So as promised this is my highly experimental Oktoberfest beer review an
d history review. I mention the experimental nature of this post because it has been a real learning process in planning and blogging. A few minor planning details (such as leaving 3 beers all of 16oz or more to finish on the day of the post) and getting a head cold threw off my Wednesday posting date. No worries however I have successfully drunk my way through some excellent Oktoberfest (and Oktoberfest “styled”) beers and will give you all of my thoughts. Additionally I want to provide you with a brief history of how this festival came about and why I love this time of year so much.
Let’s start with a bit of history, both of the Oktoberfest in Germany and my ties to it here in America. To understand why this festival has become a part of the cultural heritage of not only Germans, but many around the globe, we must first understand how the beer itself came to be. The beer I am referring to is the märzen lager style of beer (which is commonly known as Oktoberfestbier or Oktoberfest “style” beer). There are two clues in the naming of this beer that can begin it’s history. The first is the name märzen, which refers to the month of March in German. This is the month that the beer was originally brewed. The roots of the märzen lager style go back roughly five centuries, and German brewing history overall, many centuries further. The second part of the style that gives us information about it is the word lager, which refers to the fermenting process and ty
pe of yeast used. All lager beers are brewed the same as ales, but when it comes time to add the yeast, brewers choose a specific lager strain that will ferment at cool to cold temperatures near or just above freezing and require a much longer fermentation period, many weeks or potentially months depending on the beer. The resulting lager beer can vary in color just the same as an ale, but it’s taste is often more subdued with less aromas and flavors being imparted by the yeast. This reduction in flavors and aromas plays significantly into the success and marketing of macro breweries, but we will discuss that another time.
So with those pieces of understanding that the märzen style of beer was brewed in March, needed to ferment cold for weeks or months, and was developed 500 years ago during a time when modern refrigeration techniques were still centuries away we can begin to understand Oktoberfest. Following? Well take a moment to get into the head of a medieval German brewer. They wanted to have beer year round, but due to the difficulty of storage and refrigeration in order to have lager beers during the summer they would have to brew large batches of strong (high in alcohol) and hoppy (hops prevent spoilage) beer which could be stored in ice filled caves and cold cellars ensuring a summer supply of beer. Once this method of brewing was discovered, things were swell during the summers in Germany. However, by the time that the fall rolled around and the beer in those ca
ves and cellars had to be consumed to make room for beer from the coming harvest, there was a lot to get rid of. As you can probably imagine, finishing a lot of strong and moderately hoppy (the hop flavors mellowed with the summer lagering) beer around harvest time was a cause for celebration and merriment. Can you start to get a picture of how the modern Oktoberfest celebrations came to be?
It was not until the early 18th century though, that Oktoberfest, as we know it, really took form. On October 12th, 1810, Prince Ludwig I (who would later become King Ludwig I) married Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen and to celebrate the occasion they invited the entire population of Munich to the event. Roughly 40,000 folks attended the first Oktoberfest celebration, but if you can believe it, there was no beer served at the event, though horse racing drew much of the crowd’s attention. The meadow where the first Oktoberfest took place is referred to by the locals as the “Wies’n” and you will see that term pop up in one of my reviews. The event has now grown to 7 million+ visitors per year consuming roughly that many litres (33.8 ounces) of beer. The only breweries represented at Oktoberfest are those brewed in Munich and they are: Augustiner, Hacker Pschorr, Hofbräu, Löwenbräu, Paulaner, and Spaten. (Most info from here and here with some from Wikipedia and my own head)
So to spare you much more history and get on to the reviews, let me fast forward a little more than an century and a half and just mention my interactions with Oktoberfest here in America. I have always enjoyed early fall because the temperatures are generally mild, the fall colors are beautiful, I love the smell of wood fires, and there are plenty of great fall celebrations. Not the least of which for me was La Crosse, Wisconsin’s Oktoberfest celebration. This is one of the largest Oktoberfest celebrations in the U.S., drawing in 150,000+ people during the opening weekend and was something I grew up with. I could go on and on with stories about the festival, but I’l just say that I have missed only a few in my life and that it is a special event for coming together with friends, family, drinking beer and enjoying the community in La Crosse.
As I write this post, Oktoberfest celebrations in both Munich and La Crosse are entering their final weekends with many steins being clinked, bratwursts eaten, and laderhosen/dirndls donned. With all of that history of coming together to celebrate and enjoy this time of year and the tastes of the season, I offer you my reviews of 8 Oktoberfest beers (6 from the U.S. and 2 from Germany). In the order that I tasted them the beers are:
#1 Brooklyn Oktoberfest 5.5%ABV:
Appearance– Dark amber/garnet, clear
Aroma– Caramel, toffee, slight roast malt, some dark fruit aroma, no noticeable hop profile
Taste– Sweet caramel malt up front, a bit of dark fruit (plum), finishes quite sweet, but the lightly roasted malt flavor is what lingers.
Mouthfeel– Lightly effervescent, fairly light body,
Overall– Lighter tasting than it looks, strong fruit aromas and smelled similar to a quadrupel style.
#2 Great Lakes Oktoberfest 6.5%ABV:
Appearance– Bright copper/light amber, very clear
Aroma– Bready, golden raisin, a hint of caramel
Taste– Light fruit at the beginning, fades into sweet light caramel, ends with a bit of toffee or lightly roasted malt
Mouthfeel– Rich, frothy carbonation, lingers slightly on the tongue, but just enough to get a full taste of the beer
Overall– Really enjoyed the rich, malty taste with the light fruit notes and the breadiness.
#3 Victory Festbier 5.6%ABV:
Aroma– Sweet bready malt presence, caramel, earthy, mildly floral and slightly spicy hop profile
Taste– Sweet caramelly malt at the start, gives way to some orange zest and some noble hop spiciness, hop spice and malt sweetness blend for the finish and linger well with a bit of roast malt on the very end
Mouthfeel– Crisp and refreshing, effervescent, medium body, finishes a bit dry
Overall– Very tasty and crisp Oktoberfest. Hops are quite present and I like how the hops add some complexity to the overall flavor. The earthy/citrusy/spiciness work very well with the caramel malt flavors.
#4 New Glarus Staghorn Octoberfest 6.25%ABV:
Appearance– Labeled as “Wisconsin’s Real Red” I would call it deep copper/mild amber color, clear
Aroma– Sweet caramel malt, pumpkin, mild hop spiciness, some bread too
Taste– A hint of pumpkin flavor, light malt sweetness, a bit of hop spice on the end, a little raisin flavor
Mouthfeel– Slightly coarse carbonation, medium body, crisp, refreshing
Overall– Enjoyed the pumpkin aroma (not pumpkin spice, actual pumpkin). Tastes were fairly mild and pleasant throughout. Refreshing and easy drinking.
#5 Schell’s Oktoberfest 5.5%ABV:
Aroma-Sweet breadiness, light citrus zest, light caramel, background of noble hop spice, I notice some dark fruit aromas.
Taste– Sweet lightly roasted malt, a bit of dark fruit on the end, earthy notes.
Mouthfeel– Moderate body, rich carbonation, slightly lingering flavors
Overall– Great example of the märzen style. Nice malty sweetness balanced out by a touch of hop spice and some dark fruit aromas and taste from the yeast. Crisp yet not light. Well balanced.
#6 Surly Surlyfest 6.0%ABV:
Appearance-Deep copper, garnet
Aroma-Citrusy hop profile, sweet malty profile, a hint of rye tartness
Taste-Citrusy/grapefruit hop taste up front with a carmelly and bready malt body finishes with a smooth rye tanginess
Mouthfeel-Rich carbonation, silky feeling body and a bit dry on the end
Overall– Not a very traditional Oktoberfest bier, but that’s not what they were going for anyway. It’s their own hoppy take on the märzen style with some rye added. An great adaptation and a refreshing change of pace. Much more hoppy that the other Oktoberfests and the rye adds a nice smoothness to the body.
#7 Ayinger Oktoberfest Marzen 5/8%ABV:
Appearance– Light copper, orange
Aroma-Lightly citrusy (orange) and spicy hop aroma, earthy and sweet malt character
Taste– Bready and sweet with some caramel, a slightly bitter finish with a crisp and lightly spicy hop notes
Mouthfeel– Slightly coarse carbonation, medium body, not heavy nor light, a touch spicy on the tongue
Overall– An authentic German märzen style, very bready and sweet with enough hop aroma and taste to be noticed but still be balanced. Everything is in balance and though it very abstract, it just tastes “right.”
#8 Paulaner Oktoberfest Wiesn 6% ABV:
Appearance-Golden, dark yellow
Aroma-Crisp and spicy hop aroma, light fruit (golden raisin), lighter bread aroma
Taste-Very bready, slightly sweet, hops are light and a touch spicy
Mouthfeel-Rich carbonation, light on the palate, crisp at the end, refreshing
Overall– This is the actual style of beer served at Oktoberfest in Munich so it makes sense that it is lighter in body than the others so as to accommodate drinking ein mass (a 1 liter glass stein). Enjoyed the bready character of the beer and the light spiciness from the hops.
At the end of the samplings my favorite of the bunch was the Ayinger Oktoberfest. It just had the balance of malty-caramelly-bready sweetness with some spicy hop aromas and flavors that fit what I think of this time of year. Schell’s was a close second and my favorite of the U.S. bunch. However, there were no losers in this bunch. Seriously, all of the beers were excellent, and I would recommend any of them to you. I will post individual photos of the beers before I sampled them on Flickr, keep an eye out. So do take the time to enjoy some märzen lager while you watch the leaves change colors, reminisce on the warm summer days and look ahead to the coming snow and cold (don’t worry, there are always good beers to drink no matter the weather). Prost!