Welcome to Gateways To Drinkery, where The Takeout offers an entry-level course on our favorite libations, and some suggestions on where to start drinking them.
The lowdown: Oktoberfest isn’t a fixed beer style. It is a beer-centric party that has been held in Munich, Germany, mostly during September, for the past two centuries. Beer is brewed especially for that celebration and is often called “Oktoberfest beer,” but those beers can be in a variety of styles. Over the years the most popular style has shifted, with three general eras emerging: the early dunkel years, the märzen era, and the golden ’90s. All the official Oktoberfest beer comes from six different breweries that operate massive tents on the Munich Oktoberfest grounds (known as Theresienwiese), and the styles allowed are dictated by a city committee. Since 1990, that’s mostly been a golden lager with a moderated malt character, a modification that better allows participants to throw back liter after liter of beer for several weeks each fall. American versions of Oktoberfest beer are maltier and darker, hearkening back to the style served pre-1990.
The older version of Oktoberfest beer is also known as märzen, since it was originally brewed in March, as the last beer produced before warmer seasons made wild yeasts and bacteria too difficult to control for the fermentation process to be worthwhile. While few breweries age märzen for six months anymore (thank you, refrigeration!), the style is preferred by discerning drinkers for its complex malt flavor and long history. Although it was first served at Oktoberfest in 1872, the style began to emerge around 1841, when the Sedlmayr family started using more precise malt roasting techniques at the Spaten brewery in Munich.
The tradition of March beer is also found in Belgian brewing (Bière De Mars), though the resulting ales are very different from märzen lagers.
The taste: Just as September often feels like the best of summer and fall weather, märzen’s taste splits the difference between the mild, easy-drinking summer fare and the roasted flavors of fall. It’s bready, malty, and clean. But let’s be honest, these beers are not so much about the taste as the experience of drinking them. The more they help to extend the fest, the better. That’s why the dry, crisp finish and mild bitterness encourage continual drinking.
Possible gateway: The most highly regarded and widely available Oktoberfest beer in the U.S. this year is probably Sierra Nevada’s. The brewery has made a recent tradition of collaborating with German brewers on Oktoberfest beers, this year tapping Brauhaus Miltenberger for the honor. Bucking the tendency of American craft brewers of leaning toward the older märzen style, this is a festbier that’s lighter and less malty, in keeping with Munich’s preferred style for the past few decades.
Boston Beer Company’s Samuel Adams Octoberfest and Brooklyn Brewery’s Oktoberfest are also ubiquitous if you’re looking for an American interpretation of the märzen style. Finding export Oktoberfest beers from the Munich breweries who actually sell at the official celebration isn’t too hard either, so keep your eyes peeled for Augustiner, Hacker-Pschorr, Hofbräu, Löwenbräu, Paulaner, and Spaten at the liquor store.
Next steps: Beerwise your next step could be to seek out a notably brewed Oktoberfest beer, like Scratch Brewing’s märzen, which the brewery actually brewed in March and has lagered since then, just like in the olden days. You’ll have to visit its southern Illinois brewery to try that, though. A little easier to find is Two Brothers’ Atom Smasher, a slightly more alcoholic märzen lagered in oak vats called foudres, resulting in a smooth flavor with a hint of vanilla. Then there’s The Kaiser by Avery Brewing, an “Imperial Oktoberfest” touted for its intense malt flavor, heightening the standard toasted flavor and adding hints of caramel with 9.3 percent alcohol by volume. To some it hearkens back to doppelbock-style beer, which had a moment as an Oktoberfest favorite just before märzen took hold. Avery has actually discontinued this beer, but the final batch from 2016 is still in stores, so this is your last chance to try it.
Partywise, though, your next step is to don a dirndl or lederhosen and dance your heart out to a polka band at your local Oktoberfest celebration.
Talk like an expert: Early on you’ll want to yell “O’zapft is!” when the first keg is tapped. There will be plenty of “prost” once you’re drinking. And if you do it right, you’ll feel enough “gemütlichkeit” to last until next year.