Münich’s Oktoberfest has been canceled due to COVID-19. The 8 million liters of beer normally consumed at the annual festival will remain untapped. Hundreds of thousands of pounds of sausages and roasted chickens will remain uneaten. No giant beer tents will be erected on the Theresianwiese, the Münich park where Oktoberfest is held.
There may not be a festival, but there is still plenty of Oktoberfest beer to enjoy locally.
The copper-colored lager that we in the United States call Oktoberfest is not actually the kind of beer served at the festival in Germany. Märzen-style lager has roots that go back much further than the first Oktoberfest in 1810.
In the days before refrigeration, it was difficult to make good beer — especially cold fermenting lager beer — in the summer months.
To bridge the gap, brewers would make a Märzenbier or March beer — März is the German word for March — that was stored in caves for consumption starting in midsummer. When the brewing season resumed in October, the remaining casks of Märzenbier would have been consumed.
Like all German lager styles, the basic profile of Märzen beers is well set. Nuanced differences separate one brewer’s version from another. The style showcases the toasted-bread flavors and caramel-like sweetness of European kilned malts. The spicy flavor of German hops is low if at all present. Bitterness is just high enough to maintain balance without overshadowing the malt. Sweetness is kept further in check by the clean, crisp lager finish and the occasional faint presence of bitter toasted malt flavors.
Though all examples display those basic characteristics, there is a kind of flavor spectrum that can be recognized when tasting several. Märzens run a range from rich and malty sweet on one end to lightweight with more hop presence on the other.
Oktoberfest from Beaver Island Brewing Co. of St. Cloud is a great place to start on the maltier end. This beer was selected Best of Show at a blind-tasting event of over 40 Oktoberfest beers hosted by the Growler magazine in 2019. It’s bold, rich and malty, but doesn’t cross the line to become overly sweet. Sweetness is there, but balanced by moderate bitterness and very low, spicy hop flavor. The primary note is German bread crust. The finish is off-dry with lingering caramel malt and spice.
Oktoberfest from Schell’s in New Ulm, Minn., is a perennial favorite. This award-winning beer is less rich than some others, but still falls on the malty end of the scale. The taste of toasted grain comes through loud and clear, adding a dry edge that helps to cut the sugar. Gentle bitterness lingers into the finish along with the subtlest hint of spicy hop flavor. This is certainly the best of the Minnesota-made Märzens.
Schwandtoberfest Bavarian-Style Märzen from Bauhaus Brew Labs of Minneapolis is one that begins to bridge the divide between rich and light. It leans to malty-rich, but with a good dose of bitterness for a dry and bitter finish. The flavor of dark rye bread crust is joined by subtle hints of roast and toast.
Oktoberfest from Lupulin Brewing in Big Lake, Minn., is another good mid-malt example. It has a lighter body than some, but isn’t yet on the lightest end of the scale. There is no hop flavor to get in the way of the bread and caramel malt. But a sturdy bitterness does linger in the crisp finish.
Oktoberfest from Surly in Minneapolis is one of the hoppier examples of the style. Though the bread crust malt does come out on top, it shares the stage almost equally with spicy, lemony and minty flavors of German hops. The dry finish leaves bread crust maltiness with some hop spice lingering on the tip of the tongue.
Moving to the lighter end of the scale, one of the best examples of the Märzen style is Oktober Fest-Märzen from Ayinger Brewery of Germany. Toasted bread-crust malt is appropriately in the forefront, but it is not at all sweet. Light and crisp from start to finish with low-level balancing bitterness, this one is an easy drinker that’s perfect for an early-fall evening.
Germany’s Paulaner Oktoberfest Märzen is slightly sweeter than Ayinger, but still has a light and dry finish. Hop presence is also higher, with the lemon curd and spice notes of continental hop varieties. Hints of dark-toasted malt give it an added impression of dryness.
The beer actually poured at the Münich Oktoberfest is a paler golden lager with more aggressive bitterness and hop flavor. In the 6% range, the festbier alcohol content is also slightly elevated. These beers fit somewhere between a Münich helles style and a Maibock.
Germany’s Paulaner Oktoberfest Bier was the first of these to be made available in the United States. Clean, crisp and moderately bitter, it features a balanced blend of white bread maltiness with lemon pepper hops. Hints of toasty biscuit round out its thoroughly refreshing profile. I could easily down a liter stein of this.
Looking locally, Receptional Festbier from Utepils in Minneapolis is a bit fuller bodied than Paulaner. The balance slightly favors lemon and spice hops, but with a sturdy base of bread and biscuit malt flavor and light honey sweetness. It finishes with initial bitterness followed by lingering malt sweetness.
The use of wheat malt makes the Oktoberfest from Germany’s Erdinger Weissbräu unique among the festbiers. It’s malt-forward, but with a spicy/lemony hop edge and sharply bitter finish. Wheat and yeast bring flavors and aromas reminiscent of freshly fermenting bread dough. Fermentation-derived fruitiness further sets this apart.
This is just a small sampling of the many festbiers and Märzen available. Get out and try a few to celebrate your own personal Oktoberfest.
Michael Agnew is a certified cicerone (beer-world version of sommelier) and owner of A Perfect Pint. He conducts private and corporate beer tasting events in the Twin Cities, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.