When they flip the calendar to September, residents of the Bavarian state capital Munich in Southern Germany dust off their lederhosen and dirndls and prepare for the world’s largest beer festival: Oktoberfest.
Originally a public celebration for the 1810 wedding of Crown Prince Ludwig, later King Ludwig I, and Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen, Oktoberfest has morphed into the massive festival of today. Some 186 years after that wedding, nearly 6 million beer lovers amass from around the world to celebrate in colossal tents, eat traditional German fare and drink Oktoberfest beer.
Just what is Oktoberfest beer? In Germany, any beer brewed in Munich and served at the festival can legally be called an Oktoberfest beer. But most Germans agree that märzen–literally “March” in German–a malty, heavy lager that can range from golden to coppery in color, is the original Oktoberfest beer.
Before refrigeration, beer was typically brewed only in the colder months. March was usually the last month for beer to be brewed before warmer weather made it difficult to use the cold-loving, bottom-fermenting yeasts Germans liked. In March 1872, Josef Sedlmayr, a brewer at Munich’s Franziskaner brewery (now part of Spaten), brewed the copper-colored brew he’d been developing for several years and then laid it down, or lagered it, until September and the start of Oktoberfest. The style was an immediate hit; other Munich breweries hastily copied it.
For nearly a century, the märzen style was synonymous with Oktoberfest—the name even appeared on beer shipped to the United States. In 1970, though, Munich brewery Paulaner introduced an alternate style for the festival. Because many considered märzen to be too heavy for long drinking sessions, a lighter style was developed. This new beer, dubbed festbier, took off; since 1990, has been the dominant style at Oktoberfest.
In America, brewers tend to take the traditional German styles and add their own tweaks. The current custom of American brewers is to add more hops than their Bavarian counterparts, resulting in a hoppier, more bitter, but no less refreshing brew. Try these celebratory potables.
Oktoberfest 2017, Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. • Sierra Nevada partners with a different German brewery each year to produce its Oktoberfest-style brew. This year it’s Brauhaus Faust-Miltenberger, in the Bavarian town of Miltenberg. Known to use only traditional methods, Faust worked with Sierra Nevada to create a deep-golden brew with a rich malt backbone and traditional German whole-cone hops.
Oktoberfest, Intuition Ale Works • This local version, being served at the Jacksonville breweries’ Oktoberfest celebration Sept. 23, is a copper-colored, medium-bodied quaff applying plenty of malt and Nobel hops. At 5 percent ABV, it’s a sessionable brew that’ll keep you refreshed as you polka.
Oktober Fest-Märzen, Ayinger Brewery • Considered one of the best representations of the märzen style, Ayinger crafts a creamy, toasty Oktoberfest-style brew with just a hint of hops bitterness. Brewed in the German city of Aying fewer than 20 miles from Munich, Ayinger’s märzen is unerlässlich during fest season.