It’s the first week of September; there was a slight chill in the air last week though it’s in the 90s today, and there are too many damn pumpkin beers on the shelf. Pumpkin beers seem to be the new official beer of fall, but long before pumpkin beers became famous in America Germans were having a fall festival with its own style of beer, Oktoberfest.
History of the event
Bavarian King Maximilian Joseph held a 2-day festival for the 1810 wedding of his son, Crown Prince Ludwig and Princess Therese. Besides plenty of food and beer for the entire town, there were also horse races. The event ended up being so popular that it became a yearly tradition.
I mention the horse races because what American’s see of Oktoberfest is people with giant steins sitting at long tables in massive tents, some that hold up to 6,000 people. The horse races at the wedding celebration were the first form of entertainment which has grown into a fairground amusement park with roller coasters.
While the wedding was on October 13th and 14th they’ve since moved the event forward a few weeks into the last two weeks of September, mostly due to weather. It’s still nice to be drinking outside in a tent in September… October, not so much.
While Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany attracts around 6 million people each year Oktoberfest Zinzinnati pulls in 500,000, making it the largest one in America and the third largest outside of German. Another fun fact about Cincinnati and Oktoberfest is that we’re home to the world’s largest producer of Oktoberfest beer with Sam Adams.
Märzen vs. Oktoberfest
The Oktoberfest style of beer we think of in America isn’t as historically linked to the event as we might like to believe. According to The Oxford Companion to Beer “In the first 60 or so years the then popular Bavarian Dunkel seems to have dominated the festival.” Dunkel ran out one year and they started pouring an 8% Vienna style lager which was a hit and hung around until World War 1. The strength began to vary after that, finally settling down to around 6%.
Starting in 1990 the beer served at Oktoberfest changed from the reddish-brown strong Vienna lager to a golden and slightly sweet beer. The 2015 BJCP style guidelines recognized this difference and created two styles: Märzen and Festbier.
This is the beer you think of when you think Oktoberfest. This is what was poured at Germany’s Oktoberfest up until the 90s.
Märzen is German for March which is the month this beer is brewed in. In the 1500s, brewers were not allowed to brew between April 23rd and September 29th. They didn’t have refrigeration then so the hot summer months would infect the beers with unwanted microbes. The beers of March were brewed stronger then stored in caves during the summer.
Märzens are malt forward beers focusing on toasty and bready flavors. The hop notes IPA lovers crave should be nearly non-existent. Same goes for the roasted malts you’d get out of a stout. These are beers meant to showcase malt, nothing else. Visually we’re looking for a rich coppery amber with great clarity and a strong off-white head. Your tongue gets treated to a smooth medium body and medium carbonation.
This is what’s served at Germany’s Oktoberfest today.
Festbiers falls short of a Märzen but more complex than a Helles. It’s a German lager with stronger malt flavors and light hoping. The toasty malts are still there, but less so than in Märzen. While the malt goes down the hops go up with an increased presence of noble hop notes (floral, herbal, and spicy flavors/aromas). While Märzens are reddish Festbiers are golden.
Why do I keep saying Festbier and not Oktoberfest? The European Union is big on regulations and appellations. Only breweries inside of Munich, Germany are allowed to use the name Oktoberfestbier. Luckily EU regulations don’t apply in America so American craft brewers can call their beers whatever they want.
Favorite Examples of Style
Most breweries in town don’t make an Oktoberfest-style beer, but here are a few locals to try. Rhinegeist Franz is in cans and on draft across most of the city. I haven’t had Franz this year, but remember it being a decent beer last year. Moerlein has Fifth & Vine available in bottles at every grocery store across the area, it’s a good Oktoberfest, but not great. Taft’s Ale House launched their Oktoberfest last week, it’s only available there, but I found it was a very good beer with strong toasted malt flavors and a great finish.
I always think of Sam Adams as quasi-local. They produce more Oktoberfest beer than anyone else in the world and they do most of that here in Cincinnati. This one will be available nearly everywhere in almost any package you could wish. Like most Sam Adams beers, it’s good and stylistically accurate, but not mind-blowing.
Further afield is Great Lakes Oktoberfest which in years past has been my favorite example of the style. That changed this year with the release of Sierra Nevada/Brauhaus Riegele’s collaboration Oktoberfest. This beer really knocks it out of the park. Both the Great Lakes and the Sierra Nevada will be available wherever great beer is sold. Venturing back to the fatherland Paulaner Oktoberfest, Hacker-Pschorr Original Oktoberfest, and Ayinger Oktoberfest-Märzen are all top picks.
If you’re looking for a fall seasonal beer that doesn’t involve gourds hit your local better beer store and try a few of the examples above. If you’re looking to try these beers and have a great time in a massive crowd then head downtown September 18th – 20th for Oktoberfest Zinzinnati.