Greetings Beer & Travel Lovers!
If it weren’t for the global health crisis, we’d be in Munich right now enjoying the spectacle of Oktoberfest, but alas we’re stuck at home just like you. So, we put on our thinking caps and determined the best way to overcome those old “Missing Oktoberfest Blues” was to conduct an informal taste test of as many Oktoberfest-related beers as we could get our hands on.
For our taste test we assembled nine Oktoberfest Biers from Munich and a few other German cities; basically, all we could get our hands on. We didn’t include any American “Oktoberfest” beers because it would be a very different tasting experience due primarily to the American proclivity for hops. But the beers we assembled represent a nice range of breweries from within Munich as well as a few notable German breweries.
In this article we’ll share:
Beer Tasting Lineup.
Brief History of Oktoberfest
Oktoberfest is the world's largest beer festival and funfair and is held annually in Munich, Germany. The festival runs for 16 – 18 days from mid-September to the first Sunday in October, and is locally known as the Wiesn (“Veez-in”) after the name of the fairgrounds, Theresienwiese (Therese’s meadow). Oktoberfest kicks off each year in the Schottenhamel tent (total capacity 9,030 people) at exactly noon on the first Saturday of the festival when the mayor of Munich taps the first keg of Spaten and proclaims “O'zapft is!” (It has been tapped!). At that point the beer starts flowing in all of the tents!
Front entrance to the Schottenhamel Tent. Image © 2020 Sebastian Lehner.
First held in 1810, Oktoberfest has been held every year since except for twelve years when it was cancelled due to war (Napoleonic, Austro-Prussian, WWI and WWII) or disease (Cholera (twice) and now Coronavirus). We are indeed living through historic times. Had it not been cancelled this year, the festival would have begun on Saturday, Sept. 19th and ended on Sunday, Oct. 4th.
In 2019, 6.3 million people visited Oktoberfest and consumed 7.3 million liters of beer. In addition to 17 large tents and 21 small tents the festival also includes numerous amusement rides, side stalls and games, along with a wide variety of traditional foods. According to the official Oktoberfest Tents page the largest tent is the Hacker-Festzelt with a total seating capacity of 9,378 (inside and in the outdoor beer garden).
Oktoberfest Bier: Märzen or Festbier... or Both?
Only beer conforming to the Reinheitsgebot and brewed within the Munich city limits can be served at Oktoberfest. Beers meeting these criteria are designated “Oktoberfest Bier” although the name also denotes two distinct beer styles: the traditional Märzen style lager and a paler “Festbier” that’s more commonly served at Oktoberfest today.
The descriptions of the Märzen and Festbier beer styles presented below in this section are courtesy of the 2015 Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) Style Guidelines, © Copyright 1999 – 2020, Beer Judge Certification Program, Inc.
“History: As the name suggests, [it is] brewed as a stronger “March beer” in March and lagered in cold caves over the summer. Modern versions trace back to the lager developed by Spaten in 1841, contemporaneous to the development of Vienna lager. However, the Märzen name is much older than 1841; the early ones were dark brown, and in Austria the name implied a strength band (14 °P) rather than a style. The German amber lager version (in the Viennese style of the time) was first served at Oktoberfest in 1872, a tradition that lasted until 1990 when the golden Festbier was adopted as the standard festival beer.
“Overall Impression: An elegant, malty German amber lager with a clean, rich, toasty and bready malt flavor, restrained bitterness, and a dry finish that encourages another drink. The overall malt impression is soft, elegant, and complex, with a rich aftertaste that is never cloying or heavy.
“Appearance: Amber-orange to deep reddish-copper color; should not be golden. Bright clarity, with persistent, off-white foam stand.
Typical Oktoberfest Märzen appearance. Image © Copyright Paulaner Brauerei Gruppe GmbH & Co. KGaA. All rights reserved.
“Flavor: Initial malt flavor often suggests sweetness, but finish is moderately-dry to dry. Distinctive and complex maltiness often includes a bready, toasty aspect. Hop bitterness is moderate, and the hop flavor is low to none (German types: complex, floral, herbal, or spicy). Hops provide sufficient balance that the malty palate and finish do not seem sweet. The aftertaste is malty, with the same elegant, rich malt flavors lingering. Noticeable caramel, biscuit, or roasted flavors are inappropriate. Clean lager fermentation profile.
“Comments: Modern domestic German Oktoberfest versions are golden – see the Festbier style for this version. Export German versions (to the United States, at least) are typically orange-amber in color, have a distinctive toasty malt character, and are most often labeled Oktoberfest. American craft versions of Oktoberfest are generally based on this style, and most Americans will recognize this beer as Oktoberfest. Historic versions of the beer tended to be darker, towards the brown color range, but there have been many ‘shades’ of Märzen (when the name is used as a strength); this style description specifically refers to the stronger amber lager version. The modern Festbier can be thought of as a pale Märzen by these terms.”
“History: Since 1990, the majority of beer served at Oktoberfest in Munich has been this style. Export beer specifically made for the United States is still mainly of the traditional amber style, as are US-produced interpretations. Paulaner first created the golden version in the mid-1970s because they thought the traditional Oktoberfest was too filling. So, they developed a lighter, more drinkable but still malty version that they wanted to be “more poundable” (according to the head brewer at Paulaner). But the actual type of beer served at Oktoberfest is set by a Munich city committee.
“Overall Impression: A smooth, clean, pale German lager with a moderately strong malty flavor and a light hop character. Deftly balances strength and drinkability, with a palate impression and finish that encourages drinking. Showcases elegant German malt flavors without becoming too heavy or filling.
“Appearance: Deep yellow to deep gold color; should not have amber hues. Bright clarity. Persistent white to off-white foam stand. Most commercial examples are medium gold in color.
Typical Festbier appearance. Image © Copyright Bayerische Staatsbrauerei Weihenstephan. All rights reserved.
“Flavor: Medium to medium-high malty flavor initially, with a lightly toasty, bread dough quality and an impression of soft sweetness. Medium to medium-low bitterness, definitely malty in the balance. Well-attenuated and crisp, but not dry. Medium-low to medium floral, herbal, or spicy hop flavor. Clean lager fermentation character. The taste is mostly of Pils malt, but with slightly toasty hints. The bitterness is supportive, but still should yield a malty, flavorful finish.
“Comments: This style represents the modern German beer served at Oktoberfest (although it is not solely reserved for Oktoberfest; it can be found at many other ‘fests’), and is sometimes called Wiesn (“the meadow” or local name for the Oktoberfest festival). We chose to call this style Festbier since by German and EU regulations, Oktoberfestbier is a protected appellation for beer produced at large breweries within the Munich city limits for consumption at Oktoberfest. Other countries are not bound by these rules, so many craft breweries in the US produce beer called Oktoberfest, but based on the traditional style described in these guidelines as Märzen.”
Beer Tasting Lineup & Results
As mentioned above, we had the pleasure of tasting nine beers across two similar beer styles – Oktoberfest Märzen and Festbier. These beers are listed below and pictured beneath that in the same order (L-R):
Our view of the beers prior to tasting. Note the varying colors; our first clue regarding the beer style.
This was not a “blind” test in that the tasting cups were not covered to prevent us from seeing each beer, but the bottles were hidden from view. Our methodology - if you want to call it that - was confined to observing the color, the body, the finish and our personal preferences. Not wanting to waste beer (duh!) and unlike in real beer competitions, we drank each beer as we tasted it and didn’t cleanse our palates between beers. Our final ratings (each beer was given a rating from 1 to 10) are therefore likely to be biased and definitely not “expert” opinion, but rating beer (like many things in life) is probably more subjective and less scientific than some BJCP judges would be willing to admit.
Finally, all of the beers that are allowed to be served at Oktoberfest München were included in our taste test except for Löwenbräu and Augustiner Bräu because these breweries don’t distribute their Oktoberfest beers to the United States.
* The five beers identified with asterisks in the table above are official “Oktoberfest biers” and thus allowed to be served at Oktoberfest.
** Based on the BJCP style guide, the Bitburger Festbier color - amber orange – doesn’t fall into desired appearance for a Festbier.
Unlike real beer tasting competitions, we wound up with a tie in each category.
That said, the biggest surprise in our tasting was the Dinkelacker which is brewed in Stuttgart, about 140 northwest of Munich, in Bavaria. Dinkelacker is an exceptional brewery and we particularly recommend their Schwaben Bräu Keller Pils which is an uncommon unfiltered pilsner.
The other beer worth discussing is the Weihenstephaner Festbier. This beer is brewed by the Bayerische Staatsbrauerei (Bavarian State Brewery) Weihenstephan in Freising which is just outside of Munich proper. Weihenstephan is both the oldest brewery in the world (founded in 1040) and is associated with the Technical University of Munich which has the most prestigious brewing school in the world. So, it should come as no surprise that they brew an exceptional Festbier.
Of course, Paulaner (Festbier) and Spaten (Märzen) should be given the respect they deserve. Being 386 years old (Paulaner, founded in 1634) and 126 years old (Spaten, founded 1894) one can assume they’ve figured out how to brew beer by now!
With my better-half inside the Schottenhamel tent. Notice that we’re drinking the Spaten Festbier and not their Märzen which is what we get here in the U.S.
Original Gravity Tours
We hope this article inspires you to dream up your next beercation, be it in Germany or elsewhere. We also hope you’ll consider joining one of our future Munich & Bamberg Brewery Tours. For a virtual tour, pop open your favorite German beer and check out our Photos, Videos & Reviews page!
We tour the oldest breweries in the world, meet local craft brewers, enjoy the finest beer gardens, follow the Franconian breweries trail, explore the 1,000 year-old cities of Munich & Bamberg, ferry the Danube River, and more! We also offer a Week Before Oktoberfest Tour that allows you to attend the granddaddy of all beer festivals after our tour!
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Greetings! I'm a passionate beer and international travel lover. Other than craft beer, I mostly go for German & Belgian beers and if you share the same interests, you may enjoy my blog. Prost!