig (Louis) to princess Therese on October 12th, 1810 and consisted of horse races and a child procession wearing traditional Bavarian costumes (Trachten). As time goes on it develops from a simple feast with horse races into more of a fair. In 1818 they put up the first carousel and in 1880 they start selling beer, which is quite late considering that it is most famous for its beer. During that time they also moved the festival up, from beginning in October to September, to make use of the Indian summer weather. During the reign of the national socialists the Octoberfest was used for propaganda purposes and Jews were not allowed to work on the premises. In 1938 they even changed the name into “Großdeutsches Volksfest” (greater German folk festival) symbolizing the enforced conformity of all of Germany in this traditionally Bavarian folk festival. In the years following the Second World War the Octoberfest develops into the biggest folk festival in the world.

Octoberfest Highlights

• Celebratory entry of innkeepers and breweries (since 1887)
• Since 1950 the traditional tapping of the first barrel in the festival marquee Schottenhamel and 12 shots fired on the steps that follow
• Trachtenumzug (traditional costume procession) first took place in 1835 has been a yearly tradition since 1950

• Almost 30 different festival marquees (Festzelte)
o Only serve beer from traditional breweries in Munich
o Served in glass jugs
• Entertainment consists of 200 Schaustellerbetrieben among those
o Riesenrad
o Traditional carousel

o Toboggan
o Teufelsrad (1910): A wooden-wheel that can be spun. The point is to remain on it much like a mechanical bull, but people throw things at you so you fall off.
o Schichtl: Performances of magic and tricks. Became famous through a public decapitation with a guillotine which is still re-enacted with an audience member today.
o Pitts Todeswand: Vintage motorcycle stunt show
o Modern rides

Octoberfest Today

Despite originally a Bavarian folk festival, the Octoberfest is often associated with Germany as a whole. Whereas it used to only take place in Munich, now smaller German communities celebrate their own little Octoberfests with food and drink. It is even celebrated all over the world and attracts tourists from all over the world to visit the spectacle in Munich. In the past few years there has been a so called “trend zur Tracht” meaning that there has been a trend to dress in traditional costumes. The excessive alcohol and beer consumption has been widely criticised, giving the Octoberfest a bad reputation. To remedy that reputation a new concept has been introduced called “ruhige Wiesn” (quiet meadows) to make the festival family friendly again. Until six in the evening they only play traditional German marching bands at a lower volume, because which child and elderly doesn’t love listening to a marching band for hours. After that they will play modern and traditional German music (Schlager). There are even official songbooks every year because you cannot expect drunk people to know the lyrics to a song but you want them to yell along off-key as long as they are not too drunk to read.

Octoberfest Culinary Guide

The Octoberfest has a lot of traditional delicacies to offer and I thought that I could introduce you to some of them. This German website (here) has a great slideshow that shows you all this traditional Bavarian food that is well worth a visit. There was no way that I could make all of it, but I will do my best to explain everything so you can understand what it is.

Brathendl – Half a fire roasted chicken with a delicate butter flavour.
Bratwurst – Grilled sausage usually eaten in a roll (called Brötchen or Semmel) with mustard. The most famous sausages are Nürnberger Bratwürste.

Brezn – Soft Pretzels covered with coarse salt. Octoberfest pretzels are much bigger than regular pretzels.

Dampfnudeln mit Vanillesoße – Sweet yeasted dumpling cooked in milk and butter often served with vanilla sauce and fruit.

Gebrannte Mandeln – Burnt almonds

Kaiserschmarrn – Almost pancake like dessert, but the “pancake” gets ripped into smaller pieces before flipping. It is covered with powdered sugar and served with plums, cranberries or compote.

Leberkäs – A Bavarian Deli Meat that is baked in a loaf pan to form a thin crust.
Lebkuchenherz – A gingerbread heart is the most popular Oktoberfest souvenir that supposedly have funny things written on them. (Humour is subjective, I have only seen them with pet names).

Maß Bier – Oktoberfest beer is especially brewed for the festival, it has a higher alcohol percentage and is served in a one litre jug called a “Maß”. Alternatives to the regular beer are non-alcoholic beer or Radler, which is beer mixed with lemon soda. A Maß beer costs 11€ at the Octoberfest this year.

Obatzda – A spread made from camembert, Brie, cream cheese and butter seasoned with salt, pepper, paprika and cumin. It is served on dark bread or a pretzel garnished with onion rings, scallions or radishes.

Schweinshaxe – Pork knuckle prepared with a secret rub traditionally served with Sauerkraut and Knödel (dumpling).

Kässpätzle – Spätzle are a sort of pasta that is layered with cheese in a pan and baked in the oven, garnished with fried onions or scallions and served with a fresh salad.

Steckerlfisch – Marinated fish cooked on the stick over an open fire.

Weißwurst – A Bavarian type of white sausage that is traditionally eaten before midday but is consumed at the Oktoberfest at all times. It is brewed in hot, not boiling, water. You remove the skin and eat it with sweet mustard and a pretzel.

Octoberfest Fun Facts

When you drop of a letter into a letterbox at the Octoberfest in Munich that letter will receive a special stamp, which makes doing your taxes extra special. Too bad most people don’t write letters anymore. Since 1948 a flea circus compiled of sixty performers (fleas) entertains children yearly, but they mustn’t bring magnifying glasses. Chances are there are no fleas. Supposedly Albert Einstein worked at the Octoberfest screwing in lightbulbs for his family’s firm Elektrotechnische Frabrik J. Einstein & Cie.

Octoberfest Safety

Any place where a lot of people gather requires special safety precautions, that are getting more extreme every year for fear of terrorist attacks and the Octoberfest is no exception. Here are some measures to make your Octoberfest experience as safe as possible.
• Special Octoberfest police and even the Italian police is present
• Firefighters and paramedics are on sight
• Animals are prohibited from attending the Octoberfest
• Glass bottles are prohibited
• Driveways along the premises are checked and temporary barriers are erected to make sure no cars can enter the Octoberfest
• Backpacks and handbags are prohibited (or have to be clear)

I have to say this must have been my longest post to date and I spent a long time researching and writing it. I knew nothing about the Octoberfest because it is a Bavarian festival originally, they have been celebrating it in other parts of Germany for years though not to the same extent. Some of those dishes sound delicious though, so I may have to try a few. I hope you enjoyed this post. What would you like to try? Did you find something particularly interesting? Have a wonderful weekend!

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