When it comes to beer festivals, Munich's Oktoberfest is the king, attracting nearly 7 million visitors each year from every corner of the globe. Almost 8 million liters of beer are served up over the 16 days of the fest. Festival goers need that beer to wash down the hundreds of thousands of pounds of sausages and roasted chickens that are consumed.
Oktoberfest has been held nearly every year on the famous Theresienwiese since 1810, when Bavarian Crown Prince Ludwig organized a series of horse races to celebrate his marriage to Princess Therese of Bavaria. Beer was reportedly not a central feature of that first fest — although I find it difficult to believe that beer didn't play some role. This is Germany we're talking about.
You needn't go to Munich to catch a bit of the festival spirit. Oktoberfest-style lagers are available by the dozens in Twin Cities area stores.
The malty, orange lager that we call Oktoberfest — also called Märzen — has roots that go back much further than 1810. In the days before refrigeration, brewing beer in the summer was problematic. Higher levels of bacteria in the air made for more frequent spoiled batches. Although brewers of the day didn't know the cause, they did understand that it was better to make beer during the colder months.
Märzenbier was brewed at the end of the brewing season in March — März is the German word for March — and stored in cold caves for consumption starting midsummer. When the brewing season resumed in October, the remaining casks of Märzenbier were tapped. It's not hard to imagine German villagers gathering for a celebration of the year's harvest and drinking this now well-seasoned beer.
Like all the German lager styles, the base profile of Oktoberfest beers is fairly set. Nuanced differences separate one brewer's version from another. The style highlights the toasted-bread flavor and sweetness of European kilned malts. Hops provide just enough bitterness to maintain balance without overshadowing the malt. Sweetness is kept further in check by the clean, crisp lager finish.
When shopping for Oktoberfest beers at home, you might be tempted to reach for the authentic offerings from Germany. Unfortunately, many of these see some serious mistreatment between the brewery and the store. Time and heat leave these originally good beers tasting flat and papery. Those packaged in green bottles invariably have the aroma of agitated skunk.
Some great choices from U.S.
You're much better off reaching for fresher domestic examples. There are many great ones available that range from traditional interpretations to contemporary and Americanized riffs on the original.
For a traditional example, it's hard to beat Schell's Oktoberfest. This award-winning beer is less sweet than some others. 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.
Another good one comes from Left Hand Brewing Co. of Longmont, Colo. Also a multiple award winner, the Left Hand Oktoberfest Märzen Lager is very similar to the Schell's brew, but pushes slightly more of the brown-sugar malt sweetness. The toasted-grain underpinning is still prominent, and the spicy notes of German Hallertau Mittelfrüh hops come through a touch more boldly.
Sierra Nevada has teamed up with Brauhaus Riegele of Augsburg, Germany, to craft a traditional Oktoberfest with a nod to modern American craft beer. Sweetness and kilned malt are the dominant players, but the very dry finish and slightly more robust bitterness keep it crisp. Hop character is pronounced in the aroma and the flavor. The traditional German spice and lemony citrus are there, but I detect more American hop notes such as tangerine and peach. With its clean, balanced structure and well-articulated layers of flavor, this one has that certain something that makes me stand up and pay attention.
The Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Co. has scored some big hits with its amped-up Big Eddy series beers. Über Oktoberfest from the series offers a beefier take on the Märzen style. At 8.5 percent alcohol, it is significantly stronger than the typical 5 to 6 percent beers of the style. With the boost in booze comes a corresponding amplification of the malt character. Full, rich, toasted brown sugar flavors dominate, with a biscuit undercurrent adding complexity. The Leinenkugel brewers dry hop this beer, adding a bold and interesting layer of floral, fruity and lemon zest hop flavor that is unusual for the style.
It's interesting to note that the beer we think of as Oktoberfest is not the beer that is served under the tents in Munich. The official beer of the Oktoberfest is a malty, light-golden lager brewed to about 6 percent alcohol. Paulaner Wiesen Blonde is the only commercial example available in this country that I am aware of. It should also be available in many area stores.
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.