Saturday, September 19, marked the official start of Munich’s 2015 Oktoberfest. Taking place over the course of two weeks, the world-famous party ended on Sunday, October 4, and was expected to draw more than 6 million visitors from around the globe. While it’s best known as a beer-fueled celebration of Bavarian culture, the original Oktoberfest was actually a glorified wedding reception.
On October 12, 1810, the future king of Bavaria, Crown Prince Ludwig, was married to Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen. Somewhat unusually for royal weddings, a large public festival was held in a meadow near the gates of the city of Munich. Everyone had such a great time that they decided to make it an annual thing, and, this being Bavaria, it wasn’t long before beer overshadowed the premiere event’s nuptial nature. (As for Ludwig, he would go on to have numerous extramarital affairs, author some spectacularly uninspired poetry, and abdicate the throne in shame.)
Today’s Oktoberfest takes place in the very same meadow, called the Theresienwiese, which means “Therese’s meadow.” In the local dialect, both the meadow and the festival itself are known as the Wies’n.
The beer Americans most associate with Oktoberfest celebrations is, naturally, Oktoberfest beer. But, as any beer nerd who has made the pilgrimage to Munich in late September will tell you, the beer served at the festival is a blonde lager, not the amber Oktoberfest beer we all know and love.
What we think of as Oktoberfest beer in the United States is, strictly speaking, a Märzenbier, or “March beer.” Traditionally brewed in March, this malty amber lager would have been stored away in caves to sustain the thirsty masses throughout the summer. Come fall, any remaining Märzen would have been consumed to free up barrels for the new season’s beers.
What is actually served on the Wies’n today is, however, more like a hefty Helles or a mild Maibock than the historic Märzenbier. It’s specially brewed just for the celebration and is called, appropriately enough, Festbier. Rather than highlight the toasted flavors of Munich and Vienna malts, Festbier’s bready Pils malt and well-balanced noble hops character offer the ideal accompaniment to Obatzda (a cheese spread made from Camembert), Schweinshaxe (roasted pork knuckle), and big-as-your-face pretzels.
Festbier can be somewhat hard to come by outside Munich, as it’s seldom packaged for export. But if you can’t find a good commercial example, you can always brew one yourself any time of year. Just start with your favorite Helles recipe, bump up the base malt until you hit an original gravity in the neighborhood of 1.055–1.060, and increase the bittering hops addition somewhat to compensate.
The recipe below is based on Helles I Know, a Munich Helles featured originally in the Fall 2014 issue of Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine®. Carefully brewed and lovingly lagered for six or more weeks, all it needs to round it out is an oom-pah band and your finest Lederhosen or Dirndl.
Batch size: 5 gallons/18.9 liters (5.25 gallons/19.9 liters before packaging)
11 lb (5 kg) Pilsner malt
4 oz (11 g) Acidulated malt
1 oz (28 g) Perle [8% AA] at 60 minutes
1 oz (28 g) Hallertauer Mittelfrüh [4% AA] at 10 minutes
Beta amylase 149°F (65°C) 30 minutes
Alpha amylase 162°F (72°C) 30 minutes
Wyeast 2308 Munich Lager
Pitch 425 billion healthy yeast cells into 46°F (8°C) wort, allow temperature to free rise to 50°F (10°C), and ferment for 10 days. Raise temperature to 60°F (16°C) for a diacetyl rest and hold until final gravity is achieved. Rack to secondary and lager at 35°F (2°C) for at least 6 weeks before kegging or bottling.