Oktoberfest always sneaks up on me. I never think of it until October actually rolls around, by which time Oktoberfest is all but over. Despite the name, the celebration mostly takes place in September. (Originally held in October, it was pushed earlier to take advantage of the warmer weather and longer days.) This year, let’s be ready: Here’s everything you need to know about the raucous German festival.
Today, Munich’s Oktoberfest is an absolutely massive event. Spread over nearly 100 acres, and drawing more than six million attendees every year, Oktoberfest is one of the largest festivals in the world. The original Oktoberfest, however, was a considerably smaller affair. The first fest was held in 1810 to celebrate Crown Prince Ludwig’s marriage to Princess Therese von Sachsen-Hildburghausen. The party was such a success that it became an annual event, growing and evolving each year. Today, the festival features an array of food, rides, parades, contests and music. Oh, and beer.
Though the roller-coasters are fun, most festival-goers are there for the beer. All of the beer served at Oktoberfest comes from six large, historic German breweries, including Spaten, Hacker-Pschorr and Augustiner. Known for light and crisp lagers most of the year, these breweries whip up something with more oomph for Oktoberfest. Oktoberfest beer is generally a bit darker and stronger than a Helles lager or pilsner, clocking in around 6 percent ABV. You might also hear this style referred to as a “Festbier” or “Märzen.” Derived from the German word for March, Märzens were brewed in cooler spring months and allowed to slowly ferment in lagering caves throughout the summer, ready in time for the September celebration.
Of course, you needn’t buy a plane ticket to grab a taste of Oktoberfest. In addition to the German giants, plenty of American craft brewers have taken a crack at Oktoberfest-style beers. Some of them have succeeded admirably — I especially like the Oktoberfest beers from Great Lakes and Sierra Nevada. Whether it comes from Germany or America, a great Oktoberfest brew should be a toasty, malty beer with a bit of body and a touch of bitterness. It’s a style built for chasing off the autumn chill and partying late into the night.
For a taste of Munich right here in the Burgh, head to Penn Brewery. Held the last two full weekends in September, the brewery’s long-running (and free!) festival will feature its acclaimed Oktoberfest beer, German food like brats and sauerkraut, and two stages of traditional German music. You can also head to the South Side’s Hofbräuhaus; check out Canonsburg’s popular Pennsylvania Bavarian Oktoberfest; or visit the Pittsburgh Renaissance Festival, in West Newton, on its final weekend, for an Oktoberfest theme. With Pittsburgh’s strong German roots and large German population, you’ve got plenty of choices for oom-pa-pa-ing in style this year.