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8 Things to Know About Oktoberfest

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After a two-year break for that pesky pandemic, Oktoberfest returned triumphantly this year on September 16 and will last through October 3. The world’s largest beer festival attracted 6.3 million visitors to Munich, Germany, when it was last held in 2019, and similar numbers are expected this year. Many more people across the globe will celebrate Oktoberfest in their own cities, if for nothing more than that it’s a great excuse to drink several liters of beer from a giant glass boot.

Below, a primer for yearly festival.

Oktoberfest celebration, Munich
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Why is Oktoberfest held in September?

In October of 1810, citizens of Munich were invited to attend the wedding festivities of the future King Ludwig I of Bavaria and Princess Therese of Saxony Hildburghausen. Held on fields in front of the city gates, dubbed Theresienwiese, or Theresa’s Meadow, there was a parade, children dancing and singing in traditional garb and a horse race. There were also stands serving mutton, smoked sausages, Swiss cheese, Austrian white wine and, yes, beer to the tune of more than 6,000 gallons. It was such a hit among Bavarians that they repeated this Oktoberfest the next year and the next—eventually, however, it was bumped up to September to capitalize on warmer weather.

Related: How Oktoberfest Became a Worldwide Sensation

Where are the best Oktoberfests held outside of Munich?

Many German immigrants would flood to America’s Midwest post-World War II; an Oktoberfest started in La Crosse, WI, in 1961 is the region’s now longest-running festival. By 1971, Cincinnati’s Germania Society was holding its own Oktoberfest and by 1976, Cincinnati had started its own event, dubbed Oktoberfest Zinzinnati. Today, it is the largest U.S. celebration and one of the top five in the entire world. Internationally, there’s the Kitchener-Waterloo Oktoberfest in Ontario, Canada, which attracts three-quarters of a million visitors today. In South America you have Argentina’s Fiesta Nacional de la Cerveza, which began in October 1963 and Brazil’s Oktoberfest of Blumenau, now one of the largest events in the world after Munich.

A Glass of cool paulaner German Beer on a wooden table
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What is Oktoberfest beer?

If you see a beer labeled “Oktoberfest,” that typically means it will be something also known as a märzen. These malt-forward, bready, toasted amber-colored beers—brewed in March and then lagered until fall—first began getting imported to America in the 1960s, coming from vaunted German breweries like Augustiner-Bräu, Hofbräu, and Paulaner. America’s budding craft beer movement ran with the tradition, capitalizing on a newfound need for constant “seasonal” beers by releasing their own Oktoberfests—or OctoberFest in the case of Samuel Adams’ top-selling offering.

Where and when can I find Oktoberfest beer?

Pretty much anywhere that sells beer, including mega-markets like Aldi and Costco, which famously sells a super-sized quart beer stein of Paulaner that causes social media users to go gaga every year when they (re-)discover it. Americanized Oktoberfests can also be readily found across the country, from craft brewing giants like Sierra Nevada, New Glarus and Great Lakes down to smaller local outfits. Today, seasonal creep means many of these Oktoberfests start hitting shelves during the dog days of summer, well before many of us have even pulled the lederhosen and dirndls out of the closet.

Related: 12 Fall Beers to Welcome Sweater Weather

OK, then what is festbier?

Evolving tastes have seen more of-the-moment craft breweries like Tree House, Threes Brewing and Fair State ditching märzens in favor of festbier. Sometimes known as Oktoberfestbier or wiesnbier, this lighter, golden lager—more akin to a beefed-up helles—is what has come to actually be served in Munich these days, and that has been the case since the 1970s. It took a bit longer for these more sessionable beers to invade America’s craft beer scene; perhaps they just seemed too similar to the German-influenced macro-lagers that already dominated the market.

What breweries actually pour at Munich’s Oktoberfest

The rules of Oktoberfest stipulate that only beer brewed within the Munich city limit may be served. Each beer must also be brewed according to the Reinheitsgebot—a German purity law designating that it contain only water, grain, hops and yeast. That means the official breweries of Oktoberfest are Augustiner, Hacker-Pschor, Löwenbräu, Paulaner, Spaten and Hofbräuhaus. Each serves their own slightly different version of Oktoberfestbier. (Note: While the term Oktoberfest is not trademarked, Oktoberfestbier is trademarked by an association of Munich breweries)

Joe Wood attends Oktoberfest Zinzinnati in Cincinnati, Ohio on September 16, 2021
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How much beer is consumed during Oktoberfest?

If the initial event in 1810 only saw 6,000 gallons glugged, by 2019 some 7.3 million liters of beer were poured. That was a slight decrease from the year before, though consumption numbers have been steadily increasing since the 1980s. The rise of American yahoos visiting Munich and wearing pretzel necklaces has increased on a similar scale, which is surely no coincidence.

Can I not drink on Oktoberfest?

Of course!  In fact, the event itself offers plenty of “alkoholfrei” options from the same big breweries that offer the hard stuff. Meanwhile, in America, brands like Athletic Brewing and Hoplark have upended what a non-alcoholic Oktoberfest can taste like. Glass boot optional.