How Oktoberfest Became a Worldwide Sensation

Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany / Getty

On May 3, 2021, in a joint press conference, Bavaria’s Minister-President Markus Söder and Munich’s Lord Mayor Dieter Reiter announced their decision to postpone Oktoberfest for the second year in a row.

But you can’t really cancel Oktoberfest.

The world’s largest beer festival attracted 6.3 million visitors to Munich, Germany, in 2019. By now, it’s a worldwide phenomenon, lending its name and stereotypical aesthetic—blue and white lozenge patterns, Tyrolean hats and lederhosen—to British beers, Japanese potato chips, American pretzels, and countless parades, parties and other excuses to gather and get drunk in any language across the globe.

A woman selling pretzels and salt rolls from a beer tent during Oktoberfest in Munich in 1921
A woman selling pretzels and salt rolls from a beer tent during Oktoberfest in Munich in 1921 / Photo by Philipp Kester

However, Oktoberfest was once a strictly provincial event and beer was hardly the main focus.

It began with a royal wedding in October of 1810; the future King Ludwig I of Bavaria married Princess Therese of Saxony Hildburghausen. They invited the citizens of Munich to attend wedding festivities 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.

A woman with beer steins in Munich during a 1914 Oktoberfest (L) and three men in Bavarian costume during Oktoberfest in Munich around 1906
A woman with beer steins in Munich during the 1914 Oktoberfest (L) and three men in Bavarian costume during Oktoberfest in Munich around 1906 / Photos by Philipp Kester

“To the rest of Germany, though, it would have been seen as rather quaint,” explains Katja Sipple, executive director of the German-American Heritage Foundation of the USA. “Someone from Hamburg or Berlin, it wouldn’t have even occurred [to] them to attend.”

Within the next few years, new features were added, like carnival booths, bowling and an agriculture show. During that time frame, organizers also decided to start Oktoberfest in September to capitalize on better weather.

A Brief History of Women and Beer, From Sumerian Goddesses to the Pink Boots Society

Word finally began spreading throughout the rest of the world, especially since nearly six million Germans immigrated to other countries like America between 1820 and World War II.

As early as the mid-19th century, German-language newspapers in cities like St. Louis, Baltimore and St. Paul, Minnesota, were reporting on the Oktoberfest celebrations back home.

Vom schönsten wetter begünstigt, nimmt das Oktoberfest feinen gewöhnlichen verlauf,” wrote Cincinnati’s Westliche Blätter in 1870. (“Favored by the most beautiful weather, the Oktoberfest takes a fine, ordinary course.”)

A man rolling beer barrels during an Ocktoberfest celebration in 1935
A man rolling beer barrels during an Ocktoberfest celebration in 1935 / Photo by Philipp Kester

And yet, Oktoberfest remained a uniquely Munich affair. Few out-of-towners traveled to it, and there weren’t any formalized Oktoberfest offshoots occurring in other countries.

“There were always beer-related festivities taking place among the German communities in America, though,” says Sipple. She specifically mentions barn raisings, singing societies and Turnverein, a German gymnastics club, would have always had beer on hand. “But the idea of an Oktoberfest [in America] did not really happen until the second part of the 20th century.”

That was for one very simple reason. After World War II, many U.S. troops found themselves stationed in Germany. (As of VE Day on May 8, 1945, some 1.6 million American soldiers were on German soil, many around the Munich region.) And, in the 1950s and ’60s, spouses and children started joining them.

Travel was improving, too, and it was becoming easier to get from one country to the next in a single day. So, people started visiting the annual Oktoberfest from the rest of Germany and Europe.

Sipple figures U.S. soldiers formerly located in Germany must have thought, “Everybody likes beer—let’s bring this to America!”

A piece by Bavarian landscape painter Heinrich Adam of the horse races at the Oktoberfest in 1823
A piece by Bavarian landscape painter Heinrich Adam of the horse races at the Oktoberfest in 1823

Other factors were also at work. Between 1951 and 1970, around 800,000 Germans immigrated to the U.S. And today there are some 45 million people of German heritage in the country.

“It was seen as a way of connecting with what they enjoyed while living in Germany,” says Sipple.

The 500-Year-Old History of Pretzel Necklaces Includes German Monks and Modern Derision

In Pennsylvania, where some of the earliest German immigrants landed, the Reading Liederkranz, a German singing and sporting society in Berks County, began holding an Oktoberfest in 1949.

Oktoberfest started in La Crosse, Wisconsin, in 1961—today it’s the Midwest’s longest-running festival. By 1971, Cincinnati’s Germania Society was holding its own Oktoberfest to fundraise for the construction of a clubhouse. And in 1976, Cincinnati had started its own event, dubbed Oktoberfest Zinzinnati. Today, it is the largest celebration in the U.S. and one of the top five in the entire world.

Pins on a jacket at Oktoberfest in La Crosse
Pins on a jacket at Oktoberfest in La Crosse / Photo courtesy of Travel Wisconsin

The U.S. wasn’t the only place outside of Germany with this tradition, either. The Kitchener–Waterloo Oktoberfest in Ontario, Canada, launched in 1967, attracts three-quarters of a million visitors today. Argentina’s Fiesta Nacional de la Cerveza began in October 1963. Brazil’s Oktoberfest of Blumenau was spawned in 1984 and is now one of the largest in the world after Munich.

It would take a while, but global celebrations would eventually inspire Oktoberfest festivals where they all began, in Munich.

“I think the Germans copied what the Americans did,” says Bernd Rau, second vice president of Cincinnati’s Germania Society.

“Within the last 10 to 15 years, when I went back to Germany for visits, I all of the sudden see Oktoberfest advertisements everywhere [around the country] for it.”

Meanwhile, Oktoberfest-style beers, known as märzens, began to be exported to the U.S. by at least the 1960s, burnishing the festival’s reputation abroad, according to Steve Hauser, president and CEO of Paulaner USA.

A 2014 Oktoberfest celebration in China
A 2014 Oktoberfest celebration in China / Alamy

These malt-forward, amber-style lagers from esteemed German breweries like Augustiner-Bräu, Hofbräu and Paulaner meant Americans could celebrate every time they opened their fridge in the fall.

“Business in the U.S. for many years was based in the German expat communities,” says Hauser. “Traditional German restaurants in the Midwest—Wisconsin, Illinois and Minnesota to name a few—[selling] in keg form accounted for well over 50% of the volume sold in the country.”

The craft beer movement of the 1980s likewise began inspiring homegrown American breweries to take their own stabs at Oktoberfest beers.

A close-up of two men dressed in German costume drinking beer during Brazil's Oktoberfest
A close-up of two men dressed in German costume drinking beer during Brazil’s Oktoberfest / Getty

By 1989, Samuel Adams, founded by Jim Koch, a German-American, was selling OctoberFest (notice the Germanic Oktober changed to a more Anglo-friendly October). Today, there are countless American-made märzens and many craft breweries have even recently started producing “festbiers,” or lighter, sessionable golden lagers more in tune with what has evolved to be served at Munich’s Oktoberfest today.

“As the term ‘Oktoberfest’ is not trademarked to the city of Munich the way ‘Champagne’ is for sparkling wine from a specific region in France, there are literally hundreds of domestic and imported brands claiming to be ‘Oktoberfest,’” says Hauser.

Oktoberfest in Munich
Oktoberfest in Munich / Getty

And that’s why you can find Oktoberfest beers and festivals in Russia, China, India, Australia, Vietnam, Zambia and the Middle East, where Palestinian brewery Taybeh offers uniquely local Oktoberfest lagers produced with wild za’atar, sage and sumac. In late September, pretty much every U.S. town of any size will hold Oktoberfest events and, often, distinctly American touches will be added.

Then again, as Sipple notes, even ham-handed imitation can be the sincerest form of flattery.

“As much as it chagrins me to say it, Oktoberfest long ago became a marketing thing,” she says. “There’s a lot of money to be made.”

Published on September 7, 2021
Topics: Drinks History