Here at last is the first of my series describing some of the many styles of beer out there, with some of the readily available examples of each style. I plan to update these pages as I find new, worthy beers. I also plan to do an article on pumpkin beer. Really.
The first Oktoberfest commemorated the wedding of Bavaria's Crown Prince Ludwig and Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen in 1810. The wedding took place on October 12, and was commemorated with a horse race on the 17th. Except for the following year, when the land was troubled by some pest named Napoleon, Munich has put on what became called Oktoberfest ever since.
The date has slid forward on the calendar to accommodate the weather and harvest, and now runs for 16 days, ending the first Sunday of October (unless the first Sunday is the 1st or 2nd of the month, then it takes in German Reunification Day on the 3rd).
Beer, and food for that matter, were not served at the Oktoberfest celebration until 1818. The beer served at that time before Pilseners would have been in various styles. Brewing was difficult in the hot summer months, with a greater risk of infection, and before filtering or pasteurization. A specific style for Oktoberfest was started in 1872 by Spaten brewer Josef Sedlmayr. With Anton Dreher of Vienna, he introduced a malty, slightly dark beer based on the amber-colored Vienna lager. The beer was known as Märzen, because it was brewed in March and lagered in cellars and caves until Oktoberfest time. The maltier grain bill made this "festbier" slightly higher in alcohol (6% by volume) than regular table beers. Today, only the brewers still based in Munich: Spaten, Augustiner, Hacker-Pschorr, Hofbrau, Löwenbräu, and Paulaner, are allowed to sell beer at the Munich Oktoberfest. Other brewers like G. Schneider, which specializes of wheat beers, used to sell at Oktoberfest, but lost the right when their Munich facilities were destroyed in WWII.
What to Expect: A traditional Oktoberfest beer will be darker than the usual lager, running gold to amber to almost orange. As a German lager, though, expect it to smell clean, with no fruitiness. Instead, a strong "beer" smell and some noticeable hop bitterness. Taste should be maltier, maybe a bit grainy, but not sweet, as it should have a dry finish. Some residual yeast character may appear, but not if it's been fully lager conditioned. German style noble hops will balance out the maltiness and may lend an earthy or peppery note, but should stay in the background. Finish can be clean and dry as a standard American lager, but some sweetness or hop on the lips is fine.
Note: Since the 1990's, many of the Munich Oktoberfest brewers have been making their beers progressively paler to match the current taste for pale, pale lagers. The Beer Judge Certification Program has spun this into a new style called "Festbier," which tracks closer to the "Helles" style of light lager. Don't be disappointed if you can't tell these Oktoberfest beers from the usual Heineken.
Favorite Oktoberfest Beers:
Argus Holsteiner Lager: I always seem to find my Argus beers fresh on tap, which helps my impression of them. Nice malty smell, golden brown color. Taste is rich and sweet, but not overly roasted or sugary, just a light caramel touch. Unexpected bit of esters at the finish. 5.4%
Baderbräu Oktoberfest: Light amber color. Smell is malty, a little bit sweet, and a slight note of bitter hops around the edge. Sweet Vienna malts held in check by a German hop note. 5.1%
Berghoff Oktoberfest: One of their reformulated beers contract brewed at Stevens Point. Malty smell that comes through in the taste, but it also carries an impression of salt, maybe there's some calcium or sodium in the water profile? But the malt is fuller to make up for it, and the hops are lighter as befits the style. 5.6%
BuckleDown Oktoberfest: Pours big, slightly amber head. Warming smell of Vienna malts. Taste is big on malts with a slightly caramel roast. It takes a while for the hop note to build, but there it is, just a slight note of Noble hop pepper, and enough bitterness to "dry off" the sweetness. Hearty taste, but also easy drinking. 5.2%
Burnt City Oktoberfest: I first had this on tap in 2012 when they started as Atlas Brewing. I won't try to compare the Burnt City canned edition to my notes from years ago. Just say the current version is a light amber color. The smell suggests the soft water profile of a Pilsener. That Pils impression is in the taste, too (and in an aftertaste), but the malt is also a bit bigger than a pale lager, and peppery German hops coat the tongue. 5.4%
Goose Island Fest Bier: A fresh German lager smell under the cap, and an amber Oktoberfest color. Taste is nicely malted with Crystal malt toast. Peppery German hops put a bit of bite on the back of the palate. Part of the character of most Goose beers is a touch of wheat malt, and, I think, the same water profile as the original Honkers Ale. 5.7%.
Pollyanna Fruhauf: Deep amber Oktoberfest color, smell is toasty caramel roast malt, with no phenol distractions. Despite its low 23 ibu, the first taste has a surprising hop bite. Both peppery and a bit earthy. I'd say it's a bit too hearty and filling to be swigged by the litre at an Oktoberfest biergarten. Instead, it's a malty autumnal beer for enjoying on its own. 5.4%
Revolution Oktoberfest: Malty caramel smell of Vienna and crystal malt fits right in with the profile. The can I'm tasting for this is only six weeks old, but it's already going a bit phenolic. Maybe that's because of the long lagering, or the German Magnum and Hersbruker hops which are claimed to be earthy.
Solemn Oath Oktöberface: Deep coppery beer with a big malt smell, but a slightly grassy fresh hop nose. Taste is a bit grainy, and green hops also stick to the palate. 6%
Three Floyds Munsterfest: Named not for Herman and Lily, but the town where it's made. The Floyds are known for their extreme, way hoppy beers, but this one hews pretty closely to style, clocking in at a respectable 5.5% abv, and with straightforward German hops. 5.7%
Rock Bottom Rocktoberfest: Though this is a special at all Rock Bottom brewpubs across the country, each location's brewmaster has some latitude in their recipe. I've enjoyed the versions by Pete Crowley at State & Grand, and Tim Marshall at Yorktown (Lombard), but each location should have a personal twist on the beer.
Two Brothers Atom Smasher: One of the Bros. beers aged in their oak foudres (fermenting vessels). A note of apple juice when placed within "nose shot." Closer in, I smell the Vienna malt, and an edge of yeast. Deep malts, tending more toward sweet than hoppy. A note of spice and yeast; likely a few bugs coming in from those wooden aging barrels. Toasted biscuit and traces of roast squash. 7.7%
I have to give a shout-out to Goose Island's original Oktoberfest, which was malty, toasty, and a little bit smoky, and the label showed their goose mascot in a German feathered hat, looking a lot like Chicago TV icon Garfield Goose. No one will confirm this for me, but I figured they had to drop it in the years before the AB/InBev buyout because they did not have capacity to age any lagered beers. Their Pils was dropped at about the same time. They recently returned the Oktoberfest in an anniversary bottle, but they've also done a Harvest Ale, and in 2017 the Fest Bier, as well as a Keller Märzen, brewed at the Spaten works in Germany and sold mostly on tap.
Other Oktoberfest Beers Available here:
Avery The Kaiser Imperial Oktoberfest: Yes, if there's a style, someone has made an "Imperial" version of it. Deep copper color, almost like ancient amber with extinct species of insects trapped in it. Pours a thick German head that leaves a big rime around the glass. Tastes strong, can get mediciny, but reminiscent of fine caramels. Each year's edition is slightly different, but can clock in at up to 10% abv.
Samuel Adams Octoberfest: Yes, the spelling bugs me, but this has been one of their better and more consistent beers. Toasty autumnal malts, and German spicy hop notes among prickly carbonation. Some complexity owed to blending different roasts of barley. 5.3%
Sierra Nevada/Miltenberger Oktoberfest: Each year Sierra Nevada collaborates with a different German brewer on an Oktoberfest beer. The 2017 version was made with small Bavarian Brauhaus Faust zu Miltenberg. Color is more brassy, between yellow lager and copper Oktoberfest. Sturdy, puffy head. Malty smell with a little more amber toast than the color suggests. Taste is nicely malty, no phenol or smoke, but “crisp”. Hops provide some prickly bitterness with the bubble. I suspect a larger concentration of Noble hops than is normal, maybe even some Cascade. I'm sitting on the porch with this in our 91°F September afternoon, and it is hitting just the right spots. This is the first time I’ve encountered SN’s Oktoberfest series, and I’m now sorry I missed the previous collaborations. 6.1%
Sprecher Oktoberfest: I found myself liking this beer when I first found it in 2003, maybe because it was first to show me the many variations a seemingly straightforward style could accommodate.
Since I have not actually been to Munich, these would be the "export" versions of these beers, which are sometimes brewed differently than what Munichers can get zu Haus.
Ayinger Oktober Fest-Märzen: One of the best-rated of the original Oktoberfest brewers' beers. Try to locate a fresh import bottle, and you'll find a lighter colored beer that pours a big frothy head. Drinks with slight stickiness, a hop balance that simply keeps the malts sensible, and again a bit of smoke. 5.8%.
Spaten Oktoberfest Ur-Märzen: Of the import Oktoberfests, this seems closest to the style in color. Dark maltiness is more accented by hops than other German Märzens. Interestingly, the German domestic version is lighter than this "export" beer. 5.9%.
Hofstetten Hochzeitsbier von 1810: This Austrian example claims to have been the recipe of the first Oktoberfest. Because it's served unfiltered, it's actually classified as a "Landbier." Brown color from extra Vienna malt, cloudy; lacy head. Darker than anything passed as an Oktoberfestbier. Rich, malty smell; very little roastiness, but a hearty malt smell with a bit of yeast. Sharp, spicy hop note. A very drinkable lager beer, just amped up in flavor without interference from big alcohol. 6.3%.