It has grown into the St. Patrick's Day of the fall season. Oktoberfest has everyone claiming German roots.
The festival started in Munich, Germany, in 1810 to celebrate a royal wedding. It originally lasted five days, featured an elaborate horse race and all of the citizens of Munich were invited. Every year thereafter, the town held an anniversary celebration for the royal couple on the same five days and, with each year, the party became more elaborate. In 2008, Oktoberfest lasted 16 days, hosted more than 6 million people and served 1.5 million gallons of beer. That's ample growth I would say.
In the late 20th Century, the breweries in Munich began using the celebration to advertise the local brew and, thus, transforming Oktoberfest into what it is today. There are 14 beer tents that facilitate roughly 6,000 people each at this year's festival, which runs through Sunday in Munich. Some quick math and you see how coveted a seat in one of the tents can be. Especially considering that you can't be served a beer unless you are actually seated at a table. Those are the rules. Inside the tents, bands, dancers, deejays and acrobats entertain the thirsty crowd as they sip from their liters (33.8 ounces) of beer. Each tent has its own theme and they range from traditional, folk-style to a modern day dance club. No matter your taste in beer or atmosphere, you will find it at Oktoberfest.
Given that the original Oktoberfest in Germany has expanded to monumental proportions, the German beer festival has become a worldwide event. Word of mouth and clever advertising by Bavarian breweries, has sprouted renditions of Oktoberfest in almost every city across the globe. Most celebrations don't last the full 16 days, but instill the same spirit rooted in the German festival.
In the U.S., major cities are some of the best places to find an authentic replica (is that an oxymoron?) of Oktoberfest. This is vastly due to a higher population of German descendants in metropolitan areas. I lived in New York City for many years and remember my most recent Oktoberfest spent there.
We started the day at the German-American Steuben Parade that features social groups and musical acts from Germany. Most donned their traditional lederhosen in true Oktoberfest fashion as they walked up 5th Avenue. New Yorkers will have a parade for almost anything, so it was no surprise that the Oktoberfest celebration extended nearly 30 blocks in Midtown that day. From there, we migrated to the Shakespeare Theater in Central Park for the Masskrugstemmen, or stein-holding championship. Sounds easy right? With each liter of beer weighing roughly 3 pounds and contestants asked to hold the stein at shoulder height for as long as possible, it was very entertaining. Of course the crowd got to sample the beer while the competition was in motion. I had a few "samples" while we awaited the winner to prevail. This is often referred to as the Bavarian strong man contest, and the event held the seriousness of a competition while still maintaining the celebration of Oktoberfest.
After the Masskrugstemmen, we trekked back to my neighborhood in Lower Manhattan to join some friends at Lorely German Restaurant & Biergarten on Rivington Street. Lorely is as authentic as they come. Everything on the menu is German year-round, save some of the bar items. So it made perfect sense that this was our destination for the occasion. The tent over the outdoor biergarten was reminiscent of photos I had seen of the tents in Munich, only on a much smaller scale. They even boasted the long, wooden, communal picnic tables that encouraged fellowship among beer drinkers. Once we were seated, the liters of beer kept us going into the night. As we met our new friends, the toasts rang loud for everything from text messages to wedding engagements. We shouted "Prost", which means something similar to "cheers" in German, so I was told, and raised our steins high. This clued me in that Oktoberfest, or at least our version, was all about socializing. Talking to people you have just met and drinking with them for hours on end over trivial conversations. The overly-friendly atmosphere at this little biergarten in the middle of a city that isn't known for its hospitality was refreshing. If this was anything like the event in Munich, I can see why so many people flock to the party each year.
I shudder at carrying on for 16 days like that, but the festive atmosphere has an energetic quality that seems to push you on through the night. I'm certain that the beer buzz helps for a while as well. As you tour some our local Oktoberfest celebrations, keep your eyes open to meeting a new neighbor, celebrate everything under the sun and drink good beer in large mugs.
Kevin Hoover, a local food and beverage manager, is engaged in the endless pursuit of the perfect dining experience. Check out his blog at lushlifeonline.com