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!
So from what I can tell, 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 all started back in 1810, when a popular crown prince chose to forego a stuffy, noble feast and turn his wedding celebration 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.
But the party is still huge, right?
Unless you consider blowing through 7.5 million liters of beer a snore, then yeah, it’s safe to call it alive and well.
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.
Wow, talk about a secure line of sales! I feel like I should just brew a bunch of amber beer, call it Oktoberfest, and rake in that sweet cash!
Swift thinking, Shark Tank, but it’s not as simple as that! 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).
This is done largely to protect the locals from outside infringement and large sponsor overkill. Other German breweries are allowed to call their timely Marzens “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.
So 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.
All right, fancy beer man: 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.