The first Oktoberfest was in 1810, to commemorate the wedding of Crown Prince (later King) Ludwig and Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen in Munich. Over the years, the length of the commemoration celebration grew, and horse racing, beer drinking, and carnival rides were added (and some later discarded.) It's now the largest festival in the world and is still held in the same Munich fields/enormous festival grounds as it was in 1810, when it was first dubbed "Theresienwiese" in honor of the new Crown Princess - now abbreviated to "Wiesn."
In Munich, it begins on the third weekend of September and ends on the first Sunday of October, but as previously mentioned, we do things our own way in New Orleans, so our events will be going throughout the month with its long-awaited cool(er), crisp fall weather.
The beer that's come to represent the Oktoberfest celebration and season is a Bavarian Märzen lager. As the name indicates, it's a beer originally brewed in March and is lagered and aged over the subsequent months to be ready for the autumnal celebrations, so it coincided with the timing of the celebration.
Over the years, the Märzen has become synonymous with the not-really-a-style "Octoberfest" beer style. It's made with darker malts, for a toasty, spicy, amber-colored beer that's not too heavy and has a lager's signature clean finish. Hop presence is minimal, just enough to balance the sweetness of the malt, though some German hops add some spice character to that already in the grain.
In Louisiana, Abita's Octoberfest, Covington Brewhouse's Fest Bier, and Urban South's Oktoberfest beer are all released seasonally, usually starting in September. All three are very traditional versions of the style, but that certainly doesn't mean they taste the same. All three breweries have a lager brewing tradition that most local breweries don't have - Abita's flagship Amber is a Munich lager, Covington Brewhouse was originally founded by a German brewer, and the brewmaster at the newly opened Urban South, Wes Osier, was trained to brew in Germany.
A lot of love goes into making these lagers- they aren't the sexiest styles out there like hazy IPAs and barrel aged sours, but they carry on an important beer tradition. Louisiana is lucky to have access to these beers, something that might be traced historically to the area's significant German population starting in the mid-nineteenth century.
One German immigrant still making beer is Wolfram Koehler, owner and brewmaster of Crescent City Brewhouse in the French Quarter. Known for its traditional German styles and a strict adherence to Reinheitsgebot, the Bavarian purity laws enacted in 1516, the Brewhouse offers another traditional take on the Oktoberfest Märzen. They also offer a three-course prix fixe menu of German food for the month for under $30.
Across Canal Street, Gordon Biersch Brewing also offers a seasonal Festbier. Its release was marked by a full scale celebration with German food, costumes, and of course, giant mugs of beer. And on the North Shore, the Old Rail Brewing Company brewpub has a version on that's always well received and much anticipated every year.
40 Arpent Brewing in Arabi also releases an Oktoberfest beer, but it's hard to find (though not impossible) because most of it is brewed for New Orleans' largest, most popular, longest-running Oktoberfest celebration hosted by the local German heritage club, the Deutsches Haus.
The Deutsches Haus' Oktoberfest is held the first three weekends of October (so you've got two weekends to get yourself there) on Friday nights and all day Saturdays. Enjoy 40 Arpent's beer, which is the official beer of the festival, along with traditional German versions of the Märzen from Warsteiner, Spaten, Hacker-Pschorr, Paulaner, and Hofbräu.
In addition, Urban South's Oktoberfest will be available along with Sierra Nevada's, which, although not local, is definitely worth seeking out. The Sierra Nevada brewers collaborate with a different German brewery every year to make their Märzen. This year, they paired up with Mahrs Bräu, in Bamburg.
Another opportunity to try Märzens and other styles from small family breweries, is through the Avenue Pub's annual celebration of unpasteurized lagers from Franconia, a region in Northern Germany. These beers are shipped over fresh and served in the Anstich style, which means the kegs have no CO2 added to them and must be poured using gravity to propel the delicious liquid into the glass.
The Avenue Pub will serve the Franconian lagers this Friday (October 14), when they'll tap Weissenoher Monk's Fest, a Märzen, and Lowenbrau Buttenheim Kellerbier. Next Friday (October 21), the Monk's Fest and Eucharias Märzen will be on, and on Saturday, October 22, all the beers will be available: Weissenohe Monk's Fest, Weissenohe Bio Classic Export Lager, Weissenoher Eucharius Marzen, Weissenoher Green MONKey Hersbrucker, Weissenoher Green MONKey Mandarina, Lowenbrau Buttenheim Kellerbier and Altfrankisches Klosterbier kellerbier. The month of Franconian awesomeness will end on Friday, October 28 with the Altfränkisch Kloster kellerbier and the Weissenoher Bio Classic Export Lager. All tappings take place at 3 p.m.
One more beer event worth checking out this month: the Windsor Court Hotel's monthly Uncorked series, featuring autumnal and German-influenced beer, on October 18, at 6 p.m. for $45. The Uncorked series focuses on wine 11 out of the 12 months of the year, but Windsor Court sommelier Bill Burkhart says that the October beer event is one of the most popular and well-attended.
Burkhart's strategy to examine different malt, yeast, and hop profiles is to serve them side by side so guests can taste and articulate the similarities and differences. For example, serving an Augustiner helles lager side by side with Abita's Octoberfest beer.
"I love the classics," Burkhart says. "There's just something about enjoying a beer that is exactly what it appears to be."
That kind of elegant simplicity and consistency is a hallmark of talented German craftsmanship - and happily, there are many opportunities this month to sample traditional - but unique - beers of the Märzen and other lager styles.