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Top Ten Oktoberfest Beers (Issue 32)

As chosen by Official Review judge Brad Darnell.
Inside the Hacker-Pschorr Oktoberfest tent. (Photo Credit: Jim Kelly)
Inside the Hacker-Pschorr Oktoberfest tent. (Photo Credit: Jim Kelly)

The dog days of summer linger stubbornly for many of us around the world, while elsewhere the nights begin their gradual transition towards crisp coolness, suggesting to the trees it’s time to produce those bold gold, red and orange leaf colors of fall. Meanwhile, a traditional fall celebration approaches.

Workers feverishly loft tents – halls if you will, which take approximately 70 days to erect, in Munich1. Brewers prepare their wares and communities across the globe mimic the annual event by adorning their towns with the blue and white flag of Munich. Yes, I am talking about Oktoberfest.

Though this festival began in Munich, Bavaria, two centuries ago in 1810, towns around the world continue to replicate the main event, which typically occurs over 16 beer, music and würst-laden days annually. While this event began originally on October 12, 1810 as a festival honoring the marriage of Kronprinz Ludwig to Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen, the decision in 1811 to repeat the affair made this the annual event we now know. Locals decided the better weather of late September was more favorable for a festival so they moved the event up a few calendar weeks.



What makes an Oktoberfest Beer, other than trademark? Traditionally speaking, these are dark-colored lagers brewed to about 5.5 – 6% ABV in March, dubbed Märzen, and slowly fermented throughout the summer months to allow rich malt flavors to develop.


History aside, let’s look at the beer now known as Oktoberfest, of which two categories exist: those served at the Munich Oktoberfest and those replicated and served elsewhere. According to Spatenbräu, Oktoberfest Beer just so happens to be a registered trademark by the Club of Munich Brewers, and consists of six breweries: Augustiner-Bräu, Hacker-Pschorr-Bräu, Löwenbräu, Paulaner, Spatenbräu and Hofbräu-München2.

What makes an Oktoberfest Beer, other than trademark? Traditionally speaking, these are dark-colored lagers brewed to about 5.5 – 6% ABV in March, dubbed Märzen, and slowly fermented throughout the summer months to allow rich malt flavors to develop. Josef Sedlmayr brewed a strong amber-red Vienna lager in 1872 and this went on to become the stylistic favorite3. A lot has changed in the brewing world, so today’s Oktoberfest Beer is golden in color, at least when produced by the aforementioned Munich brewers.

If the above has not piqued your thirst, the Ten Best Oktoberfest-style beers below certainly will. As a nod to the Munich festival, I devote a few spots on this list to those produced by the Club of Munich Brewers, beers that are best enjoyed at their origination and even more so during the festival itself.

Number 1: Sierra Nevada / Faust Miltenberger Oktoberfest (2017)

The iconic American craft brewery Sierra Nevada tops the list, though they began a few years back teaming with a partner German-based brewery to produce a unique recipe annually. That makes this beer at least half German, right? This year’s version with Faust Miltenberger pours brilliantly clear golden-orange and sustains a medium frothy, nearly fizzy off-white head. Rich bready malt, light toast malt and kettle caramelization notes balance well with fresh floral and spicy Noble hops. This clean lager has a medium body and finishes dry.

Number 2: Ayinger Oktober Fest-Märzen

A mere 25 km from Munich in Aying, Bavaria, Germany is one of the Club of Munich Brewers – Privatbrauerei Ayinger. Producing beers since 1877, they certainly have this figured out. Their traditional Oktoberfest Beer pours orange and mostly sustains its frothy off-white head. Malt forward with cereal and straw notes, floral hops lend balance to this lager. Medium bodied with a dry finish and slightly spicy palate.

Number 3: Hofstettner Original Hochzeitsbier von 1810

Brauerei Hofstetten represents Germany’s neighbor Austria on this list. Darker and slightly stronger than the traditional beers, this example pours clear amber with a medium, creamy off-white head. Rich toasted malt, somewhat sweet with caramel notes blended with earthy hops and a medium-light hop bitterness. This one finishes dry with a medium-full body.

Number 4: Sudwerk Märzen

These brewers in Davis, CA make quite respectable representations of German beers, and this one is no exception. Pouring dark amber with a medium, creamy off-white head, this lager offers a rich and complex array of caramel and bready malt with caramelized notes and melanoidins, balanced lightly by earthy hops. This medium-bodied beer finishes sweeter than others.

Number 5: Spaten Oktoberfest Ur-Märzen

Another of our Club of Munich brewers producing traditional Oktoberfest Beers, Spaten this fine specimen from Spaten pours amber with a tall, foamy light brown head. Medium-light roasted grain and straw malt lend a pleasant sweetness that is blended with lightly bitter floral and earthy hops. Medium bodied with a dry finish.

Number 6: Westbrook Märzenbier

Our newest (youngest) brewery on the list, representing the Palmetto state, produces a fine replication of the traditional style. Three German malt varieties and German Perle hops produce a hazy burnt copper lager with a huge, frothy off-white head. Rich, complex malt yields toast, caramel, and bread notes with dark, malt-derived fruits and earthy, spicy Noble hops. This medium-full bodied beer finishes medium dry.

Number 7: Paulaner Original Münchner Märzen

Founded in 1634, Paulaner has been at this longer than most breweries. Their Oktoberfest Beer pours clear amber with a small, fizzy white head, somewhat persisting. Clean and rich German malt, lightly toasted and sweet meld with faint Noble hops presenting fair hop bitterness to balance. The finish is dry and the beer has a medium body with a slightly creamy texture.

Number 8: Ballast Point Dead Ringer Oktoberfest

Ballast Point enjoyed its first 25 years in business as an independent craft brewer in San Diego, CA. Along came Constellation Brands and now Ballast Point is poised for even more growth. Despite your feelings on this matter, they produce one of the better stylistic representations. The beer pours clear dark copper with a medium, frothy beige head. Rich bready malt with medium toast and nutty malt notes balance well with spicy and herbal hops. Finishing mostly dry this lager is medium bodied.

Number 9: New Glarus Staghorn Octoberfest Beer

You’ll have to travel to Wisconsin or find other means to source this beer as New Glarus is content to stay within their borders. This example pours clear amber with a spare, fizzy, white head. Grain, cereal and meal malt mix with light grassy hops to produce a light-bodied, clean lager with a crisp dry finish.

Number 10: Hacker-Pschorr Oktoberfest Märzen

Hacker was founded roughly in 1417. Despite the 1793 marriage of Therese Hacker to Josef Pschorr, these breweries remained separate until 1972. Nonetheless, they are one of the Club of Munich breweries and produce a traditional Oktoberfest Beer which pours clear amber with a small, fizzy white head. Toasted caramel and biscuit malt yield melanoidins and team nicely with light spicy hops. A clean lager character, this one finishes dry with a medium body.


References:

  1. "Oktoberfest construction – Bavaria’s biggest building project". Building Radar
  2. "Oktoberfest". Spaten. Retrieved 27 August 2017
  3. Conrad Seidl (9 Sep 2011). The Oxford Companion to Beer. Oxford University Press. pp. 624–625. Retrieved 14 November 2012

    (Photos courtesy respective brewers)