For many of us, autumn means getting equal parts excited and infuriated by pumpkin spice lattes and back-to-school specials. For beer lovers, it means Oktoberfests.
Oktoberfestbier, or festbier, is another term for Märzen lager, a German style that was historically brewed in March, to be enjoyed during the fall harvest. The beer style is characteristically copper in color, with toasty, malt-driven flavors from Munich and Vienna malts, and balanced bitterness from German noble hops. Oktoberfest-style lagers typically hover around a sessionable 5.5 percent ABV. They also tend to improve as they warm, with more discernible malt and spice flavors as their temperatures rise, making them ideal for hours-long beer garden sessions.
Oktoberfest beers have captivated international beer drinkers for decades, and every year American craft brewers release their own take on the classic style.
To determine the best Oktoberfest beers of 2018, we tasted dozens from all over the world. Our final picks are all American renditions, with two brewed in collaboration with German brewers. Grab your beer barrow and get tasting.
This Märzen-style lager follows the German Reinheitsgebot law, which dictates that only water, malt, hops, and yeast can be included in a brew. Panelists found it exceedingly subtle. “I can’t place anything,” one taster noted. “I’m not getting a lot —some citrus, but very little,” said another. One taster found it to be nutty on the finish, but overall this one was mild. That said, it improved as it warmed and would be a welcome addition to any stein. It would also make a great pairing for a fatty sausage.
Burnt orange in color with a cream head, this Connecticut-born Oktoberfest rendered “a little coppery” on the palate at first, followed by crispy and bitter flavors. After a few moments in the glass, its citrusy hop notes opened up on the nose, and one taster found it “refreshing, almost verging on IPA.”
Middlebury, Vt. / Seeon, Germany
This collaboration with Camba Bavaria, a small outfit within a larger brewing plant called BrauKon located just outside Munich, pours a clear orange color with an off-white head. Some tasters were hit right away with a citrusy aroma uncharacteristic of most German lagers. “It’s more dank,” said one taster; “it has more funk,” said another.” Spritzy carbonation and light body left some tasters finding this Oktoberfest unbalanced at first, but given the chance to warm to room temperature, pleasant citrusy notes came back into play.
Initially, this contender stood out with its cloudy, copper appearance and subtle chocolate aromas. (Served in the “keller” or “zwickel” style, this Oktoberfest is unfiltered and naturally carbonated.) It is mild and crisp but maintains a chewy, flavorful palate. “This is a drinking beer,” one panelist noted. “I would buy a 6-pack of this,” said another.
Chico, Calif. and Mills River, N.C. / Freising, Bavaria
Sierra Nevada’s annual Oktoberfest did not disappoint. This year’s rendition is brewed in partnership with Weihenstephan, the oldest brewery in the world, established in 1040. It has a gorgeous, crystal-clear amber color and transporting aroma. “This smells like Oktoberfest,” one panelist immediately declared — “but hoppier,” another added. “I feel like I’m in a German biergarten, even though I’ve never been to one,” a third panelist said. Creamy and doughy on the palate “like a warm slice of bread that still has steam coming off it,” as one taster described it, this festbier features a touch of bitterness on the finish from Sterling and Spalter hops, cutting crisp and clean through the malt sweetness and leaving our panelists begging for more. (Unfortunately, we’d finished the one bottle we’d procured.)
Spicy and fruity on the nose, this Märzen-style lager stood out to all of our panelists. “This tastes like straight specialty malt, like chewing on the grain,” one taster noted, adding, “I love that.” Another taster was hit with a nostalgic sense of food science: “Oobleck!” Precise impressions varied — several panelists perceived dark toast character, while another enjoyed its sweeter notes, tasting “less bread, more upside- down cake” —but adoration was unanimous. This one, too, improved with time. “I’d want this in a mug all day,” one panelist appropriately mused.