Last weekend, the annual Oktoberfest celebration wrapped up in Munich, Germany. This time-honored tradition (which, despite its name, runs from mid-September to the first weekend of October) is as much a part of fall as Sunday football, apple picking, sweater weather, and pumpkin spice.
In fact, Oktoberfest has become so popular that many in the U.S. have now established their own parties—all, of course, revolving around beer—which can extend well into the month, and for good reason.
From dark ales to pumpkin brews, fall is the most wonderful time of the year for beer connoisseurs and novices alike. And even if you normally can’t or don’t drink beer for health reasons, there is a great selection of organic, gluten-free, and light beer options that allows you to celebrate with the best of them. Just grab a glass, toast your friends, and do like the Germans do, shouting “Prost!” (or “Cheers!”).
A quick history lesson on Oktoberfest
The German tradition known as Oktoberfest began on October 12 in the year 1810, and its original purpose was to celebrate the marriage of Bavarian Crown Prince Ludwig to the Saxon-Hildburghausen Princess Therese. All the people of Munich were invited to be a part of the festivities that were held over five days on the fields in front of the city gates.
The celebration was so successful that the people of Bavaria kept it going annually, and expanded the festivities to become more elaborate over the years. By 1818, a carousel and swings were set up along with festival games like tree climbing competitions, wheelbarrow and barrel rolling races, eating contests, and goose chases.
After the industrial revolution ended in 1848, mechanical rides became an exciting new feature, and just years later, Germany welcomed the country’s very first roller coaster at Oktoberfest. Around this time, the city of Munich also began allowing beer on the fairgrounds, with jury-rigged brew stands popping up. The numbers increased rapidly, that by 1896 these stands were eventually replaced by beer halls, which were sponsored by local breweries.
Because October weather in Munich was (and still is) a bit unpredictable, the dates of Oktoberfest were changed to begin in September, allowing the chance for more favorable conditions. Today, it runs for 16 days, starting in mid-September, kicking off on the chosen date at noon inside the oldest beer tent (at Oktoberfest) called Schottenhamel. The mayor of Munich ceremoniously taps the first keg and shouts “O’zapft!”, or “It’s tapped!”, which signals the beginning of draught pouring and doesn’t stop until the last day.
More about traditional Oktoberfest beers
All the beers served at Oktoberfest come from just six breweries in Munich, which in essence supports local business and sustains the local economy. The list of breweries includes Hacker Pschorr, Hofbräu, Paulaner, Spaten, Lowenbrau, and Augustiner, all of whom serve their draughts in one-liter krugs, also known as steins. Each of their specialty Oktoberfest beers are brewed according to strict German standards (called the Reinheitsgebot) that outlines the only four ingredients that are allowed: barley, hops, malt, and yeast. That makes it not so different from how many organic beers are created, using as little (and most pure) ingredients as possible. But for those that can’t digest barley and yeast, the following list also includes a host of gluten-free options you can bring to the party, too.
Certified organic beers
While organic beer is made from the exact same ingredients listed above, what sets it apart is the fact that the crops aren’t grown on farms that use pesticides and chemicals to speed up the process. Rather certified organic beers are all-natural, so you can be sure your selection is high quality. Here is just a short list of organic brewmasters.
Known for its motto, “Be natural, drink naked,” this brewery was founded in 1995 in Fortuna, California. By 1999, Eel River Brewing Company became pioneers as America’s very first certified organic brewery. They offer several tasty varieties (like the Organic California Blonde Ale and Organic Acai Berry Wheat Ale), all with a mission to provide quality products while also protecting the environment.
The family-owned Pinkus Muller brewery from Westphalia, Germany traces its roots back to 1816, although it hasn’t always been producers of organic beer. That happened in 1980 when they made a permanent switch and said “no more” to the use of chemicals in their crops. The Pinkus Muller Munster Alt (meaning “ale” or “old” in German) is just one of their specialities.
Located in Chico, California, this brewery calls itself “the official beer of planet Earth.” Butte Creek carries all types of organic draughts throughout the entire year, such as pale ales, porters, and pilsners. Their seasonal Spring Run Organic Pale Ale also comes with an added benefit—a portion of the proceeds is donated to Chinook salmon restoration efforts.
Peak Organic Brew Co. was founded in the 1990s by friends living in Portland, Maine and began with a series of homebrews using ingredients sourced from local farms. Not only do selections like the Evergreen IPA taste good, but the company’s commitment to posting “peak moment” photos from consumers is also do-good.
While Samuel Smith is known for having a popular Nut Brown Ale and equally appealing Imperial Stout, this English brewery also makes great organic beers, which get their full-bodied taste from fermentation inside stone Yorkshire squares (made from solid slabs of slate). Samuel Smith also opts for the same strain of yeast that was used in the 19th century for more authentic taste and less processed ingredients.
Based out of Milwaukee, Wisconsin since 1997, this organic microbrewery has a few specialities among its long list of beers: One is an organic British-style Extra Special Bitter (ESB) and another is a Celiac-friendly, gluten-free brew. Lakefront was also notably at the heart of the debate several years ago over the USDA allowing non-organic hops to be used in organic beers, and effectively helped reverse that policy.
Gluten-reduced and gluten-free beers
More and more people today have developed Celiac disease or a gluten intolerance, which means that they can’t digest gluten (a protein found in wheat-based products). Though wheat is a huge component of traditional beers, there are plenty of providers that have come along to offer gluten-reduced and gluten-free options; even some completely gluten-free breweries have started to pop up across the nation. Here are just some of the bottles you can choose from.
This amber gold lager is British Columbia’s very first gluten-free beer, which is made from safe ingredients like rice and sorghum. Whistler Brewing calls it “hop forward and full of character, with a lightly floral aroma, complimented by Bravo and Saaz-style hops.”
To combat the “mutiny on gluten,” New Belgium crafted the Glutiny Pale Ale, which has a special enzyme that breaks down the wheat protein to greatly diminish its presence (though note, this is a reduced-gluten beer, and not gluten-free). This year-round option has “a hefty dose of exotic Equinox hops, lending breezy guava, papaya, and stone fruits to a wash of sweet, slightly herbal malt flavors.”
Indian Pale Ales, or IPAs, are the staple product at Stone Brewery, where brewmasters are constantly experimenting with new hops combinations to create intense flavor profiles. Their newest bottle, Stone Delicious, lives up to its name by providing tart, citrusy notes with a hint of lemon. It’s also one of the company’s first gluten-reduced beers.
As opposed to having one or two specialty beers, this brewery is dedicated to making sure every beer they sell is naturally gluten-free, also not allowing any wheat-based items inside their facility located in Portland, Oregon. Ground Breaker prides itself on brewing, bottling, and distributing solely gluten-free beer nationwide, which makes it the perfect choice for those with Celiac disease or a severe gluten intolerance.
Photo credit: Alicia Cho