Despite the heat and humidity, the time of year has come when we start seeing less citrusy, light beers of summer and more of the malty and spice forward beers of fall. One of the most popular styles for fall is the Oktoberfest, a German lager beer that was originally brewed and aged to celebrate the fall harvest. Most people associate the term "Oktoberfest" with the huge festival in Munich that is a beer lovers Mecca, and an amber lager that many American breweries have come to imitate as their fall seasonal release. However, did you know that there are actually two different beers that can be called Oktoberfest beers?
Traditional Oktoberfest beers are lagers that are brewed and consumed in celebration of the Oktoberfest Volksfest (German word for beer festival/traveling fair). They MUST be brewed within the city limits of Munich and be brewed in accordance rheinheitsgebot, the German purity law that states that beer can only be brewed with water, malted barley, hops and yeast. There are only six breweries in Germany that can call their beers "Oktoberfest." They include Augustiner-Bräu, Hacker-Pschorr-Bräu, Löwenbräu, Paulaner, Spatenbräu, Staatliches, and Hofbräu-München. This is why you see some breweries like Samuel Adams stylize their fall seasonal as "Octoberfest," not with the "K." There are two styles that are associated with Oktoberfest: Marzen lagers and Festbiers.
Marzen Lagers, which are now much more common than Festbiers, have become what most beer drinkers associate with the Oktoberfest styles. They are generally darker in color and are predominantly toasty, malty lagers. Spaten's Oktoberfest that is imported to the US falls into this style, and it is what many breweries mold their fall seasonal after.
If you are lucky enough to experience the Oktoberfest Volkfest in Munich, you likely will not find the Marzen lagers that you are used to costuming on American soil. Instead, your liter mug will be filled with a lighter, breadier lager beer, with a medium bitterness and a pilsner-like finish. This is what is known as the Festbier. It is typically much lighter than the Marzen lagers, and drinks much easier than it's ABV suggests (the typical range is between 5.8 and 6%). There are several American breweries that are starting to brew this traditionally consumed lager, including the Sierra Nevada brewery with their Oktoberfest. Starting the fall of 2015, the California based brewery is going to be collaborating with a German brewery every year to concoct a traditional Festbier to celebrate the fall season. This year's version is the Mahrs Brau, and it's use of an almost defunct Record hop variety gives a fresh and spicy take on the traditional lager.
This year, challenge yourself to see the difference in style with each Oktoberfest beer you try! Do you prefer the American tradition of a Marzen lager, or the German tradition of a Festbier?
Beers to showcase the styles:
Marzen Lager - Spaten Oktoberfest, Paulaner Oktoberfest Marzen, Sam Adams Octoberfest
Festbier - Sierra Nevada Oktoberfest, Paulaner Oktoberfest Weisn
Matt Zaloga (aka Bow Tie Matt or Matty) is a man who is after the epitome of sensory experiences. Whether it be tasting the latest and greatest beer, testing out a new culinary experience or checking out a new band, his search for anything to excite and mystify his senses is never ending. Matt is as comfortable at home in the kitchen as he is out on the street, ensuring the public is well stocked with finely brewed liquid. You can find him wherever there is good food, tunes, and of course, great beer! Just look for the bow tie!