While Oktoberfest is a fest, it’s also a specific style of beer. But what is Oktoberfest beer exactly? Also known as märzen, the style is sweet, malty, and only slightly bitter, and it has an interesting pedigree.
The tradition of Oktoberfest beers can be traced to the beginning of the Munich Oktoberfest festival itself, which was supposedly inaugurated in 1810, when Prince Ludwig of Bavaria took the unusual step of celebrating his marriage in a public festival with the plebeians—instead of a private royal one. The goodwill associated with this feel-good move gained momentum and still exists today.
The Irony of Oktoberfest Beer: It’s Named for March
The irony of the Oktoberfest beer is that it often carries the name of another month—in German, Märzen, or March. This owes to the fact that before refrigeration, it was not possible to brew reliable beer in the summer. Because of the heat, fermentations would often go awry, resulting in bacterial infections and spoiled beer. The last feasible time to brew was in March, hence the name Märzen.
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The beers were brewed to higher strength, as alcohol is a preservative, to further guard against spoilage. Brewed in large quantities in the spring and then sequestered deep in cool caves throughout the summer, these Märzen/Oktoberfest beers would make their long-awaited debut during the fall festival season. Technically, they must be brewed in Munich, though Oktoberfest-styled beers are now made all over.
Hacker-Pschorr Marzen / Oktoberfest, $7.29+ on Drizly
A traditional brew with an 89% rating on Beer Advocate. (Price & availability varies.)
What Does Oktoberfest Beer Taste Like?
Appearing in color anywhere from a burnished gold hue to a deep brown with shades of red and orange, the beers are characterized by sweet, almost humid malt flavor that’s balanced by a slight bitter note from the hops, though not enough for the beer ever to be considered bitter. (If you’re interested in specifics, Oktoberfest lager often utilizes Saaz, Tettnanger, and Hallertau hops, but malt is definitely the dominant flavor.) Alcohol levels generally hover between 5 and 6 percent ABV.
If you’re looking for a traditional German or Bavarian beer, try Spaten Oktoberfest Ur-Märzen, Hofbräu Oktoberfest, Paulaner Oktoberfest Bier, Paulaner Oktoberfest Wiesn, and Allgäuer Oktoberfest. But you can also find American beers (craft and otherwise) in the Oktoberfest style.