As temperatures cool and leaves begin to change, American beer drinkers turn to perhaps the most seasonal brew of all: Oktoberfest. Macro and craft breweries roll out versions of the traditional Bavarian style. As a result, those of us celebrating stateside assume we know Oktoberfest beers like the backs of our stein-holding hands.
But those who don a pair of lederhosen and hop a plane to Munich can attest that, 99 percent of the time, American Oktoberfest brews taste nothing like what’s served in those raucous German tents. The reasons why the American versions vary so much from their German equivalents are two-pronged.
Märzen has been the signature beer of Oktoberfest since the festival’s launch in 1810. An amber lager, Märzen is traditionally brewed in March (or März in German) and aged throughout the summer. This rich, malt-forward beer, which typically has a full percent higher ABV than other lagers, reaches its peak in September and October, just in time for the annual Oktoberfest celebration. In most circles of thought, the words Oktoberfest and Märzen are entirely synonymous.
And German Märzen is a straightforward affair. The country’s beer purity law, the Reinheitsgebot, limits its ingredients to barley, hops, yeast, and water. Tradition dictates that this style is made with Munich malt, known for a richer, sweeter malt flavor, plus noble hops and Bavarian lager yeast. The result is a darker beer that is malt-forward at first, but clean, crisp, and slightly bitter on the finish.
Here’s the twist: Today, Oktoberfestbier served under those iconic Munich tents is no longer Märzen-style beer. Along the way, the six Munich breweries allowed to sell beer at the festival — Augustiner, Spaten, Hacker-Pschorr, Hofbräu, Paulaner, and Lowenbräu — stopped offering Märzen. Instead, these breweries sell a paler, lighter-tasting lager as their Oktoberfestbier, or Festbier.
Paulaner initiated the switch the 1970s. The brewery decided that traditional, heavy Märzen wasn’t the ideal choice for long days and evenings of drinking. By the 1990s, all five other Oktoberfest breweries followed suit. German labels do still produce some traditional Oktoberfest Märzen beers, particularly for export, but what’s served beneath the tents is generally quite different than what was consumed 200 years ago.
Does that mean that American Oktoberfest beers are closer to the traditional brew after all? Not quite. While many American Oktoberfest beers are brewed in a Märzen style, the flavor profile differs from the German original.
American Oktoberfest beers tend to be sweeter, missing the mark on malt-hop balance. This might be because many brewers use more caramel malt instead of or in addition to the traditional Munich malt, which can give the beer sweet, caramel-like flavor. It could also be because most brewers don’t lager, or age, their Oktoberfest beers for the months-long period of time that a traditional German lager needs in order to develop a clean, crisp flavor profile. Or, it could simply be that Oktoberfest brews have become popular as a seasonal selection in American in recent years, so macro breweries choose to make a sweeter, friendlier style that theoretically would appeal to a wider variety of palates.
Today, some American breweries are attempting to rediscover the roots of the Oktoberfest style, consulting with German labels and scouring old recipes. Sierra Nevada, for instance, partners with a different German brewery each year for its Oktoberfest brew. Others are fully embracing the Americanization of the Oktoberfest style, making them stronger and boozier, or using dry-hopping methods for a more aggressive flavor profile. Surly Brewing, for instance, purposefully doesn’t brew in a traditional style, making a dry-hopped rye lager.
For those who want to experience a true, traditionally-styled Oktoberfest Märzen beer, look for an imported brew from one of the OG Munich breweries, like Paulaner or Spaten. Or, look for an American brewery committed to producing a classic, Bavarian-styled Märzen, like Bell’s Brewery in Michigan. Caramel malt notwithstanding, Sam Adams also does a pretty good rendition with its Oktoberfest brew.