It’s one of the most notorious confusions in beer and fodder for endless lager-head fansplaining: Why is our American “Oktoberfestbier” a toasty, sweet amber lager rather than something closer to the sublimely dangerous golden liquid that Bavarians actually drink by the liter at Oktoberfest every year?
Or, to frame the question a different way: Which beer is the real Oktoberfestbier?
It’s a trick question. The answer depends on which Oktoberfest you mean. Which year or era gets to define it?
If we’re going back in time (let’s go!) to any of the fests in the first five or six decades since the famous royal wedding and horse race in 1810, we’ll almost certainly be drinking a red-brown Münchner lagerbier—essentially a proto-dunkel.
If we’re headed back to the later 19th or early 20th centuries, we’ll have more choices—a strongish, amber-colored, Vienna-like märzen is invariably there, but (depending on the year) so is a darker lager, a paler helles, an export lager, a weissbier—and, from 1895 to 1900, there is even a pilsner.
However, if we’re going back to the future to the next Oktoberfest—planned for 2022, since it’s taking another precautionary year off due to the pandemic—we can expect only one type of beer in the big tents: a strong golden lager, softly sweet, yet with a light balancing bitterness and drying finish. It is palpably stronger than your daily helles—yet, ideally, it is brewed to be addictive and consumed in quantity.
About Munich’s Modern Oktoberfestbier
The six breweries allowed to serve beer at the Oktoberfest today— Augustiner, Hacker-Pschorr, Hofbräu, Löwenbräu, Paulaner, and Spaten—are the only ones in Germany allowed to call theirs “Oktoberfestbier.” (Notably, a local upstart called Giesinger will soon be eligible to join the club—and the brewery already produces a festbier that fits the profile.) These breweries are essentially a legal cartel serving beer to a massive and eager audience.
When did the beer at Oktoberfest go blond? That’s tricky. My educated guess: It happened gradually, picking up momentum as the big beer tents increasingly adopted clear glass mugs instead of opaque steinkrüge. (Film clips from the early 1960s show both still in use, with a relatively pale beer in clear, dimpled mugs.) Another source of confusion is that beers labeled as märzen can sometimes be pale and golden in Germany. And why not?
If you read American texts about Oktoberfestbier, you might encounter a few dubious, recycled facts. One is that the beer at the Wies’n all went golden around 1990—implying that it happened over the 1980s—or that Paulaner was the first to introduce a golden festbier in the 1970s. However, Oktoberfest programs from the early 19th century make it clear that there were paler beers alongside märzenbier at least as early as 1895. It just took them a long time to take over—and it probably happened in fits and starts.
Another frequently repeated “fact” is that Augustiner was the first to introduce a golden beer to the Wies’n in 1953, with its Wiesn-Edelstoff. However, those old programs also make it clear that Augustiner was serving its Edelstoff Hell alongside its märzenbier as early as 1929 and for some years thereafter. (Thanks to Andreas Krennmair, author of Historic German and Austrian Beers for the Homebrewer, for pointing me toward those programs, which are publicly available at bavarikon.de.)
Regardless, festbier is the word we typically use for this lighter-colored style in North America, to distinguish it from the richer amber lager that we often call “Oktoberfest.”
America’s Amber “Oktoberfest”
So, how did American brewers decide to slap the O-word on an amber lager that tastes like caramel? I’d argue that it’s because we essentially embraced the idea that Oktoberfestbier and märzen are the same thing—because they often were—but then we go and brew our märzen with exaggerated malt character and sweetness.
Maybe there’s a place for that. It’s always exciting to see those “Oktoberfest” beers appear on shelves in late summer and early fall, and we’ve come to identify them with the season—the urbane alternative to pumpkin beer. The amber color seems to mirror the turning leaves, and its malty Maillard flavors find their friends in a range of foods at family gatherings.
But the main problem with our usual American take on Oktoberfest and märzen is this: It’s not especially drinkable. It’s got character, sure. It often tastes good in 12-ounce quantities. But there are not many that lend themselves to drinking by the liter, and then maybe another liter—which ought to be the point, right? If your “Oktoberfest” beer can’t honestly be drunk in Oktoberfest quantities, maybe you ought to choose a different name. It might be a good beer, but it’s not a fest beer.
So, first of all, why did we settle on that one style? Maybe it’s because American brewers (and beer writers, apparently) rarely let the facts get in the way of a good story—and the story of “March beer” is a pretty good one.
Part of the story is that a 16th century Bavarian duke ruled that there should be no brewing between late April and late September. So, brewers had to make plenty of beer in the spring, and brew it stronger so it would last through the summer. It’s a neat piece of history that adds a veneer of mythology around Oktoberfest, whose brewers have been able to use artificial refrigeration for about 140 years now.
Much later, Spaten is said to have introduced a “märzenbier” in 1841, and by 1872 was calling it Oktoberfestbier. Also from 1872, another tale: The famous Schottenhamel tent needed more beer, so Josef Sedlmayer of Franziskaner-Leistbräu sold them a stronger one in the Vienna style—and that beer came to be sold as Oktoberfest-Märzenbier.
Many books and articles have repeated those stories, often uncritically. Michael Jackson’s World Guide to Beer in 1977 equated the beer at Oktoberfest with märzenbier and implied that it was “light brown”—although paler beers were already being served at the Wies’n by then. American microbrewers were brewing Oktoberfest-inspired beers by the mid-1980s, with Samuel Adams Octoberfest first appearing in 1989, tasting of caramel (its grist includes caramel 60) and no doubt influencing many other brewers.
We also can’t discount the influence of George and Laurie Fix’s book in the Classic Beer Style Series, Vienna, Märzen, Oktoberfest, first published in 1991. Still available from the Brewers Association, the book remains a reference for American brewers. It includes a recipe for “Traditional Oktoberfest/Märzen.” The grist is a pilsner base plus 4 percent each of German light crystal, German dark crystal, and British caramel (20°L). It lists the beer’s target color as 9 to 11°L, or 11 to 14 SRM—solidly amber, with some chewy malt depth.
When discussing festival beer, the Fix book leans heavily on a fairly short 1984 article in Brauwelt by the famous Bavarian brewing scientist Ludwig Narziss. The Fixes mostly narrow their scope to a section whose translated title is, “Märzen Beers and Fest Beers Derived from Them.” However, the Narziss article has another section focused on “Helle Export-, Spezial- und Festbiere”—that is, pale export, special, and fest beers. He tests three pale festbiers for this article–again, this is 1984. Their gravities range from 13.6 to 13.9°P (1.055–1.056), with apparent attenuation ranging from 83 to 88 percent—suggesting ABVs of 6 to 6.5 percent.
Meanwhile, their color ranges from 6.8 to 9.7 EBC, or roughly 3.5 to 5 SRM—as gold as gold can get.
Toward a Better (Amber) Oktoberfest
Of all the seasonal American lagers inspired by Oktoberfest, one of the tastiest and most drinkable I’ve found comes from a disciplined German-style brewery in Kansas City. For practical reasons, KC Bier chose to go amber for its autumn Festbier, first brewed in 2014.
“We considered brewing an export-style golden lager like those served in the tents at the Oktoberfest,” says founder Steve Holle. However, the brewery already had its Helles Lager as a core brand, and they worried that customers might get confused if the beer was a similar color. “So, we chose to make a light reddish-amber lager closer to the märzen style, but we wanted it to retain the crispness and drinkability of the golden Wies’n beer.”
To get there, they leaned into Vienna malt and lightened the gravity—it’s a modest 5.5 percent ABV—tweaking the recipe until they got what they wanted. Karlton Graham, head brewer at KC Bier, says the goal was always great drinkability.
To get there, Graham says, “it has to be dry.” The current grist is 45 percent pilsner, 45 percent Vienna, 7 percent acidulated (sauermalz), and just 3 percent melanoidin malt. KC Bier does two decoctions on that mash, to deepen the malt character but also (perhaps counterintuitively) to get higher attenuation for an ultimately drier beer. The team also pays close attention to pH, aiming for a relatively low 4.85 pH at knockout and 4.2 to 4.35 in the finished beer. (However, Graham cautions that the grist bill greatly influences the target pH, so your numbers may vary.) They also pitch plenty of fresh yeast to ensure that the fermentation is healthy and clean.
“The one overriding concern as the recipe changed over the years was, ‘How do I feel about this beer after completing a liter of it?’” Graham says that they reduced the darker malts and adjusted the hop schedule. By the time they were happy with it, it was much closer to a traditional Vienna lager than a classic märzen.
“The result is very clean, drinkable beer that many people want to order a second liter of in the biergarten,” Graham says, “and that is not a common quality for any beer.”
Anatomy of a Winning (Golden) Festbier
The golden beers served today at the Wies’n by the six Munich breweries are more like amped-up helles or export-strength lagers. They range in strength from 5.8 to 6.3 percent ABV. The IBUs are invariably in the low to mid-20s.
The starting gravity is almost universally 13.7°P—that’s 1.056—so the range of alcoholic strengths gives you a sense of how well attenuated they are, relative to others. My personal favorites happen to be from Augustiner and Hofbräu—and not because they’re the two strongest, at 6.3 percent ABV. It’s because they’re drier beers; I find them easier to drink in quantity, despite their strength.
While the paler, modern interpretation may not be as common here, some American brewers do embrace it. One of those is Matt Westfall, founder and brewer at Counter Weight Brewing in Hamden, Connecticut. Counter Weight Fest Bier won gold at the Great American Beer Festival in 2020, in the category for “Dortmunder or German-Style Oktoberfest.”
Westfall says he drank some great festbier in Germany and wanted to brew something like it at home. “We feel this style is more drinkable than the often too-sweet Americanized version of märzens, often found around New England come fall,” he says. “Drinking German beers that achieve tremendous malt flavor and aroma without detracting from drinkability has our team chasing that here in our brewery.”
The Counter Weight approach to lagers is “ultimately process driven,” Westfall says. That means sound brewing practices: high-quality ingredients, being gentle on the wort, monitoring pH, and using healthy yeast. “Proper time and temperature [do] the rest.”
Westfall says he views Fest Bier as an extension of their helles—called Ein Helles—one of his favorite beers to brew and drink. “Adding more body and more prominent malt character, with modest amounts of specialty malts, with a higher starting and finishing gravity, gets us a bready honey-like sweetness that is much more prominent than in our helles.”
They use a straightforward infusion mash, but the new brewery they’re building will allow Westfall and his team to experiment with decoction. “We’ll be able to explore what this and other traditional processes might do for our lager beers soon enough.”
Counter Weight largely uses German malt from IREKS, based in Kulmbach, Upper Franconia. They buy it from Stone Path Malt in Wareham, Massachusetts, along with some of Stone Path’s own craft malts. Besides good pilsner malt, just a bit of malty oomph and color come from some “dark” Munich at about 10 SRM. Westfall says it’s “a really lovely malt,” and it “pushes the beer color just over that straw color to a deep gold.”
The key to Counter Weight’s Fest Bier and other lagers, Westfall says, is attenuation. They get about 80 percent attenuation on the Fest Bier, leaving it relatively dry despite its strength.
“In our opinion,” he says, “the balance of good, expressive malt character within a well-attenuated beer is the basis for good-drinking, German-style lager beer.”
The Official Oktoberfestbiers
Here are some publicly available details on the Wies’n beer from each of the six Oktoberfest breweries:
5.8% ABV, OG 1.056 (13.7°P)
5.9% ABV, 23 IBUs
6% ABV, OG 1.056 (13.7°P), grist: pilsner & dark Munich
6.1% ABV, OG 1.056 (13.7°P)
6.3% ABV, OG 1.056 (13.7°P), 26 IBUs, grist: pilsner & Munich
If you want to brew a convincing and addictive version of that type of festbier, here is our best advice:
- Aim for an OG of 1.056.
- Use German pilsner malt with just enough Munich to hit about 5 SRM (deep gold).
- Consider decoction mashing or a multistep mash geared toward greater fermentability.
- Use Hallertauer hops, including a light late-boil aroma burst, to get about 25 IBUs.
- Make a fresh yeast starter with your chosen lager strain; aerate your wort well before pitching.
- Ferment at 50°F (10°C) patiently, then chill and lager for as many weeks as you can stand it.