The beginning of September marks my favorite time of year for beer. As a fan of great lagers, it’s very hard to beat Oktoberfest beers. Here in the United States, the Märzen style, a brilliantly clear, amber colored beer, is the style most popular with breweries and also what is the majority of German Oktoberfest imports. We have also begun to see the darker, golden colored style, served at the actual Oktoberfest celebration in Germany, more frequently here. Every September (actually, in typical American style seasonal marketing creep, August), as the beers begin to hit the shelves, I like to grab a variety of them, blind taste test them to see if there are any that I prefer.
As I have written in a previous post, blind taste testing beers can be humbling. You can come into a tasting with some preconceived notions and come out amazed at how wrong some of them might have been. Nevertheless, it’s still a fun way to learn more about different beers, your preferences and expand your sensory knowledge. As an example, for me, I feel like I can pick German made versions out pretty easily versus local ones. One of the tell-tale signs of German beers is typically excellent head retention. This year I failed miserably. I had three German made Märzen beers intermingled with seven American ones. I only picked out one correctly – Paulaner. The primary reason for my swing in miss was Highland and Yuengling had great head retention while Ayinger did not have it’s typical retention characteristic. Maybe that says more about the quality of the American made ones improving so much this year. At least, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it!
For this years group I sampled the following: Ayinger (Germany), Dry Country (GA), Highland Brewing (NC), Hofbrau (Germany), New Realm (GA), Paulaner (Germany), Samuel Adams (MA), Sierra Nevada (CA), Tucker Brewing (GA), Warsteiner (Germany), Weihenstephaner (Germany), and Yuengling (PA). Hacker-Pschorr (Germany) is another excellent Märzen I typically have in this mix; however, it was not on the shelves at the time of my purchases. The Hofbrau and Weihenstephaner were golden Festbier versions, so I compared them separately, as they would be easy to pick out visually with a group of Märzens. This was a really good group, not a bad one in the bunch and the domestic versions held their own versus the German ones. Without any further ado, the following are my Top Five for 2020:
Compared to most craft beer breweries, Samuel Adams is a behemoth, but the Brewers Association still classifies it as “craft”. Despite it’s size, Samuel Adams still put out product consistent, tasty lagers day in and day out. Made from four different malts and Tettnang Tettnanger and Hallertau Mittelfrueh hops, this year’s Octoberfest was quite good and on par for Samuel Adam’s consistency. A full bodied and a clear, dark amber color it produces a nice fluffy head with good retention. It exhibited some nice toasty aromas and flavors that most of the others did not, which set it apart and made it enjoyable to drink. This is a solid choice and readily available in most package stores and bottle shops.
Tucker Brewing Company is one of my favorite local Atlanta breweries because they focus on making classic German style beers. Last year, I thought Tucktoberfest Märzen was the best locally made Oktoberfest beer. This year, while it was very close between and New Realm Brewing Bavarian Prince, Tucktoberfest still edged it out. It’s a medium amber color and pours to a fluffy off-white head exhibiting moderate retention. Similar to Samuel Adams Octoberfest, what separated it from most of the others was toasty aroma and flavor accompanying floral ones. With a medium body, low bitterness and a 5.4% ABV, it drinks soft and smooth, making it well suited for a celebratory occasion like Oktoberfest. No doubt, this one is a well crafted Oktoberfest Märzen style beer.
This is one that surprised me. Yuengling is another large American brewery where production size pushes the envelope on craft classification. They make some tasty amber lagers yet, I had low expectations. It turned out to be quite solid. Dark amber in appearance, it exhibited very good head retention (which made it one of the beer I mistook for a German made). It scored high marks for its floral aroma, medium body, a little bit of a creamy mouth-feel and nice balance between sweet malt backbone and hoppy bitterness. It drinks nice and smooth with a clean, dry finish. Good enough for No. 3 on my list. Like Samuel Adams, this one is pretty well supplied around the country and should be readily available near you.
When it comes to the Märzen style, I have a number of annual favorites. It’s such a drinkable style of beer. One of those favorites I look forward to each year is Highland Brewing’s Clawhammer Oktoberfest. This years’ version was as good as ever. It pours a dark amber color and had the best looking head and retention of all the ones I tried – including the Germans. It shows off some nice complexity to the malt backbone. Full bodied, Hallertau Mittelfrueh and Spalt Select hops give it subtle floral aromas and spicy flavor plus a touch of bitterness to give it some balance. A clean lager profile and dry finish complete the overall picture. Highland describes it as well-rounded and it lives up to that description.
When it comes to great beers, there are none better that those made in Germany. It’s not surprise that a German made Märzen landed at the top of my list; but I am a little surprised it was Paulaner Oktoberfest. Not because it has not been top notch in the past, I’ve just consistently picked Ayinger Oktober Fest-Märzen as my favorite. Really, the head retention on the Ayinger was not up to their typical standards and it seemed a bit more thin than the past. Regardless Paulaner checks all my important boxes: Appearance, Aroma, Flavor, Mouth-Feel, and Overall enjoyment. Great head retention, complex malt characteristics, floral aroma, and spicy flavor wrapped in a balanced, well-rounded malt backbone make this beer special. It exhibits the hallmark of excellent Oktoberfest beers; it continues to invite you to drink another, beer after tasty beer.
Festbiers can be sneaky beers for a drinking session. They are not as filling as Märzen, thus allowing consumption of multiple beers, yet they are generally higher in alcohol. One has to be quite cautious when sessioning with one of these. I had two Festbiers from Germany: Hofbrau Oktoberfestbier (6.3% ABV) and Weihenstephaner Festbier (5.8% ABV). Both of these are really great beers that are more golden and less sweet than the Märzen style versions. Between the two, Weihenstephaner won by a nose. It pours a brilliant, clear gold color with excellent head retention. Medium bodied, flavorful and tad bitter. I can see why this style is so popular at the real Oktoberfest celebration in Germany. It’s not hard to imagine yourself downing a Liter mug of one of these beauties and quickly reaching for another. It has a pleasing mouth-feel, is flavorful and immediately invites you to have another after you finish the previous one.
This year being the completely upside down, backwards year that it has become due to all the precautions put in place to combat the spread of COVID-19, the actual Oktoberfest celebration in Germany, as well as, many here in the United States, have been cancelled. This year, more so than any, you’ll have to bring the celebration home with you. Finding the right Märzen/Festbier to have on hand will make a difference. Hopefully my roundup will help you find the right choice. Have some fun and set up your own blind taste test. I’m certain you’ll be surprised at your preferrences.
Thanks for reading and until next time…Let Us Drink Beer!