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Beervana – Oktoberfest Origins – Part II


The author explores why the weather gods snipped the “brewing” calendar which fortuitously led to the phenomenon of the Oktoberfestbier

The Duke of Bavaria was apparently quite resolute in solving the problem of bad quality beer in his kingdom. Several problems had arisen due to use of harmful, toxic substances which were used instead or alongside hops. In 1516 to make his intentions clear he issued what is today the oldest still valid food law on the planet: The Reinheistsgebot or the Purity law which stipulated that only barley, hops and water would be used to make beer. Yeast somehow does not find mention since it was not clearly deciphered at that time.

Further not content with the quality of his Kingdoms beer, Duke Albrecth the V in 1553 announced a ban on summer brewing. From spring to fall, brewers had to seek alternate employment (and the luckier ones could go on vacation!). As pointed out in the previous article this was in order to make beers less susceptible to contamination in the warmer degrees of summer. This event has been described by some historians as the most under reported event in brewing history. It led to the great divide between north and south German brewing styles, the latter relying on the winter-suited bottom fermenting yeasts whereas the former on the warmer top fermenting yeasts.

Bottom fermenting yeasts finally found perpetuity in the cold climes of Bavaria. Winter beers were anyways being fermented by bottom fermenting yeasts and the clean palate of these beers was appreciated as being “pure”. These bottom fermented yeasts were present in the Bavarian and Czech regions but where did this strain originate? Hold your breath! The latest evidence points out that these yeasts travelled all the way from the Patagonia forests in southern Chile and made their way into a fermentation trough somewhere in the 14th century!

Already a few years before the summer brewing ban, a different strategy to overcome partly the problem of high summer temperatures has been devised. Deep cellars were dug where it was noticed that temperatures were a couple of notches lower. Not only cooler, these cellars were also insulated against changes in weather conditions above ground. Ice from the winter gone by would be used in these deep cellars to provide lower temperatures. To appreciate this effect drive into one of those deep trenches called “parking” under your favourite shopping mall! Secondly, beers started being brewed stronger to withstand the higher summer temperatures. As an outcome beer in summer was almost twice in price to winter prices to compensate the stronger brew (more grain) and longer storage time.

The ban on summer brewing sounds counter-productive since summer is the peak time for consumption. Although the seasonality in consumption would have been lower than it is like in a country like India it still would have meant an overdrive in brewing activities end summer in order to stock up on beer to last until the brewing season recommences in fall. Simply put a bountiful quantity of beer would have to be brewed and then stored in the labyrinth of cellars. And that’s exactly what they did. Scores of tunnels were dug in the outskirts of the cities and towns to store beer. Large chestnut trees planted above the cellars with their shady overtures acted as sun screen further shielding the beer from the soaring mercury. The spirit of beer prevailed when refrigeration led to the obvious disuse of these cellars but the chestnut trees & the area surrounding them evolved befittingly into beer gardens!

The mass produced beer typically produced towards the end of March to provide supplies all through summer came to be known as Maerzen, the German word for March. To remind you again, this beer was brewed stronger to overcome the long summer storage period in deep cellars. Eventually in September by the time fall was fast approaching and the brewers could get back to their grind, the barrels were needed to be consumed in a hurry which evidently led to the arduous task of decanting the beer barrels into beer bellies! Consequently the public in general took upon this onerous responsibility which resulted in a “fest” like atmosphere. Maerzen = fest bier.  The turning point came on October 12, 1810 which was the day, the Bavarian Crown Prince Ludwig, who later became King Ludwig I, married Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen. The generous newlyweds decided to organize a grand wedding revelry for its subjects on some grazing land in the outskirts of Munich. That meadow was then given its current name of Theresienwiese (Theresa’s meadow), in honour of the Crown Princess. King Ludwig organised a public celebration anniversary of his nuptials which evolved into the Okteberfest: perhaps an equivalent in the beer world of the monumental expression of love of Shah Jahan for his better half. To this day, the Theresienwiese (now known in local vernacular as just the “Wies’n”) is still the site of the annual Munich Oktoberfest

You might raise your eyebrows when I tell you that Oktoberfestbier is not the beer style served at the greens of the “Wies.’n”. Originally the beer that was a stronger or fest version of the then predominant beer in Munich: the Munich Dunkel. This beer style graced the grand occasion in 1810. However in 1841 there began to be a change in the recipe which started to use a paler type of malt called the Vienna malt. Therefore the beer lightened in colour to get an amberish hue. Then around 1870 came the moment when the Spaten brewery commenced to use a new type of malt:”Munich malt”. This malt was darker than the Vienna malt but lighter than the erstwhile dunkel fest beer. This resulted in an amberish-orange hue in fest beers and this is also when the beer was explicitly marketed as an Okotoberfestbier, a rare time marker to the exact origin of a beer style.

When I visited the fest a few years ago I was expecting to drown in this amberish nectar but was surprised to see a rather deep golden looking brew in my MaSS (one liter beer mug) Apparently to make the festival beer more drinkable and by that inducing copious consumption, the style was adapted to the Helles (=light in colour in German) style which Munich became famous for since the late 19th century. This event happened somewhere in the 1970s and since then the beer served at the Oktoberfest is not actually the Oktoberfestbier style but rather a stronger version of the Helles beer brewed to fest strength. I admit candidly that it doesn’t really matter which beer style they serve at the Oktoberfest.  The gates will open at 9 am and youll be sitting in a huge beer tent in company of thousands of strangers from all over the planet who instantaneously turn into friends on first glug. And that’s the real spirit of the Oktoberfest!

(The author has visited the fest in 2009 & recommends frugality to the readers for the next few months. Visit the Oktoberfest from 20th of Sept till 5th of October 2015)

Ashish Jasuja