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Oktoberfest’s Beer-Soaked History, Explained

The history of Germany’s beloved fall festival and how it spread bratwurst and pretzels across the globe

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Oktoberfest revelers in Munich, 1953
Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

Each year, the start of fall signals it’s time for Oktoberfest. With roots in Germany, the annual celebration calls to mind beer steins, lederhosen, and pretzels, but with a history that goes back more than 200 years, the story of Oktoberfest is deeper than that stereotypical image.

Oktoberfest now inspires celebrations heavy on the food and beer-drinking all over the world. Some festivities last a day, others for a weekend or two, with the mightiest of all Oktoberfests spanning two weeks from September through early October. Here now, a look back on the origins of Oktoberfest, its evolution into the mother of all beer festivals, and how this German tradition became an oft-replicated tradition across the globe.

What is Oktoberfest?

Oktoberfest is a two-week, carbohydrate-filled festival of beer and merriment held in Munich, where the event began in the early 19th century. The Oktoberfest grounds span a 100-acre swath of land to the west of the city, the same site where the original festival was held in 1810. About 6 million people flock to Oktoberfest every year to patronize the 38 beer tents packed into the grounds. The celebration kicks off with a gun salute and a ceremonial keg tapping by the city’s mayor. In addition to lots of drinking, the festivities also include a costume parade and live music.

Visitors liken Oktoberfest to a mashup of beer, food, and music festivals combined with a carnival. The beer tents feature live brass bands (chosen by each tent proprietor) that perform modern hits and folk music alongside classic German tunes. Scattered across the grounds, visitors will find carnival games and rides, including carousels, ferris wheels, and various challenges for anyone unafraid of heights.

Inside the Schottenhamel beer tent at Oktoberfest 2018 in Munich.
Picture Alliance via Getty Images

What does Oktoberfest celebrate besides beer?

The evolution of the current Oktoberfest spans more than 200 years, dating back to the inaugural event on October 12, 1810, and the nuptials of Prince Ludwig (later King Ludwig I) and Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen. The royal occasion took place a year after a quelled rebellion in a neighboring county, so to establish a sense of unity across the Bavarian state, the family invited about 40,000 citizens to join the festivities at the gates of the city of Munich. The celebration lasted several days, ending on October 17 with horse races.

The following year, the town held the festival in the same location, in a field that was dubbed Theresienwiese, after the princess. Today, it’s often called just the “Wies’n.” In subsequent years, Oktoberfest expanded to include carousels and swings, which first appeared in 1818, adding a carnival element to the celebration. Soon after, Munich city officials took up the mantle of planning and running the festival each year, and it grew to include beer and food stands, agricultural competitions, and live cooking. The tradition of horse races ended in 1960, but the carnival rides — and the beer tents, of course — remain an essential part of Oktoberfest.

Why is Oktoberfest in September?

Though the earliest Oktoberfests were held in the eponymous month to coincide with the anniversary of the first royal festival, by the late 1890s, organizers shifted the start date to late September to catch some milder weather — but by allowing the festival to extend into early October, the name avoided becoming a complete misnomer.

The shift to a start date in September stuck: This year, Munich Oktoberfest runs from September 16 to October 3.

Is Oktoberfest a tourist trap?

Oktoberfest is certainly a major tourist attraction for the city of Munich. In 2022, 5.7 million Oktoberfest revelers consumed 5.6 million liters of beer (though that’s nothing compared to the crowd in 2019, who downed 7.3 million liters).

Many travel companies offer Oktoberfest packages, and the city of Munich and the German National Tourist office provide travel guides and tips for folks traveling to the festival. The internet is also rife with guides to surviving Oktoberfest, offering suggestions on which tents to visit and which foods to sample.

That being said, traditionally the majority of visitors to Oktoberfest each year come from Bavaria, the southeastern German state of which Munich is the capital, or elsewhere in Germany.

How did Oktoberfest spread beyond Munich and across the world?

Several other cities in Germany host Oktoberfest celebrations of their own — including Stuttgart, Berlin, and Hamburg — in addition to other European cities. The tradition spread to the U.S., largely via German Americans or immigrants, leading to festivals like the one in La Crosse, Wisconsin, which began in 1961. Cincinnati’s Oktoberfest (officially titled Oktoberfest Zinzinnati) began in 1976 and is now one of the largest in the country, drawing around 700,000 attendees in some years. Much like in Munich, Cincinnati’s fest features food, beer, and events, though with a decidedly American spin — there’s a “running of the wieners” (a dachshund race), a bratwurst-eating contest, and a mass chicken dance.

Other large-scale Oktoberfest celebrations in the U.S. take place each year in Denver and Frankenmuth, Michigan, which is nicknamed the state’s Little Bavaria.

Apart from formal festivals like these, breweries and restaurants around the country often put on Oktoberfest-themed celebrations of their own, serving beer and food menus highlighting German foods in late September and early October.

Oktoberfest 2018 attendees in Munich toast with large steins of beer.
Picture Alliance via Getty Images

What do people drink at Oktoberfest?

Munich’s modern-day Oktoberfest features 38 beer and food tents, large and small, all serving beer from six local breweries: Augustiner, Hacker Pschorr, Hofbräu, Löwenbräu, Paulaner, and Spaten. Those breweries are showcased at Oktoberfest because they adhere to Germany’s beer purity law, Reinheitsgebot, which dictates there must be only four ingredients in a beer: water, malt, hops, and yeast. (Oktoberfest celebrations elsewhere in the world can be less strict with regards to the type of beer served; while most of the beers served in Munich are lighter-colored lagers, American Oktoberfest beers are typically darker). A liter of beer costs between 12.60 and 14.90 euros ($13.50 to $16), and over the course of two weeks, people consume millions of them.

While beer is vital to modern Oktoberfest celebrations, it did not figure prominently in the first years of the festival. In fact, beer and food stalls were only added in 1818, eight years after the first celebration took place. When Munich city officials took over managing Oktoberfest in 1819 and expanded the festival with events like parades, agricultural shows, and carousels, the beer stands evolved into larger tents and halls, backed by breweries, to better serve the demand for alcoholic refreshments.

What do people eat at Oktoberfest?

Each of the large beer tents at Munich’s Oktoberfest serves its own menu, much like a restaurant, while some of the smaller tents focus on a specific item like seafood, baked goods, or cheese. Revelers will find venison, pastries, brats, cheese, and dumplings on the menus in the larger tents. The Hacker-Festhalle, which can accommodate approximately 9,000 people, serves a menu including meat from a family-owned butchery, homemade spaetzle, sausages, pretzels, and cheese. There’s also a cafe tent with its own bakery and a beer tent famous for its suckling pig and potato salad.

Just as with beer, food gradually became part of Oktoberfest in the early years of the festival. In 1881, bratwurst made its first appearance at the early food booths. Later that decade, electricity became part of the Oktoberfest, prompting officials to expand the stalls to tents and beer halls, providing more space and opportunity for the halls to develop their own menus, which expanded to include roast meats, pretzels, and knödel, or dumplings.

Outside of Munich, fest-goers will find similar menus in celebrations around the world. Cincinnati’s Oktoberfest features much of the classic German fare, including potato salad, sauerkraut balls, brats, sausages, strudel, and soft pretzels (along with Indian food, doughnuts, and cheese curds). Much like in Munich, the Kitchener–Waterloo Oktoberfest in Canada spreads its Oktoberfest across multiple festhallen (halls tents) that feature oompah bands, dancing, and their own signature food menus. There is a tent known for its apple strudel and others known for spit-roasted pork tenderloin, spaetzle, and breaded pork schnitzel with potato salad. There’s even an Oktoberfest in Brazil that serves flammkuchen (a German-style flatbread) and classics like spaetzle, bratwurst, and charcuterie.

Oktoberfest 2018: Day Two
Traditional lederhosen at Oktoberfest 2018
Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

What’s up with those outfits?

Lederhosen and dirndl are recognized as the official attire of Oktoberfest. Lederhosen were traditionally working clothes, modeled after 16th-century French culottes or knee breeches. German and Austrians working in the Alps co-opted this design and made popular their own leather versions (lederhosen translates to “leather pants”). The dirndl has similar roots as attire for workers or peasants, and traditionally consists of a bodice, skirt, blouse, and apron. As part of Munich’s efforts to promote Bavarian culture, the city named lederhosen and dirndl the official attire of Oktoberfest in 1887. Thankfully, you’ll still be served if you’re not dressed accordingly.