Oktoberfest: When the Fall Seasonal Really Started Rising
In 1988, the Water Street Brewery of Milwaukee won a silver medal in the “European darks” category of the Great American Beer Festival. The winning beer? Water Street Oktoberfest.
The following year the festival added a Vienna/Marzen/Octoberfest category, a nod to what was by then becoming a major presence every late summer and early autumn on shelves and tap handles: American-made beers calling themselves “Oktoberfest” or “Octoberfest.” There had been a Vienna-style Lager category, but this was something new.
Still, for all their ubiquity now 30 years on, boiling down to the first American-produced beer to explicitly call itself “Oktoberfest” or “Octoberfest” on its packaging is quite difficult. It’s so much easier with “Christmas beer” or “summer beer.” The main reason appears to be the sheer number of German immigrants brewing beer commercially in the late 19th century. Several operations likely had an autumnal offering, of whatever style, calling itself Oktoberfest (which is the spelling I’ll go with in general).
The modern marketing age of American Oktoberfest, however, began in the late 1980s. And, to be clear, I am not talking about the actual Marzen and Vienna lagers, or whatever styles, comprising Oktoberfests, or the festivals themselves, or their Bavarian roots—simply when Oktoberfest became an inescapable part of the beer-drinking calendar.
In 1989, the year of that first GABF Oktoberfest category, the Boston-based maker of Harpoon, the Mass. Bay Brewing Co., introduced an Oktoberfest seasonal. That same year, the Free State Brewing Co. in Lawrence, Kanasa, released an Oktoberfest. And the following year, 1990, Widmer Brothers Brewing, the Portland, Oregon, pioneer in wheat beers, would debut its own version of the increasingly obligatory seasonal.
The Oktoberfests came fast and furious now, reflecting a geographic diffuseness that spoke to the growing popularity of more flavorful beers in the U.S., never mind the rise in the sheer number of breweries across the land. Oktoberfests arrived from locales as disparate as Appleton Brewing Co. of Appleton, Wisconsin; Nashville’s Bohannon Brewing Co.; and the Sudwerk brewpub in Davis, California. (These breweries’ Oktoberfests dominated the GABF’s newly rechristened Marzen/Oktoberfest category in 1990.)
Capital Brewery in Madison, Wisconsin, which had been planning an Oktoberfest since its production launch in 1986, finally introduced one around this time.
Really, though, the Oktoberfest-in-America juggernaut commenced in earnest with Boston Beer Co.’s fall 1989 release of Samuel Adams Octoberfest. The brewery was already well on its way to being the biggest of the small-batch arrivistes and had carved out near-national distribution for its brands. Samuel Adams Octoberfest was released into these distribution channels shortly after that official 1989 debut—which came at the Great American Beer Festival in Denver in (when else?) October.
Tom Acitelli is the author of The Audacity of Hops: The History of America’s Craft Beer Revolution. His new book is a history of American fine wine called American Wine: A Coming-of-Age Story. Reach him on Twitter @tomacitelli.