Beer and Wisconsin go together like beer and Mondays, beer and dancing, and beer and beer brats. You’d almost think beer is in our blood, and, in many ways, it is. The overwhelming majority of the 100,000 foreign-born Wisconsinites in 1850 were either German, Norwegian, or Irish—places with strong brewing traditions.1 In addition, we really don’t get much time off from celebrating festivals, like St. Patrick’s Day and Syttende Mai, with good friends and great beer. One festival shines above the rest, so grand it even has a beer to go with it: Oktoberfest.
The origins of the style predate the festival, though the first Oktoberfestbier wasn’t brewed until 61 years after the first festival was held. That’s because a key ingredient had yet to be added, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Over 20 generations ago, Bavarian brewers encountered a major crisis. They wanted to drink beer throughout the year, but the summer months often produced sour and contaminated results. The only solution was to brew as much beer as possible before the days grew warm, leading to the creation of the Märzenbier, “March beer.” The beers were brewed with a heavy dose of malts and hops to preserve the flavor over the summer, then stored in cool caves and cellars. As the summer came to a close, around October, there were often many casks still full of beer. The casks needed to be emptied so the next brewing season could start, leading to city-wide merrymaking. Any guess as to what this event came to be called? Honestly, I don’t know if it ever had a name. This predates Oktoberfest by hundreds of years.
As technology advanced, the need to store beer for the warm months lessened. In 1841, Gabriel Sedlmayr, brewmaster of Spaten Brewery in Munich, and Anton Dreher, brewmaster of Dreher Brewery in Vienna, worked together to lighten the color by subbing in a lighter malt, now known as Vienna malt, for some of the heavier ones in the Märzenbier, and the Vienna Lager was born.
In 1871, Spaten Brewery introduced a darker Vienna malt, known today as Munich malt, and the world witnessed its first Oktoberfestbier.2 The Oktoberfest festival, however, had been in effect since 1810.
The festival began as a celebration of Kronprinz Ludwig’s marriage to Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen. The main event was a grand horse race, which was repeated annually until 1960. By then, the festival had gone through many changes as different games and activities faded in and out. One tradition stood the test of time quite well: drinking a lot of beer.
Being the thoughtful connoisseurs of culture we are, Wisconsites carry on the traditions set forth by our German ancestors in stride. Tanner Brethorst, brewery chief of Port Huron Brewing, provides some insight when it comes to brewing and enjoying Oktoberfest beers. “It’s more than refreshing, it’s satisfying…it just makes you feel more in tune to the time of year.”
That is really what beer drinking comes down to. It’s so deeply ingrained in our culture that I can find the right beer for not only the right season, but the right day. I can drink a crisp American Pale Ale on a hot summer day and switch over to a Belgian Quad (black wheat ale) when the rain comes out. But we are entering the fall months, and between Brown Ales, Dunkelweizens, and Oktoberfest beers, I’m set for the season.
When September rolls around, my thoughts jump to visions of Munich malts and lagering. Every local brewery’s Oktoberfest is worth a try to see who nailed it this year. “Hops go in to balance that beer out, but they don’t play a starring role. If it’s a really tasty beer, you know it on that first sip.” Tanner’s words ring over the dancing Hallertauer hops in my head. I want to get that rich malt flavor balanced with the mildest hint of hops, and if everything finishes clean, I’m in.
Beer drinking has been adopted as a lifestyle by so many people in the United States, and Wisconsin is right up there with the best of them. When I point out I can expect a local tavern to at least carry Ale Asylum’s Hopalicious, Tanner adds, “You’re always gonna have some great Wisconsin craft beer along for the ride when you’re doing anything anymore.” Camping, kayaking, stargazing, and polka dancing, no matter the way you relax or unwind, odds are there’s some great beer within arm’s reach.
Instead of connecting Oktoberfest beer to art and philosophy, let the beer speak for itself. It’s so much a part of the festival, there’s little surprise we’re seeing Wisconsin do Oktoberfest as good as almost anywhere else. Jerry Schneider, one of Wisconsin’s favorite polka stars, played at Port Huron’s Oktoberfest last year, and Tanner couldn’t have been happier. “Jerry Schneider is playing in our brewery right now. It’s Oktoberfest. This is the best day of the year. Our Oktoberfest is surpassing Christmas.”
Of course, you can go anywhere in Wisconsin to experience some great festivities. Madison, Waupaca, La Crosse, Appleton, Chippewa Fall, New Glarus, Plymouth, Cedarburg, and Milwaukee to name a few. There’s something to waiting for that first keg to be tapped as you stand underneath with an empty mug. You’re surrounded by men in lederhosen and women in dirndl dresses, and you’re wondering why we don’t do this every day. The band picks up where they left off and everybody cheers as they drink down the newfound reason for the season.
We are tied together by lifestyles and cultures that share a commonality we’d almost have to fight to ignore. Take part in an Oktoberfest, drink an Oktoberfest beer, and know Wisconsin as a united people who can throw one hell of a party.
Jeder hört die Musik anders—aber der gemeinsame Tanz ist wunderbar. Everyone hears the music differently—but the dance together is wonderful.
Kyle Jacobson is a copy editor for Madison Essentials Magazine, and a writer and beer enthusiast (sometimes all at once) living in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin.