It’s been three years since I began writing this column, and I realized recently that I haven’t ever spoken about Oktoberfest and the wonderful beers that make an appearance this time of year.
How could I have possibly missed talking about the biggest beer festival in the world and all those delicious annual beers that come with it? In the world of American craft beer, with new and bolder beers being released every day, it can be easy to overlook the simple, perfectly made beers like an Oktoberfest offering.
A bit of history first: Oktoberfest is the German celebration that takes place every year near the end of September and early October. The festival actually began as a royal wedding celebration in 1810 in Munich, Bavaria, and originally had nothing to do with beer. A horse race was held around the wedding festivities, and residents decided to hold another race the following year. Over time, the festival grew into a gigantic cultural celebration that included beer, reflecting Germany’s love of celebrating with beer — lots of beer.
Oktoberfest is also the name for the type of beer that is served at the festival. At the Oktoberfest celebration in Germany, only six breweries — Spaten, Lowenbrau, Augustiner-Brau, Hofbrau- Munchen, Paulaner and Hacker-Pschorr — are allowed to serve beers. But that hasn’t stopped other breweries around the world from adapting the “fest” style beer and creating their own versions of it.
The traditional fest beer, sometimes also called Marzen (meaning “March,” the month the beer is normally brewed), is a glorious, deep, rich amber lager that is a bit fuller than your everyday pilsner but still incredibly drinkable and crisp. A gentle sweetness, with just a touch of toasted bread and soft caramel, is perfectly balanced by a light hop bitterness. This beer was brewed to be consumed in quantity, and that’s not hard to do with a well-made Marzen.
Over the past few decades, though, fest beers have become increasingly lighter in color, with much less caramel notes and a touch more hop crispness. The lighter beer translates to a lower alcohol content than a dark, richer beer, so the adjustments allow festivalgoers to consume more beer at each sitting.
Here in Hawaii, you can get a taste of both a classic Marzen-style beer and a modern version right off the supermarket shelf.
First, the Ayinger Oktober Fest-Marzen is an absolute classic that should not be missed. It has a deep amber color that lets you know this beer is going to be full of flavor, yet it’s still light and very crisp. You’ll pick up aromas of raisins and freshly baked bread and flavors of toasty bread with a gentle sweetness of caramel. A touch of hop bitterness prevents the flavor from being overly sweet and keeps each sip crisp and dry.
You will find this one at most Oktoberfest events and at most stores that stock great beer.
Next, a good modern selection is Sierra Nevada’s 2016 Oktoberfest. This one is similar to what you might find at the actual Oktoberfest celebration in Germany. This year, Sierra Nevada collaborated with the German brewery Mahrs Brau, which has been brewing beer since 1670, to create a very light-bodied and crisp offering.
In contrast to the Ayinger Oktoberfest, this beer has a pale golden color with soft aromas of white bread and just a touch of malted sweetness. The surprise comes when you take your first sip: For such a light-colored beer, there is a wonderful full-malt flavor, yet the body is still light. A gentle use of hops keeps the sweetness from becoming cloying and provides a touch of peppery spice at the end of each sip. This is the kind of fest beer that will not fatigue your palate.
This fall, take a break from the onslaught of pumpkin beers and return to a classic style. Oktoberfest beers come around just once a year, so don’t miss out on them.