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On this day 1810… the first Oktoberfest

In 1810, with Europe enjoying a momentary respite in the Revolutionary Napoleonic Wars that had raged across the continent for over a decade, King Maximilian Joseph of Bavaria invited his subjects to celebrate the marriage of his son, Ludwig, to Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen.

A view of the fair in 1823

The festivities took place in the fields outside the city gates, which quickly became known as the Theresienwiese (‘Therese’s Meadow’) in honour of the new Crown Princess. Today the Oktoberfest takes place in the same area (though no longer fields) and the name is usually shortened to just the Wiesn.

Many of the traditions of that first Oktoberfest remain, at least in essence, but as is the way with all things the fair has changed and evolved over time as it grew into an ever-larger public festival.

The first celebrations included horse racing that was watched by 40,000 people from the gentle slopes of the Theresienhohe that overlooked the meadow. The horse races continued until 1960.

The inaugural event was such a success that it was repeated in 1811 (with an added show to celebrate Bavarian agriculture) and 1812 but was cancelled in 1813 when Bavaria turned against Napoleon and war menaced its borders.

It was only in 1819 that the decision was taken to hold the fair annually and so it has continued with the odd break caused by cholera epidemics in 1854 and 1873 as well as war with Austria in 1866 and France in 1870-71, both World Wars and the years of hyper-inflation from 1923-24.

Although Oktoberfest is known chiefly as a beer-drinking festival, it was only in the later 19th century that the involvement of the big breweries became substantial. It was in 1887 that the first parade of breweries that now opens the fair took place and the first beer in the now famous glass Maß weren’t served until 1892.

Today all of the beer at the fair is specially brewed for the occasion by just six breweries:

Staatliches Hofbräu-München

The fair is officially opened by Munich’s mayor broaching a barrel of beer to the cry of O’zapft is! (‘It’s tapped’ in the local dialect), whereupon the first litre is handed to the Bavarian minister-president.

The best number of strokes required to tap the barrel in modern times is just two – held by Christian Ude and Dieter Reiter between 2005 and this year, while poor Thomas Wimmer needed 19 blows to tap the cask in 1950.

The sheer scale of the fair also now dwarfs the grand but comparatively simple wedding celebrations of 1810. In 1910 on the centenary of the fair, some 120,000 litres of beer are estimated to have been consumed and in 1913 the largest tent, with room for 12,000 people, was opened.

This year’s fair attracted 6.2 million people for its 16-day run and as well as consuming innumerable roast chickens and bratwurst and 127 oxen, visitors from over 60 countries drank more than 7.2m litres of beer and managed to lose: 1,300 passports, 620 pieces of clothing, 600 wallets, 520 smartphones and cellphones, 360 keys, 325 pairs of glasses, 120 umbrellas, 100 bags and rucksacks, 95 pieces of jewellery and 15 cameras.

Also found: A set of dentures, a pair of crutches, a number plate (From the area of Limburg-Weilburg), a drinking horn, a pair of leather pants and a luxury lady’s watch by Carl F. Bucher.


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