Beer Break

Beer Break Vol. 2, No. 2
Oktoberfest beers

Oct. 11, 2001

Munich's Oktoberfest has come and gone, but American Oktoberfest celebrations continue at festivals and in brewpubs throughout the month (and sometimes beyond). And although Oktoberfest/Maerzen style beers are more widely available than they were a few years ago (and some are available all year), their arrival is always special.


It's a fine style, a little darker and hardier, for when the days and nights turn cooler. It suits lager drinkers who cherish the straightforward "clean" taste of a bottom-fermenting beer. It's a lager that those who usually favor ales appreciate because of its malt base and added complexity.

The first Oktoberfest beer can be traced to a Maerzen-style beer that was brewed for the Munich Oktoberfest in 1872, but the Vienna and Maerzen styles are much older. Those looking for a "true" Oktoberfest can be further confused because Munich's breweries now make a lighter colored beer to be served for the massive Oktoberfest festival.

That's one of the reasons that Michael Jackson has written it can be easier to find a traditional Oktobefest/Maerzen in the United States than in Germany. The medal winners in this year's Great American Beer Festival -- from Portland Brewing Co. in Oregon, Springfield brewing Co. in Ohio and Tabernash in Colorado -- are excellent examples of the style.

However, the GABF results also reveal why consumers may sometimes be confused about the style. Humperdinks/Big Horn Brewing in Dallas, Texas, won medals with beers call OKT-OBER-FEST and Freidobrau Oktoberfest, but the first was in the American-Style Amber Lager competition and the latter in American-Style Dark Lager.

Saint Arnold Brewing Co. in Houston medaled for the second straight year (always impressive) with Saint Arnold Oktoberfest, but that was in Scottish-Style Ales.

What are you likely to find in your local brewpub? Some pubs sell an "Oktoberfest" ale, using the Vienna and Munich malts you'd expect but not lager yeast (nor is the beer lagered at quite cold temperatures for six weeks or more like a true Oktoberfest). However, many pub brewers go out of their way to offer a true-to-style Maerzen since it will be one of only a few lagers they brew all year.

We've enjoyed some excellent Oktoberfest inspired ales, but prefer the traditional lagers. We expect a reddish hue and a distinctly malty and complex flavor. Rich is good and smooth is important. The hops shouldn't complicate the flavor, but if the level of bitterness they provide is too low the taste will be too sweet.

If you aren't sure what to look for, try one of the classics -- Paulaner Oktoberfest, Ayinger Oktoberfest-Maerzen and Spaten Ur-Maerzen (the original Oktoberfest beer) are all widely available. Each is a little different and "best" is a matter of personal preference.

Then go out and sample some local and regional Oktoberfest beers. Remember to take tasting notes -- they'll help you keep track of the differences, and remind you what to look for next year.

Tasting notes
Brewed by The "Seven Stars" (Siebenstern) brewpub in Austria

Michael Jackson writes:

Dark mahogany, with purply highlights. Smooth, soft, licorice-like; becoming rooty; then very dry and acidic. Good late hop bitterness. One or two brewers have taken up the idea of a "Prague" or "Bohemian" sub-category of dark lager. I like the idea, and would expect such a beer to start like this one did. The acidity made me wonder how comfortably it had travelled.

Brewed by Staroboro in the Czech Republic

Stephen Beaumont writes:

A big, 6% alcohol, malty lager from Starobrno, a significant Czech brewery with more than one hundred years of history. The flavour on this one starts sweet and malty but makes way in the middle for a full hit of hops and a complementary note of caramel with a faint woodiness. Contrary to the malty overtones of the body, the finish turns fairly dry to complete a lovely progression of taste from start to end.