German Steins | Philipp Guelland/Stringer/Getty Images
Everyone knows that Oktoberfest is a stein-swinging, sausage-scarfing party of epic proportions. But what does "Oktoberfest" mean when you see it on a beer label? Well, a lot of times, it means you're about to get disappointed: the domestic market tragically is flooded with a ton of beers that may say “Oktoberfest” on the label but are really just overly sweet amber lagers that would make a Münchner weep. There are a lot of fugazis out there. But we've got your back.
We’ve compiled the must-know information on one of the world’s most misunderstood-yet-popular beer popular styles, then, more crucially, identified delicious versions you should seek out at your local tap house or bottle shop. You can practically smell the lederhosen from here.
Oktoberfest is a party, but it’s also a beer. How did this all start?
Like most great human advancements, Oktoberfest was actually born out of a sick party. It started back in 1810, when a popular crown prince chose to forego a stuffy, noble feast and turn his wedding celebration into a massive public festival. To steal a catchphrase from a beloved SNL character, this party had everything: a super fancy horse race, a huge agricultural fair, food vendors galore, and, starting in the 1870s, lots and lots of beer tents serving steinful of delicious brews.
Today, the festival still begins with the mayor of Munich tapping the first keg at noon on the first day of the celebration. A lot has stayed the same, although they did drop the horse race a while back.
So what’s in all of those steins anyway?
Here is where semantics start to fall into play. That copper-colored lager that has become inextricably linked with the biggest beer-themed holiday may be known colloquially as Oktoberfest, but there are some rules you may not be aware of. The base style is known as Märzen, which translates from German as “March.” This is because Germans are super literal, and this style of beer was typically brewed in March, just before the weather became a little too warm to make beer without risking spoiling, bacterial infection, or risk of fire from boiling the wort. Instead, beer makers slightly jacked up the ABV to around 6% to help preservation and kept it in cold storage caves to be drank through the warmer months. So, of course, when a crown prince just happens to call a massive party in the last week of September, the beer you’re going to have the most of on hand is the stuff that’s been literally chilling all summer. It also helps that the style itself is remarkably drinkable in larger quantities.
In Germany, strict trademark rules dictate that only beers brewed by the six breweries located within the Munich city limits can use “Oktoberfestbier” on their labels and ship it to the tents: Augustiner, Hacker-Pschorr, Hofbräuhaus, Löwenbräu, Paulaner, and Spaten (all of which are available in the US, though some are hard to find). This is done largely to protect the locals from outside infringement and large sponsor overkill. Other German breweries are allowed to call their timely Märzens “festbiers” if they want to cash in on the buzz around the country, but officially, none are served in the famous beer tents at the Wiesn (the local word for the festival).
Of course, none of this applies to the United States, where we laugh in the face of German trademark laws and slap Oktoberfest on literally any beer we want.
What should a good, traditional Oktoberfest-style beer taste like?
As we said earlier, Oktoberfest/Festbiers/Marzens are a dime a dozen, but the best are remarkably drinkable. These lagers should be amberish-copper in color with rich malt-driven flavors of bread crust and vaguely toasty notes with a nice, dry finish. This is part of what makes it so easy to take it in by the steinful, even though they hover around the (relatively high) 6% ABV range.
Which ones should I actually drink?!
Like we said, in the US you can slap Oktoberfest on pretty much anything, which can make finding a good one a crapshoot. Fear not: We’ve picked a few of our favorite true-to-form examples that should be relatively easy to find in most corners of the country. It should also go without saying that every single one of these goes exceptionally well with traditional German food like Weisswurst and pretzels with mustard.
Aying, Germany Distribution: Available nationally It shouldn’t be too surprising that the German brewery that is as adept at brewing benchmark versions of all kinds of German styles makes a truly great Märzen. Of course, not being brewed within Munich, the beer itself is a domestic homage to the great party barely 20 minutes down the road, but that shouldn’t bother you. This festbier is robustly malty with toastiness on the nose and the palate and medium carbonation that just make it so easy to drink. In fact, the only thing not so easy about this beer is finding enough of it around for very long, so don’t wait too long to go out and find some.
Framingham, Massachusetts Distribution: Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont If you thought expectations were high for a strictly lager-focused brewery to come up with a killer Märzen, you’d be right. Luckily, Jack’s Abby hits the mark yet again with their homage to Oktoberfest. This beer pours a slightly hazy amber-orange with brighter bready notes on the nose, where carbonation levels are just right to make it smooth on the palate without filling the belly, and German noble hops weaving through the dry finish that’s on the subtle pleasingly bitter side for the style. The 16oz can format is a bonus!
Stowe, Vermont Distribution: Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont The von Trapp family -- yes, that von Trapp family -- has long been established in Vermont, first as gifted performers, then as renowned innkeepers. But it wasn’t until 2010 that they entered the brewing game, where they take on traditional German styles with touches of American influence has garnered a lot of attention. Their Oktoberfest stands out as one of their best: The nose and the palate both boast malt richness, but like some other domestic takes on the style (thanks mostly to local tastes), this one has a slightly hoppier finish with perceived noble hops. If you happen to be in Vermont, it might be worth stopping by their own Oktoberfest to celebrate right on site.
Chico, California Distribution: Available nationwide So if festbiers are supposed to be a harkening to tradition, how do breweries who’ve been at it for a long time keep things fresh year after year? In the case of Sierra Nevada, it involves bringing a different German brewery stateside each year to come up with their Oktoberfest offering. This year’s is made with help from Bitburger, and the results are one of the best widely available Märzens on the market. Expect a malt backbone balanced by piney, floral German Magnum and Loral hops and a dry finish.
Munich, Germany Distribution: Available nationally Just because the idea of planning an entire trip to Munich may feel like such an ordeal doesn’t mean you can’t drink like a festival goer. Hacker-Pschorr’s is a legally proper Oktoberfest, made within the Munich city limits and served at tents at the Wiesn to throngs of revelers. Of course, it’s got those flavors toasty bread crust and rich malts, but like all great Oktoberfest beers, it stops short of sweetness, making it easy to sip on for hours.
St. Louis, Missouri Distribution: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Tennessee Known for their throwback interpretations of classic German styles, Oachkatzlschwoaf (which means “tail of the squirrel”) is Urban Chestnut’s ode to Oktoberfest. It’s remarkably smooth and medium bodied on the palate with biscuity malts, and although slightly floral, it’s truer to traditional Märzens than other domestic versions. If you’re a St. Louisan, there’s a good chance you’re already singing this beer’s praises, and maybe even going to check out Oktoberfest at the brewery itself.
Burlington, Vermont Distribution: Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont Zero Gravity has been a fixture on the Vermont beer scene for over a decade, and if there’s a style that this Burlington-based brewery can’t nail, they haven’t found it yet. Their Oktoberfest is American by country of origin only, using German hops, malts, and a long lagering period to create a nod to the Old World styles that rarely get recreated with such finesse. It’s an incredibly drinkable version of one of the world’s most drinkable styles, which by our measure makes this a double success.
Minneapolis, Minnesota Distribution: California, Iowa, Minnesota, New York, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Wisconsin The midwest is arguably the country’s hotbed of authentic German beer interpretations, so it should be no surprise that one of the best breweries in Minnesota cranks out a perennial Märzen that is adored far and wide. This take is appropriately built upon Munich and Vienna malts and noble-hopped to create a dry, bready finish that makes that third stein feel like you’re just getting started.
Brooklyn, New York Distribution: New York Keeping your lineup of beers fresh is easy when you’ve got three founding head brewers who all bring something to the table. Maybe that’s why KCBC is uniquely poised amongst New York City’s breweries to nail a Märzen out of the park: Even though it’s only been around for three years, Zøktoberfest continues to improve upon its roasty, malty goodness, and this year’s release is no exception.
Chicago, Illinois Distribution: California, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Maine, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin Not all Oktoberfest-style beers have to loudly proclaim themselves as such. In fact, some of the best festbier-appropriate contenders are available more times of year than just a short window that starts in early September. Such is the case with perennial Midwestern darling brewery, Half Acre whose Märzen bravely flies under the radar by simply dubbing itself a “lager” first and an “Octoberfest beer” second. This is an impressive reentry into the lager world for a brewery that has avoided making them for a few years, with the sturdy malt frame you’re looking for that finishes with a refreshingly dry kick.
Kulmbach, Germany Distribution: On draft only in California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Washington, Washington, DC Sometimes, finding the best German-made festbiers requires doing a little research, a little traveling, and a bit of old fashioned luck. That may be the case for anyone in search of Kulmbacher, which is one of the most celebrated steinbiers in the Franconian village where it’s produced. It’s a staple of the famous Kulmbacher Bierwoche (“Beer Week”) every July, which is the third largest festival by attendance by widely considered to be the most authentic in Germany. Luckily, their distribution of kegs to the US means you don’t need to book airfare to try it for yourself to see what all the hype is about.
San Diego, California Distribution: Nearly every state… use their beer finder tool here Taking a page out of the Trader Joe's playbook of changing the brand name to the culture it's homaging -- something that seems charming here or when it's "Trader Giotto," but extremely cringeworthy with "Trader Ming's" -- AleSchmidt has all the hallmarks of a classic Märzen: It's toasty, with a malt-forward profile and slightly sweet profile that all but demands to be drank on a crisp fall night to the soundtrack of clanking steins and accordions. But lest you forget this is from the west coast, there's a little extra hop bitterness to goose you on the back of the palate.
Stratford, Conneticut Distribtuion: Available nationally Athletic Brewing has completely changed the non-alcoholic beer game, so naturally, it only makes sense that they've come up with a perfect non-alcoholic beer to celebrate Oktoberfest. Their Oktoberfest beer -- which is debuting this year at the end of the month -- is brewed with Vienna and Munich malts and Germany Hersbrucker hops, so you're still getting that rich and deep festival beer flavor without compromising on calories and ABV, so everyone can celebrate Oktoberfest.
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Zach Mack is Thrillist’s contributing beer writer, the owner of Alphabet City Beer Co. and Governors Island Beer Co. in NYC, a Certified Cicerone®, and absolutely nothing else. Follow him: @zmack.