Oktoberfest is probably the best-known celebration of beer in the world and is synonymous with Bavarian culture. Despite its name, Oktoberfest occurs in September, but Americans love to drink the sweet ale throughout the early fall.
If you’re looking for the real Oktoberfest experience, only six breweries – Paulaner, Hofbrau, Spatenbrau, Lowenbrau, Hacker Pschorr, and Augustiner – are permitted to brew authentic Oktoberfest beer. Unfortunately, these may be difficult to locate, and there are many excellent Americanized alternatives including Sam Adams’ more mainstream option.
Keep reading of the history of Oktoberfest, the flavors and notes of the popular versions of the brew, and our top recommendations for the best Oktoberfest beers of 2021.
What kind of beer is an Oktoberfest?
Oktoberfest dates back to October 12, 1810, when King Louis I married Princess Therese of Saxe Hildburghausen. All citizens were invited to attend the ensuing festivities. The celebration lasted five days and concluded with a horse race in an open field, later named Theresienwiese.
This event inspired a recurring celebration, including an agricultural fair and a horse race, in 1811 and 1812. In 1813, Oktoberfest was canceled for the first time due to the Napoleonic Wars. Since then Oktoberfest has been canceled a number of times, for economic, political, and health reasons. (see the complete timeline here). Thankfully, it prevails and occurs more often than not.
Today, the festival welcomes up to six million attendees per year. Since the first fest in 1810, Oktoberfest has become a token celebration of Bavarian culture. While there are other cities that offer their take on Oktoberfest, they are all modeled after the original in Munich. And what is Oktoberfest without its beer? Just a normal week in September (contrary to the name, Oktoberfest takes place in September).
The original Oktoberfest beer was a malted stock with about 6% alcohol.
Over the years, the range of beers that carry the Oktoberfest moniker has grown and changed. Nowadays, most Oktoberfest beers are lagers. They are more golden than Helles, the traditional German pale lager, but have a stronger ABV.
Oktoberfest beer is a protected brand, and only six breweries are permitted to brew this type of beer. These are: Paulaner, Hofbrau, Spatenbrau, Lowenbrau, Hacker Pschorr and Augustiner. Arguably the most popular beer at Oktoberfest is Paulaner, but all of these breweries are widely recognized for outstanding beer.
History of Oktoberfest beer styles
Over the years, the styles served at Oktoberfest have changed a lot.
During the 1960s, Bavarian Dunkel, or dark beer, was popular.
As breweries continued to innovate, paler malts became more popular. In the early 1970s, Spaten Brewery introduced the amber-hued Marzen, and Paulaner introduced Festbier, a golden lager, which became the Oktoberfest beer.
To this day, Festbier is the “main” style of Oktoberfest beer.
The alcohol content falls between 4.5% and 6%. This beer is primarily brewed with lager yeast and Munich malts. They undergo the Maillard reaction, resulting in a distinctive roasted color and flavor. Some variations use additional malts or added flavors. This was the first beer at Oktoberfest, but was later replaced by other styles.
Dunkel beer was the first regulated beer under the Reinheitsgebot, introduced in 1516. In the late 19th century, technological advancements resulted in lighter variations of Dunkel. Dunkel has an average ABV of 5%, characterized by malty flavor, dark coloring, and low bitterness.
Märzen is a Bavarian lager with a medium- to full-body. The color varies, from dark brown to amber or pale. The style dates back to the 16th century. The name is derived from März, meaning March in German. Initially, Märzen was brewed then and stored in caves until the fall. This process resulted in higher ABV and hops, which helped to better preserve the beer.
The original Märzen is full-bodied, dark brown, and bitter. It is seasonal and regional, so Märzen by Hacker-Pschorr and Ayinger can be tricky to catch.
You can mostly find them in Southern Germany. However, there are a few year-round variations, including the Amber Märzen by Spaten and Paulaner breweries.
Festbier is now the most popular beer served at Oktoberfest in Munich.
It is a pale lager that has a crisp, balanced profile of malt and hops, with some toasted flavor. Festbier has a low hoppy aroma with slight floral or herbal notes. The ABV ranges from 5.8% to 6.3%. Festbier is deep or yellow-gold with a white head and great clarity.
Festbier is similar to Maibock or Helles Bock, but with comparatively higher hops, and lower gravity.
What does Oktoberfest beer taste like?
American Oktoberfest beer tends to be sweeter than the Bavarian original. First, there was Märzen, a malt-forward, strong lager. The beer purity law, or Reinheitsgebot, limits brewing ingredients to barley, hops, yeast, and water. Märzen is brewed with Munich malts and Bavarian lager yeast, resulting in a darker, maltier (but crisp!) beer. In the 1970s, Paulaner initiated a turn to Festbier, a paler, lighter lager.
Many American breweries produce Oktoberfest beers in the style of Märzen. Still, the flavor profile differs. (I don’t mean to suggest that the result is bad, just different.) It may be that American brewers supplement with more caramel malt, instead of Munich malt, resulting in a sweeter profile.
Or it could be that some brewers age their beer for less time than the traditional recipe.
What gives Oktoberfest beer its flavor?
The Reinheitsgebot, introduced in 1516, limits beer to four ingredients – barley hops, yeast, and water.
The most common malts are pilsner or light Munich, composing at least 80% of the base. Classic recipes also include Bavarian lager yeast and noble hops.
American Oktoberfest beers are not restricted by the beer purity law. That means some breweries are free to experiment with additional ingredients, resulting in different, but interesting profiles.
Is Oktoberfest beer stronger?
Generally, both German and American Oktoberfest beers are similar in alcohol content.
Among the strongest Oktoberfest beers is the Oktoberfest beer by Hofbräu, at 6.3% ABV. The lowest is from Hacker Pschorr, at 5.8% ABV.
Other breweries place within that range: Spatenbräu, Paulaner, Augustiner, and Löwenbräu all around 6% ABV.
What is the most popular Oktoberfest beer in the US?
There are a number of Oktoberfest beers that acquired popularity over the years.
Samuel Adams Oktoberfest is among the most popular, given its resemblance to an original Märzen. It has a 5.3% ABV and a caramel-biscuit aroma.
The spicy Hallertau Mittelfrüh and Tettnang Tettnanger hops with the sweet Munich and caramel malts create an outstanding, festive taste. This beer lands in the common ground between traditional and modern beer lovers.
The best Oktoberfest beers to try in 2021
While most brewers strive for consistency in their product, seasonal releases such as the Oktoberfest may vary from year to year.
The best Oktoberfest beers for 2021 are:
- Bitburger Festbier
- Weihenstephaner Festbier
- Lowenbrau Original
- Augustiner Brau Maximator
- Hacker Pschorr Oktoberfest
- Paulaner Hefe Weizen
- Hofbrau Original
- Ayinger Oktober Fest-Märzen
- Hacker-Pschorr Original Oktoberfest
- Weihenstephan Festbier
Bitburger Festbier is a great Oktoberfest beer because it contains three types of malt, creating a satisfying, biscuit-like flavor.
If you can, try the Weihenstephaner Festbier, by the Bayerische Staatsbrauerei Weihenstephan. This brewery has been practicing since 725. This seasonal lager is golden, full-bodied, and hoppy. It hits a 5.8% ABV.
Löwenbräu Original, by Löwenbräu AG, is a clear, golden lager with 5.2% ABV. Over the years, Löwenbräu AG has modified the recipe, yet it remains an impressive, accessible, and quality beer at Oktoberfest. It tastes malty and grainy, with moderate hops.
Augustiner Brau Maximator
Maximator, by Augustiner-Bräu, is a malty and toasted doppelbock. Some taste chocolate or molasses undertones. Thai beer is strong, at 7.5% ABV. This rich brew is moderately heavy and entirely satisfying. It is popular on colder days, especially during the winter.
Hacker-Pschorr Oktoberfest Märzen
Oktoberfest Märzen, by Hacker-Pschorr Bräu GmbH, is a Märzen-style favorite with 5.8% ABV. This beer is made with water from the Alps and roasted barley from Bavarian. The resulting color is rich, red amber.
Paulaner Hefe-Weißbier, by Paulaner Brauerei, is a favorite worldwide. This hazy wheat beer is sweet and bready with 5.5% ABV. Some taste banana or citrus undertones.
Hofbräu Original, by Hofbräuhaus München, is a golden, Helles-style lager with 5.1% ABV. The profile contains honey-kissed and malty tones. Some taste earthy citrus notes. This is a classic both at Oktoberfest and abroad.
Ayinger Oktober Fest-Märzen
Oktober Fest-Märzen, by Ayinger Privatbrauerei, is a traditional, Märzen-style beer with 5.8% ABV. It boasts a golden-amber color and a sweet, malty profile. Some detect floral or caramel notes, which add complexity.
Hacker-Pschorr Original Oktoberfest
Hacker-Pschorr Original Oktoberfest is a 5.8% ABV beer that comes from one of the most prominent breweries in Bavaria. The great amber color and toasted malt flavors, combined with a very sweet hop aroma, are all adding up to provide an amazing, distinct, and very impressive beer that everyone will enjoy.
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