Oktoberfest is one of the world’s largest beer celebrations. We take a look at the festival’s origins, and provide a simple guide to German beer.
On 12 October of 1810, the city of Munich was in the throes of a massive celebration. Its Crown Prince, Ludwig I, was marrying the Saxon princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen. The citizens of Munich – all 40,000 of them – were invited to partake in a large feast held in the fields in front of the city’s main gates that involved copious amounts of beer and grilled meats of all kinds.
That wedding is today – 200 years on – celebrated in many cities across the world, although the millions of revellers outside of Germany is unlikely to know of its origins. They wouldn’t know that it marked the wedding celebration of the man who would be king of Bavaria, the man who would later declare war against Napoleon’s France. Nor would they care.
But they do know it as Oktoberfest, and that it means one thing – plenty of German beer.
Oktoberfest these days is an eye-popping 16-day affair that ends on the first Sunday of October – so yes, to those of you wondering, Oktoberfest does start in the month of September. Indeed, in pre-COVID days the annual beer festival would regularly attracts millions of visitors to Munich to partake in the festivities. In 2010, over 6 million visitors – far more than the population of Singapore – descended on Munich’s fair grounds.
Oktoberfest is also celebrated across the rest of the world, including Singapore. While nowhere near the scale of Munich’s, various activities are held locally to celebrate the event. Previous years saw public festivals like Oktoberfest Asia, for example, while The Swiss Club holds an annual Oktoberfest party which attracts much of the German, Swiss and Austrian expatriate communities to its grounds.
What’s important to note is that there are only some beers that are allowed to be served at the official Oktoberfest celebrations in Munich. In fact, beers drunk at Oktoberfest can only come from six appointed breweries that make beer within Munich’s city limits, and according to strict German brewing law, the Reinheitsgebot.
These six breweries are:
- Staatliches Hofbräu-München
You’ll soon realise some of the the beers we drink during Oktoberfest here in Singapore aren’t actually from the approved breweries. There’s Erdinger and Schneider-Weisse, for example. But Erdinger hails from Erding, over 30km from the outskirts of Munich. Likewise for Schneider-Weisse, which is made in Kelheim over 100km away from Munich.
Sometimes you’ll even see some German beers labelled as a “festbier”. But just because it’s labelled as one doesn’t automatically means it’s a beer approved for Oktoberfest. Technically a festbier is a style of beer made traditionally for Oktoberfest (see the entry for Marzen in our simple beer guide below). But there’s no law stopping other German breweries outside of the six Munich breweries listed above from making beers in this style. They just won’t be found on the Oktoberfest festival grounds in Munich. So remember – not all festbiers are equal.
Hence for a true Oktoberfest experience, find yourself beers from the six breweries listed above that have been providing Oktoberfestbier to the festival since 1818.
Your simple guide to German beer and beer styles.
German beers can be a confusing lot. This guide helps you differentiate the various German beer styles you’ll find at Oktoberfest (and outside of it), so that you won’t be taken for a beer noob the next time you order beers in a German restaurant or Oktoberfest tent.
Weissebier or weizen – The most common and popular Bavarian beer style, this is a wheat beer that is brewed with a large proportion of wheat in addition to malted barley. All Bavarian breweries make at least one of these – Erdinger, Schneider Weisse, Paulaner, and Hofbräu – which are commonly found in Singapore.
Munich Helles – This crisp, refreshing pale lager is made through the lagering process using bottom fermenting yeast in cooler temperatures, and is one of the most popular beer styles around the world. Such German-style lagers tend to be less hoppy than its Czech counterparts.
German Pils – The German Pils or pilsner is the Teutonic take on the immensely popular Czech lager that originated from Pilsen. Made with German ingredients, this style is crisper, drier but less hoppy than Czech pilsner, but is hoppier than the Munich Helles.
Dunkel – A dark lager, made like a regular lager but with more roasted malt for a nuttier, sweeter flavour.
Dunkelweizen or dunkelweisse – This dark wheat beer is the darker cousin of the weissebier or weizen, made with a good proportion of roasted malt. Not to be confused with the dunkel, which is a lager.
Bock – A type of strong German lager that’s higher in alcohol content and slightly darker in colour.
There are several substyles to the bock as well, such as the maibock (a maltier bock), the doppelbock (or double strong, even stronger and maltier), and the eisbock (an even stronger version that is made by partially freezing the beer and removing the water ice that forms). Then there’s the extremely confusing helles bock, translated as light strong. Huh?
Märzen – This lager is the signature beer style used for Oktoberfestbier. Traditionally the Märzen is made in March and lagered till Oktoberfest; it’s brewed a bit stronger to preserve it through the long period of storage.
The above beers are commonly found in Oktoberfest celebrations in Munich around the world. Here are some other beer styles from Germany that you won’t normally see at Oktoberfest.
Rauchbier – A type of smoked beer which has a smoky, almost meaty, flavours. It is most commonly found in Bamberg, and is made by using smoked malt, much like how smoky whiskies from Scotland’s Islay region are produced.
Altbier – This top-fermented, lagered ale is a specialty of the city of Düsseldorf. An altbier is formulated like a German pils, but tends to be darker in colour and slightly sweeter in flavour.
Kölsch – A warm fermented and cold conditioned beer, similar to Düsseldorf’s altbier. A local specialty from the city of Cologne, and in fierce rivalry with the altbier. A vinous dryness is characteristic of a good Kölsch.