For many beer lovers, this time of year is our favorite time of year. August unofficially starts the Oktoberfest beer season, even though the actual festival doesn’t happen until September, as these seasonal favorites start reaching retail shelves. I live in North Georgia, and we have the distinction of having one of the longest running Oktoberfest celebrations in the U.S. in nearby Helen, GA. Helen was a sleepy little mountain town until 1969 when some of the local businessmen and a local artist decided to turn it into a replica of a Bavarian village. A lot of people scoff at it as nothing but a tourist trap, but it has become Georgia’s third most visited city. Personally, I think it’s fun and the best way to experience Oktoberfest without leaving the country. What is it about Oktoberfest that makes it many beer enthusiasts their favorite time of year for beer? Simply put some of the most drinkable, enjoyable beers are made for this time of year. In the United States, the delectable amber Märzen style beer has become the most popular beer consumed for Oktoberfest celebrations around the country. You can get versions imported directly from Germany, domestic ones made by some of the best craft breweries in the country or very fresh versions on tap at your local craft beer brewery. In the Southeastern U.S., it is still quite hot in late August well into September. As the weather starts to moderate, we get some spectacular days that are great for sitting out in a beer garden or cooking out at your tailgate party drinking a tasty beer and socializing with friends and family.
Oktoberfest beer can be quite confusing. It’s easy for American’s to assume that beer served in Munich for the real Oktoberfest celebration is a malty, amber colored version know as Märzen we see so prevalent here. Even versions imported from Germany are the amber Märzen. However, you’ll run across versions like Weihenstephaner Festbier or Hofbrau Oktoberfest that are a more of golden color, similar to a Helles with a higher alcohol content. To help clear things up, I contacted U.K. based beer writer Mark Dredge. Dredge is a veteran of Oktoberfest celebrations in Munich and recently published the book A Brief History of Lager. What follows is some of the finer points of what Mark explained to me.
The first thing to understand about Oktoberfest beer is that it was really more about the time of year the beer was brewed than any particular style. That’s where the descriptor Märzen or March beer comes from. It was beer brewed in March. Lagered (cold stored) from April until it was tapped in September for Oktoberfest. The original Oktoberfest beer was actually a dark beer or Dunkel. Then Josef Sedlmayr introduced a “lighter” colored beer n the 1870’s, which was the amber colored beer we are more familiar with in the U.S. today. There are some records of a paler colored beer being served as early as 1890’s; however, Paulaner is generally credited with popularizing the modern version when it introduced it’s pale, golden beer in the 1970’s that eventually became the dominant style. This beer is a stronger version of Helles and is referred to as Oktoberfestbier in Munich and Festbier outside of Munich. That being said, ANY beer served at Oktoberfest in Munich can be called Oktoberfestbier, even an amber version. Clear as mud, right?
Let’s narrow things down to beer for the U.S. market. Most U.S. based breweries are finally starting to settle into a consistent naming of Oktoberfest beers. What you will find is, most breweries will name their amber Oktoberfest beer an “Oktoberfest Märzen “, “Festbier Märzen” or “Märzen Beer ( Märzenbier)”. Therefore, most U.S. breweries will let you know theirs is the amber version. Märzen in the U.S. can best be described as a malt forward amber lager with toasty and bready malt flavor, restrained bitterness and a finish that is dry and inviting. There are a handful that make the pale golden, stronger Helles version and they will typically call it a “Festbier”. This beer can be described as a pale, malt forward lager with light toast or bread dough-like flavor and light hop character. It has a medium body, restrained bitterness and finish that encourages you to have that next mug.
The Märzen style has been overwhelmingly popular in the U.S. market and no one really knows exactly why. The best explanation I’ve heard is, because the craft beer market has popularized more rare styles over the typical pale American mass produced lager, Märzen is more popular because of its bigger flavors. But, the Festbier style is starting to catch on a bit. The cancellation of Oktoberfest in Munich for the second year in a row due to the COVID-19 pandemic has brought more actual Munich Oktoberfestbier (Festbier) style to the U.S. This is the first time I’ve seen Paulaner Oktoberfest Bier (golden strong Helles) on the shelves in Atlanta. Paulaner normally ships over their Oktoberfest Märzen. Hofbrau’s Oktoberfestbier and Weihenstephaner Festbier are some of the few of the golden strong Helles style I typically see in my area and they tend to disappear fast.
So what are some of the best Oktoberfest Märzens and Festbiers to look for this year. Needless to say, the imported German versions are always terrific. My personal favorite is imported Märzens is Ayinger Oktober Fest-Märzen and Hacker-Pschorr Oktoberfest Märzen. I had Paulaner’s Oktoberfest Bier for the first time this year and it is amazing how drinkable it is at 6% ABV. I highly recommend that one, if you can find it, and Weihenstephaner Festbier, which I never let a season go by without grabbing some of it. Locally here in Georgia, Arches Brewing Märzen Bier, Tucker Tucktoberfest (Märzen), and New Realm Bavarian Prince (Märzen) are some of the best in Georgia. Outside of Georgia, I am certain you can find some well crafted Märzens in your region. Victory Brewing (PA) Festbier Märzen and Highland Brewing (NC) Claw Hammer Märzen are two I try to make sure to purchase every fall. That’s one of the nice things about this time of year, many craft beer breweries temporarily turn their focus from hop monsters and sours, to these highly drinkable beer styles meant to be shared enjoyed with others. Prost!
Thanks for reading, until next time…Let Us Drink Beer!
Remember, always drink responsibly.