Presented by Peak 2 Peak Events
The world’s largest public festival, Oktoberfest celebrates German culture and tradition with food, parades, a carnival and plenty of beer. Each year more than six million visitors descend upon Munich, site of the original and longest-running Oktoberfest. Throughout the 16-day festival, which runs from late September through early October, revelers will collectively consume 60,000 sausages, 510,000 roast chickens, and more than two million gallons of beer.
Though it’s hard to think of Oktoberfest as anything other than a beer festival on the grandest of scales, the original Oktoberfest was designed to celebrate the marriage of Bavarian royalty and has changed over time.
So, put on your lederhosen or dirndl, raise a stein and bellow a hearty “Prost!” — “Cheers” in German — and learn how everybody’s favorite German tradition got its start.
A wedding reception for the ages
Picture it: Bavaria, Germany, 1810. Crown Prince Ludwig was set to marry Princess Therese von Sachsen-Hildburghausen on October 12. Andreas Michael Dall’Armi, a member of the Bavarian National Guard, convinced Prince Ludwig’s father, King Max I Joseph, to invite the citizens of Bavaria to come celebrate the nuptials of their future king and queen in the public fields outside the city gates. More than 40,000 people attended the multi-day event, which included a parade, free food and beer, and culminated in a horse race.
The event was a rousing success, and Bavarians were eager to repeat it. The next year, with no royal wedding to celebrate, the Bavarian Agricultural Association stepped in to host and combined the event with an agricultural fair. The Napoleonic Wars halted the fledgling event in 1813, but it made its return in 1815. In 1818, the first vendor booths selling food and beer to festivalgoers appeared. In 1819, Munich officials, recognizing the positive financial impact on the city, assumed control and made continuation of the event a top priority.
Over Oktoberfest’s 212-year history, world events have led to canceled or scaled-back events. In 1854, and again in 1873, the event was canceled due to the cholera outbreaks that swept Europe and took the lives of thousands of Bavarians, including Princess Therese. The Austro-Prussian War in 1866, as well as World Wars I and II, saw a halt to the festivities as well. And the COVID-19 pandemic led Munich to cancel the 2020 and 2021 events, the first cancellation since World War II.
Modern day Oktoberfest
The first Oktoberfest as it’s known today was held in 1881. Booths selling German wares, lighted carousels, performances and German music, from the polka to the distinctive oompah of German brass bands, became staples. Small beer stalls were replaced with large, lighted beer tents to accommodate the ever-increasing crowds, and food was growing in importance.
The first roasted chicken was sold at the 1881 Oktoberfest and continues to be served alongside other familiar German foods. There are the large, pillowy Bavarian pretzels sprinkled with coarse salt; they can be served solo, with mustard, or, in Bavarian beer gardens, a cheese dip made with Camembert, butter and hot paprika. Sausages, including knockwurst, bratwurst and frankfurters, make it easy to balance food in one hand and an overflowing beer stein in the other. There is schweinshaxe, roasted ham hocks or pork shank with crispy skin and tender meat; schweinebraten, pork shoulder or loin roasted with dark beer and onions; and reiberdatschi, potato pancakes similar to latkes, which can be served savory or sweet. And of course, that tangy, fermented favorite, sauerkraut, is in abundance.
In Munich, strict rules govern the beer that can be served at Oktoberfest and who can serve it. Only beer brewed within Munich city limits can be served on-site, which means only six breweries participate in the official festivities — Paulaner, Spaten, Hacker-Pschor, Augustiner, Hofbräuhaus, and Löwenbräu. These are also the only breweries allowed to market their beer as Oktoberfest beer; other breweries can only label beer made for the occasion as Oktoberfest-style.
The Munich festivities continue to be held at the site of the original Oktoberfest, which was renamed Theresienwiese — Therese’s Fields — in the 1800s in honor of the bride. Though the horse race was a centerpiece of the first Oktoberfest, it’s no longer part of the festivities, with the last official race held in 1960.
Oktoberfest in America
Large waves of German immigrants began arriving in America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and by 1940 an estimated 1.2 million German-born immigrants lived in the United States. The majority of these immigrants settled in what became known as the “German triangle,” an area in the Midwest with Cincinnati, Milwaukee, and St. Louis comprising its points. So, it’s unsurprising that this beloved German tradition eventually took hold in the states and began near that German triangle.
The first American Oktoberfest was held in 1961, in La Crosse, Wis. La Crosse civic leaders wanted to create an annual, community event to replace the city’s defunct winter carnival, which hadn’t taken place since 1921. At the same time, La Crosse-based G. Heileman Brewing Company was trying to come up with an annual promotion; two German employees of the brewery suggested an event similar to the Munich Oktoberfest, and a new American tradition was born.
Though smaller and much shorter than the Munich event, Oktoberfest in America is marked with the same celebratory spirit — German music and dancing, traditional German food and plenty of beer. American celebrations aren’t bound by the Munich restrictions about which breweries can make beer that can be marketed as Oktoberfest beer, and many breweries create special Oktoberfest-themed beers to celebrate the occasion.
And as in Munich, revelers often come dressed in traditional German clothing — lederhosen, leather shorts with suspenders, which are traditionally worn by men, and dirndls, the low cut, tightly bodiced dress with a ruffled skirt and apron, for women.
Oktoberfest comes to Anchorage
This month, Peak 2 Peak Events is bringing this German tradition to Anchorage in a family-friendly celebration at the Egan Center on Saturday, September 24. Just like the first Oktoberfest, the public is invited to raise a glass in celebration of the late Prince Ludwig and Princess Therese and enjoy a day of German food and beer, music, and dancing.
Doors open at 2 p.m. and the celebration runs until 9pm. Ticket prices are $20 for adults and kids 12 + and free for kids 11 and under. Food and beverages are not included in the cost of admission. Buy your tickets online at www.akoktoberfest.com.
This story was produced by the sponsored content department of the Anchorage Daily News. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.