Ask Kate About Beer: What are Oktoberfest beers, really?

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Welcome to Ask Kate About Beer, in which The Takeout’s resident beer expert answers everything you’ve ever wanted to know about beer but were too drunk to ask. Have a question? Shoot it to beer@thetakeout.com


Hey Kate,

Did you realize that marzen, Oktoberfest, and festbier are three different styles of beers? I did not. I thought they were used somewhat interchangeably, but now I wonder whether that’s even correct?

Thanks,
Nick

Hey Nick,

American brewers are known to take liberties with beer styles, as anyone who’s drank an IPA or stout in the past 20 years knows. Oktoberfest beers, though, seem like they should be based on some archetypal German beer, and thus should all relatively conform to similar standards. Ha, wouldn’t that be easy!

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Parsing Oktoberfest beers requires not only an understanding of the beer served at the Oktoberfest in Munich, but a subsequent examination of how American brewers have toyed with those styles. We’ll start with a brief history, then speed up to present day. If there’s any framework to keep in mind as time-travel, it’s this: Oktoberfest beer has specific meaning in Germany, but stateside, interpretations are much more… fluid.

“In America, you can call anything anything you want. You can call a dog a cat, doesn’t make it a cat,” Will Kemper, brewmaster at lager-focused Bellingham, Washington brewery Chuckanut, tells The Takeout. “If we talk about the actual Munich Oktoberfest, that’s a different animal.”

Munich Oktoberfest didn’t even begin as a beer festival. The event that would later become Oktoberfest took place in Munich in 1810 and celebrated the marriage of Crown Prince Ludwig and Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen. (I assume they decided against hyphenating their last names.) The couple threw a party in a meadow near the city gates and invited pretty much any Bavarian person who wanted to attend. Naturally, the party was a hit. To this day, Germans don’t say “We’re going to Oktoberfest,” they say “We’re going to the meadow.”

“Everybody had such a good time that it was decided they’d do it again the next year, and it kept happening year after year,” Martin Virga, brewmaster at Gunpowder Falls in Shrewsbury Township, Pennsylvania, who studied brewing in Germany, tells The Takeout.

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Along the way, it became codified that the only breweries who could serve beer at Oktoberfest were the six breweries then within the city limits of Munich: Spaten-Franziskaner, Hacker-Pschorr, Hofbrau Munchen, Augustiner, Lowenbrau, and Paulaner. Other breweries opened since these rules were enacted, but they’re still shut out of the official Munich festivities.

“It’s like the Mafia,” Virga says.

Traditional German brewing is highly regionalized, with local breweries in an area all making roughly the same style of beer. For Oktoberfest, all of Munich’s original six breweries brewed what we’d now call a märzen: a rich, toasty amber lager made with top-of-the-line malts. But as the Oktoberfest party grew and grew, the breweries began to realize that such an expensive and time-consuming beer wasn’t ideal to serve to the masses.

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“Also, taste trends started to change. A true märzen is a very malty, full-bodied beer and it’s in the economic best interest of everyone involved at Oktoberfest to get everyone to drink as much as possible,” Virga says.

So, breweries tinkered with their recipes a bit and came up with a style often referred to now as festbier. Festbier is lighter in color and body, with less malt richness and a lower alcohol content. It’s still a flavorful beer with malt sweetness, but it’s much easier to drink. If this helps paint the picture: It’s a style intended to be consumed by the liter.

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Though breweries began lightening their recipes earlier, by 1990, the official Oktoberfest style had officially shifted to festbier rather than märzen.

“Recently, if you go to Oktoberfest, there’s not a märzen there these days,” Kemper says.

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We just jumped from 1810 to 1990 in a couple paragraphs, and now we’ll jump to 2019. Today, American breweries brew Oktoberfest beers that run the gamut from märzens to festbiers to even other types of amber- or gold-colored lagers. While it rankles the lager purists, these days, you can find many types of fall lagers bearing Oktoberfest labels. (Virga was especially bothered by a recent label he saw that read “festbeer.”)

“Once you get here to the U.S., that’s where we tend to summarize things. That’s where a lot of people’s notions are at: Oktoberfest beer is kind of orangey, clear, tasty beer for the fall,” Xandre Nicolson, head brewer at Idle Hands Craft Ales in Malden, Massachusetts, tells The Takeout. “It’s difficult to know exactly what you’re getting being an American consumer picking up a six pack of an Oktoberfest beer. It might be way too dark or way too pale for you, depending on what you’re expecting.”

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If you’re in a brewery or beer bar where you can ask questions about how light or dark or strong the Oktoberfest beer is, that should get you the information you need. And if you’re checking out Oktoberfest lagers at the grocery store, many breweries are starting to give some indication on their cans or bottles of whether their lagers lean more toward the festbier or märzen side of the spectrum.

At the very least, you’ll know you’re getting a loosely German-inspired lager brewed for the fall. Whether it’s as delicious as the beer first consumed in that Munich meadow 200 years ago, no one alive can say for certain.

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About the author

Kate Bernot

Kate Bernot is managing editor at The Takeout and a certified beer judge.