Shortened days, slowly turning leaves and the air's crisp, dry bite foreshadow the arrival of winter. But for a few glorious weeks we get to enjoy what for many is the best season of the year.
Fall is my favorite season in no small part because it is the season of Oktoberfest. Malty märzen and rich, golden festbier are among my favorite beer styles. I stock up when the moment arrives and savor them through the end of the year.
The amber lager we call Oktoberfest is not the beer that's poured in the giant tents in Munich. That's actually a märzen lager. März means March in German and the name refers to beers that were brewed in March, the end of brewing season in the days before mechanical refrigeration. These March beers were stored in cold caves through the summer to be enjoyed when brewing resumed in September.
Malty but not sweet, märzens showcase the toasted-bread flavors and caramel-like sweetness of European kilned malts. The presence of spicy German hops is low, if at all. Bitterness is just high enough to maintain balance without overshadowing the malt. Examples tend to adhere closely to the traditional style, so comparing one to another is about marking subtle differences.
There are plenty of great local märzens to try.
Oktoberfest from Schell's in New Ulm is the classic of the bunch. Less rich than others, the taste of toasted grain comes through loud and clear in this award-winning beer, adding a dry edge that helps cut any sweetness. Gentle bitterness lingers into the finish along with the subtlest hint of spicy hop flavor. This is certainly one of the best of the Minnesota-made märzens.
Excelsior Brewing Company's Oktoberfest Lager is on the fuller-bodied, sweeter end of the style. At just over 6% alcohol, it's also a bit stronger than most. The flavor smacks of honey-drizzled brown bread with a lightly toasted crust. Bitterness is very low. A touch of herbal/floral hops provides a subtle counterpoint to the malt.
The Oktoberfest märzen-style lager from Stillwater's Lift Bridge Brewing Co. has a stronger, toasty edge that almost verges on roast. Faint hints of chocolate linger in the finish. But the characteristic caramel-like graininess and toasted brown bread are still the dominant flavors. This one is on the lighter side, so you can enjoy more than one.
Moving away from the local, Oaktoberfest from California's Firestone Walker Brewing Co. is an interesting entry to the lineup. To start with, it's not a märzen. It's a Vienna lager, märzen's close cousin. It has sharper toast notes that suggest the crispy crust of a darker brown bread. Though still malt-forward, hop bitterness and spicy hop flavors play a more prominent role. Oak-barrel aging adds to the uniqueness, leaving subtle woody notes that linger into the dry, crisp finish.
German versions of the style tend to be lighter, less sweet and more focused on dry toast malt. One of the best examples of the märzen style is Ayinger Oktober Fest-Märzen. Toasted bread-crust malt is appropriately in the forefront, but it is not at all sweet. Light and crisp from start to finish with low-level balancing bitterness, this one is an easy drinker that's perfect for an early fall evening.
Paulaner Oktoberfest Märzen is slightly sweeter than Ayinger, but still has a light and dry finish. Hop presence is also higher, with the lemon curd and spice notes of continental hop varieties. Hints of dark-toasted malt give it an added impression of dryness.
The beer actually poured at the Munich Oktoberfest is often called "wiesen bier" or meadow beer, named after the Theresienwiese where Oktoberfest is held. It is a medium-full bodied golden lager that falls somewhere between a Munich helles lager and a Maibock. It's strongly malty with toasty bread-dough flavor. Hop bitterness and floral/spicy flavor are assertive enough to keep it refreshing without overwhelming the malt. In the words of the head brewer at Paulaner where the style was developed, it's a "poundable" malty beer.
The first wiesenbier available in the United States was Paulaner's Oktoberfest Bier. It is moderately bitter with a clean, crisp profile that features a blend of white bread maltiness and lemon pepper hops. The refreshing profile is rounded out by hints of toasty biscuit. This beer is built to be consumed by the liter.
Locally brewed Receptional Festbier from Utepils in Minneapolis has a fuller body than Paulaner. Lemon and spice hops are slightly favored, but with a sturdy base of bread and biscuit malt. Light honey sweetness rounds it out. It finishes with initial bitterness followed by lingering malt sweetness.
Bauhaus Brew Labs in Minneapolis is offering a mixed Oktoberfest 12-pack that brings all the beer goodness of the season — märzen, festbier and a seldom-seen dampfbier style.
Schwandtoberfest Bavarian-Style Märzen is more in line with the German examples than the American. It's toasted bread crust all the way with a lovely bit of biscuity grain that comes in the finish. The sweet side of malt is there, but with a sturdy dose of bitterness that lingers into a dry finish.
Fest Coast Festbier kicks off with the aromas of fresh bread or bread dough. That carries through into the flavor, joined by a hint of crust and toasted grain. The profile is evenly balanced between malty sweetness, bitterness and floral/spicy hops. It feels full in your mouth but finishes light and dry.
Though not directly related to Oktoberfest, dampfbier is a historic southern German style rarely seen today, even in Germany. A few hundred years ago in Bavaria, the brewing of wheat beer was restricted by royal license to just one brewery. Some enterprising brewers made barley beers and fermented them with the fruit- and spice-inducing wheat beer yeast strain. The result is sort of a cross between märzen and weissbier.
Dampf Punk, included in the Bauhaus 12-pack, is a good introduction to the style. The name is a play on steam punk (dampf is the German word for steam). Grainy, toasty malt dominates the profile with almost no hop bitterness or flavor. The weissbier yeast brings intriguing background notes of fruity banana and spicy clove, as well as giving a fuller mouthfeel to this relatively low-alcohol beer. It's an Oktoberfest märzen with a yeasty twist.
There are so many great examples of these malty fall treats. Pick up a mixed six-pack and try a few. But do it quick. They don't stick around for long.
Michael Agnew is a certified cicerone (beer-world version of sommelier) and owner of A Perfect Pint. He conducts private and corporate beer tasting events in the Twin Cities, and can be reached at email@example.com.