Likely, Oktoberfest was the world’s first officially sanctioned beer bust, originating from the German custom of finishing the last spring beer set aside for consumption during the summer months when it was too hot to brew beer.
The final beers were brewed in March and called Märzenbier. They were a fair measure stronger to store better (usually in caves) during the warmer months when wild yeasts were in the air, which would wreak havoc with fermentation in the days before refrigeration.
By late September things would cool down, and people would gather to down the last remaining stocks of Märzen, also called Festbier at this point and, well, go blotto.
This is the origin of today’s Oktoberfest celebrations and, while there is a story of some Bavarian king who officially sanctioned a festival in honor of his daughter getting married, you’re likely not going to remember this past at your first Oktoberfest celebration.
I personally prefer the history as it relates to beer, and as a good excuse to get rid of existing beer before a fresh batch is brewed.
Modern refrigeration techniques have killed the need for these customs, and fresh, cold beer is available year-round. Accordingly, the Festbier these days are a pale (literally) imitation of the slightly darker, stronger and sweeter beers of centuries gone by.
In fact, most of the beer consumed at Germany’s many Oktoberfest celebrations these days is virtually indistinguishable from everyday brew. But everyone loves a party.
Oktoberfest Celebrations in Japan
Fortunately, the custom of Oktoberfest has recently shifted into high gear in Japan. Virtually any German-themed beer joint will have some sort of event in October, though in Germany the action starts from late September.
My favorite Oktoberfest event nowadays is the one in Yokohama, which usually lasts about 10 days each year. This year it runs for 11 days, from Friday, Oct. 3, to Monday, Oct. 13 (a national holiday). While German beers of various types will be served, the real bargains are the Japanese craft beers from a handful of small breweries, and typically priced quite a few hundred yen lower than the German imports.
The stage features a continuous parade of live music, mostly from German musicians brought over for the event, while the audience erupts into a long line of snake dancing from time to time.
Also watch out for the large-ish group of wheat beer fans (I call them the Weizen-heimers) which can be expected to make an appearance on weekends, donning their huge Dr. Seuss-looking Bavarian hats and quaffing an enormous communal glass of cloudy Weizen, a popular German wheat beer. No doubt about it; when it comes to Oktoberfest, the denizens of Yokohama really know how to party.
This Japan Oktoberfest series also features an event in Shimizu, Shizuoka, Sept. 11-15.
Shimizu is just a hop across Suruga Bay from Numazu, home of Baird Beer and a likely location for an Oktoberfest event. However, in typical Baird fashion, events are often announced only a week or two ahead of time. It is best to keep an eye on their Website or sign up for their newsletter.
Gotemba Kogen Beer, up in the mountains near Mt. Fuji, is another location that has a great Oktoberfest party, serving up huge quantities of their Pilsener, Weizen and Schwarzbier.
At the International Summer Solstice Beer Party this year, GKB brews were joined by five kinds of ales from Speakeasy Brewery in San Francisco, much to the delight of hoppy beer fans.
I expect something similar this year for Oktoberfest, though no formal announcements have been made. Still, keep your eye on their website at www.gotembakogenresort.jp.
If you’re lucky, you may be able to join a short tour of their on-site microbrewery, led my Scott Brimmer, one of the master brewers who formerly brewed at Sierra Nevada Brewing in California. And if you want to mix in a little golf, ask for Bennett Galloway, the man to talk to about the many courses in the area.
Other suggestions for your own little Oktoberfest at authentic German-style breweries in Japan include Bayern Meister Beer on the south slope of Mt. Fuji (www.bmbier.com) and Otaru Beer in Hokkaido (www.otarubeer.com). Both make superb beer in various German styles.
Oktoberfest in Pubs
If you can’t make it to one of the Oktoberfest celebrations, don’t worry; you can have a great time at one of these German-style pubs and restaurants:
Bernd’s Bar (Roppongi, (03) 5563-9232) is all about hospitality, German beer and German food in generous portions.
Ex (Roppongi, (03) 3408-5487) Also German-run, it is a smaller place but with food in even larger portions, served with legendary friendliness.
Kandagasse (Akihabara, (03) 3254-1339) A surprisingly cozy slice of Germany amid Tokyo’s most massive electronics bazaar.
Tanne (Yoyogi, (03) 3373-6888) has a large variety of beers, with German varieties well represented.
Zum Einhorn (Roppongi 1-chome, (03) 5563-9240) is one of the nicest German restaurants in town, with a small but well-chosen selection of German brews to complement their first-rate German food.
Franziskaner Café is a chain of German pubs run by Zato Shokai, with a growing number of places in Tokyo. Web: www.zato.co.jp
Mugishutei (Sapporo, (011) 512-4774) is Japan’s oldest “world beer” selection bar, open since 1980. Over the years, it has transformed into a microbrew paradise.
Loreley (Osaka, (06) 6341-0043) It doesn’t get any more German than this; a paradise of German food and beer operated by Rolf Kuchman in the heart of Dojima in Osaka.
Sapporo Kobe Taishikan Brewery (Kobe, (078) 334-3146) is an actual small brewery, run by Sapporo, in the basement of a building that houses four floors of German-style beer halls and restaurants in typical Showa-era over-the-top fashion. Open daily from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Beer Riese (Kagoshima, (099) 227-0088) Although the name suggests Germany, a wide range of beers are offered in this bar, located smack in the Tenmonkan entertainment district. Owner Hiromi Ueno is a TV camerawoman by day and attracts a lot of customers working in the media and creative industries. Open 6 p.m. until 3 a.m. daily.