What even is Oktoberfest, anyway?

Today is the first day of October, and already pumpkins are on sale at the local farmer’s market, the stores are selling Halloween decorations and candy, and almost every craft brewery in America is rolling out its seasonal “Oktoberfest” beers. In various cities and towns across America, Oktoberfest celebrations and festivities are being held as we speak. There is even one near where I live.

All of which begs the question: what is Oktoberfest? Is it just some fancy way of saying “October”? A traditional harvest festival? An excuse to drink beer?

Actually, it celebrates, of all things, a wedding.

On October 12, 1810, Crown Prince Ludwig of Bavaria married Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen. The Bavarian royal family decided to celebrate this royal wedding with a giant public festival in a field in front of Munich’s city gates. The celebration lasted for days, ending with a huge horse race.

It was this last decision that proved fateful. Otherwise, the festival would have just been a one-time wedding party. However, the people of Bavaria loved the horse race and wanted another one the following year, and the city of Munich was happy to oblige. In 1811, an autumn harvest festival, featuring a horse race, was held. This was the beginning of Oktoberfest’s history as an annual event held in Munich in the fall.

Ironically enough, given its name, these days the original Oktoberfest in Munich is held in late September. These days, it largely resembles a state fair here in the United States, with roller coasters and rides, games, and food.

And, of course, beer – the one thing the festival is by far the most famous for. See, the early Oktoberfests happened to coincide with the invention of lager beer, which many at the time saw as superior to the ales that people had been brewing since ancient times. However, lager needs to be brewed in cold conditions, and in an age before refrigeration, that meant you had to wait until fall to start making it. Thus, Oktoberfest became, in part, a celebration of the changeover from ale-brewing to lager-brewing.

That’s why Oktoberfest is so closely associated with beer culture, and why so many breweries carry “Oktoberfest” beers. However, if you attend the Oktoberfest in Munich, you won’t find any of those beers anywhere. See, only a small handful of breweries in Munich are actually permitted to sell their beer at the festival. After all, it’s the city’s festival, and they want to promote their city’s business!

So that’s the story of the original Oktoberfest… but what about other Oktoberfest celebrations here in America and around the world? Well, over the generations, thousands of Germans emigrated to America, Canada, Australia, Argentina, Brazil, and other countries. As one might expect from people who have journeyed thousands of miles to start a new life in a strange foreign land, these German immigrants would often get homesick. So, they began to hold their own “Oktoberfests” in the lands where they now lived, in order to celebrate their German heritage. Today, the largest Oktoberfest celebrations are in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, Blumenau, Brazil, and Cincinnati, Ohio.

It’s sometimes funny how history and culture works out. Sometimes, you find out that things you might not have ever considered before have truly bizarre origins. Like a big, international celebration that millions participate in today existing because of a wedding and a horse race.