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Guest blog: Oktoberfest -- a festival or a beer style?

by Nick Trougakos Published: October 16, 2013

The annual Tulsa Oktoberfest kicks off tomorrow, and to mark the occasion, Marshall Brewing Co.’s Wes Alexander has written a guest blog post to delve into the history of Oktoberfest and the beers we associate with it.

Oktoberfest: A festival or a beer style?

By Wes Alexander, director of sales and marketing for Marshall Brewing Co.

Time muddies the water of history. Often the re-telling of history creates some false truths. Is Oktoberfest a style of beer? Absolutely not. Is it the largest and finest festival celebrating beer culture in the world? Absolutely.

Before modern times the Germans were primarily an agrarian culture built on a system of serfdom. As with other agrarian cultures, the Germans were dependent on a plentiful bounty during the harvest to subsist during the winter. When the harvest was good, brewing beer was a way of preserving any leftover grain. Brewers learned through trial and error that brewing beer was only possible during cooler months as the warmer summer air promoted the growth of air borne bacteria that would spoil the beer. As a solution, brewing took place during winter months with March (Marzen in German) being the last possible month of cooler temperatures suitable for brewing. The beer brewed in this month was brewed with a dark malt and slightly higher alcohol content to produce a beer suitable for long-term storage as a provision.

If the spring and summer crops grew, a bountiful harvest was cause for celebration. The Marzen lager was consumed after being stored cold over the summer in the ice caves of Bavaria. This process of long-term cold storage is known as lagering and produces beers with a clean and smooth character. This very character attracted Crown Prince Ludwig I in 1810 as he planned a wedding celebration like none the country had ever seen. On October 12, 1810, Ludwig I of Bavaria wed Therese of Saxony Hildburghausen.  The couple selected the local Munich Dunkel, a dark smooth lager similar to Marzen, for their wedding beer and invited all of Bavaria to join. The celebration lasted five days and turned into a tradition celebrated each year thereafter, except for a few years surrounding WWII.

In 1872, Josef Sedlmayr, Franziskaner brewmaster, introduced an amber lager at Oktoberfest.  The amber lagerbier was a refined version of the Marzen lager. Sedlmayr had been refining the process for lagering as the traditional dark lagers of Germany were often murky. Sedlmayr’s work culminated with the introduction of a copper-colored lager that is the inspiration for Marshall Brewing’s Oktoberfest.

Oktoberfest beers of the period after Sedlmayr’s introduction of an Oktoberfest Lager shared clarity while being copper in color. Most had a soft, toasty sweetness and juicy mouthfeel with a subdued use of hops to provide a slightly spicy finish with a festival-appropriate level of alcohol typically around 6.0% ABV. Beginning in 1990, however, the approach of the Munich brewers was to offer a beer with a more multi-national appeal at Oktoberfest.

Today in Munich, the beers served at the festival labeled Oktoberfest are stronger versions of Helles. Helles translates from German directly to light, a reference to the light straw color of the lager. However, the beer shares no other character with what we refer to as light beer in the U.S. Instead Helles is the result of 3,000 years of refining the process of brewing in Germany. Helles is brewed and lagered with elegant simplicity. The use of only a few ingredients lends to the simplicity while the intricate process lends to the elegant nature of the beer.

With the success of the modern Oktoberfest festivals, brewers have smartly chosen to market their beer as “Oktoberfest.” Much like the German Gemütlichkeit or cheerful mood, Oktoberfest is about a feeling of celebration. The modern beers served today in Munich labeled “Oktoberfest” are often stronger in the style of fest bier but lighter in both color and intensity than their predecessors.

Eric Marshall has made it his passion to offer fresh local lager on a commercial scale. Further, he is showcasing a range of German traditional styles at the 2013 Tulsa Oktoberfest to include ales. Stop by the Fassler Hall Stammtisch Zelt, located directly to the north of the Biergarten (main tent) to try any of the five varied styles offered. Tulsa Oktoberfest, 2100 S Jackson Ave., opens to the public at 5 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 17 and runs through Sunday, Oct. 20 at 6 p.m. Admission is $6.

A new tradition begins at the 2013 Tulsa Oktoberfest, with the introduction of the Masskrug, a one liter commemorative stein. A Masskrug filled with Marshall beer will be $14 and $10 for a refill. Join us in the Fassler Hall Stammtisch Zelt and raise a stein to celebrate German culture. Ein Prosit!


by Nick Trougakos
Local Editor
Local Editor Nick Trougakos has been with The Oklahoman since 2002. Trougakos covered the military, federal agencies and courts before becoming an editor in 2005. Prior to joining The Oklahoman, Trougakos was a reporter for the Oklahoma City...
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