The other day, while dreaming of elaborate stein designs, this Irishman realized he knows next to nothing about the grand traditions of Oktoberfest. (A certain popular movie isn’t exactly a PBS documentary on the subject.) Why did it start? Whose idea was it to have everybody roam around a field drinking beer and eating pretzels for two weeks? And why the heck is it in September?
After some rigorous internet exploration, we discovered answers to these questions and more. Soak up the knowledge below and become a more informed participant no matter where you celebrate this year.
Origins of Oktoberfest
Folks, it’s a love story. Back in 1810, Kronprinz (a superior pronunciation of “crown prince”) Ludwig had eyes for Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen. Because there was no Today Show to breathlessly cover royal wedding festivities back then, Ludwig’s dad, King Maximilian Joseph of Bavaria, invited everyone in Munich to celebrate the nuptials with a giant party on the lawn. The main attractions at the time were horse races, bookended by a parade and costumed children’s performances of song and dance honoring the royal family. The grandstands held 40,000 people, which happened to be the entire population of Munich at the time. Safe to say no one within earshot suffered any FOMO that day.
A year later, with their hangovers having finally subsided, the powers that be said, “Hey, yeah, we should definitely do that again.” Bowling alleys, swings and trees (for climbing, of course) were added to the event. In 1818, carnival games and rides rolled into town. And by 1819, the “city fathers” (a weirdly familial term for “guys elected to municipal office”) decided this giant party was worth having every autumn in perpetuity.
Other than a few breaks for wars and famines and epidemics and what have you (Oregon Trail enthusiasts know cholera ain’t no walk in the park), Oktoberfest has been going strong for 208 years.
The short answer: The weather’s better in September.
The original festival lasted six days, from October 12-17. After city leaders committed to Oktoberfest as an annual event in 1819, they extended the party to 16 days and pushed the start date up into September to take advantage of longer days and warmer temperatures. Revelry is more fun when you’re not shivering.
For years, the festival ended the first Sunday in October, but since the country’s reunification in 1994, Oktoberfest has ended on German Unity Day, October 3rd.
Some Terms You Should Know (There Will Not Be A Test)
Wiesn – The local Bavarian name for Oktoberfest, shorthand for Theresienwiese, the name of the meadow in which Oktoberfest is celebrated. Theresienwiese, as you may have guessed, is named for Princess Therese.
Stein – Surprisingly, not another word for “beer mug,” at least in Germany. Stein translates to “stone” in German, which is what traditional mugs are made from.
Bierkrug – A more accurate word for “beer mug.”
Prost! – “Cheers!”
Tracht – Traditional outfits in German-speaking countries.
Lederhosen – Leather shorts often worn by men and held up with suspenders. If the lederhosen falls below the knee, they’re usually cinched with a drawstring.
Dirndl – Traditional feminine dress. The woman on the neon St. Pauli Girl sign in Michael Scott’s condo is wearing a dirndl.
Tirolerhüte – (“Tyrolean” in English) Traditional hat, often narrow-brimmed and usually adorned with string and a feather
Gamsbart – For the fellas who want to kick their Tirolerhüte up a notch, this is a tuft of chamois hair attached to the top of the hat.
Reinheitsgebot – Introduced by the Duke of Bavaria more than 500 years ago, this refers to the strict rules governing beer brewing in Germany. Only beer that adheres to these rules and is brewed within the city limits of Munich can be served at the Munich Oktoberfest.
Lebkuchenherz – Heart-shaped gingerbread cookie, usually decorated with icing.
Bratwurst – Buddy, you know what a brat is. And hey, wow, we have what you need to make your own!
Bier – … beer.
- The Munich event isn’t as touristy as you might think: 72% of the attendees are from Bavaria.
- On the 100th anniversary of the event in 1910, an estimated 120,000 liters of beer were consumed. This seems like quite a bit until you realize last year more than 7 million visitors drank nearly 7 million liters of beer. By my calculations, this is almost an entire ocean’s worth of beer.
- The first booths selling bratwurst opened in 1881.
- Glass mugs were used for the first time in 1892.
- As of 2017, there are 14 large tents and 20 small tents on the premises. Here’s a great aerial video of the festival.
Can’t Make It To Germany?
Yeah, me neither. But there are plenty of world-class Oktoberfest events right here in the States. Check out some of the biggest celebrations below.
Cincinnati, Ohio – aka “Zinzinnati,” this is the largest Oktoberfest celebration in the country. More than half a million people fill downtown Cincy for one weekend every September. Website: oktoberfestzinzinnati.com
Mount Angel, Oregon – A true Bavarian town about an hour south of Portland, this family-friendly event has a car show, pedal tractor race, street dancing, concerts and more. Website: oktoberfest.org
San Francisco – Located at Pier 48 right next to AT&T Park, the San Francisco celebration features the 21-piece Chico Bavarian Band for all three days of the festival. Website: oktoberfestbythebay.com
Where You Live – That’s right, if you can’t swing some vacation days this fall, you can host an Oktoberfest celebration of your own using our famous Home Brewed Kit.