Oktoberfest is Germany's reminder that the less than half a century of American "craft" beer brewing is cute at best.
Oktoberfest 2017 began in Munich on September 16 and doesn't wrap up until October 3. During that span, many of the 46 million Americans of German descent will take part in Oktoberfest celebrations in Cincinnati; Denver; New Ulm, Minn., LaCrosse, Wisc.; Mount Angel, Ore.; Levenworth, Wash.; Torrance, Calif.; Hermann, Mo.; and elsewhere.
The 16-day celebration in Munich, however, dates back to 1810 and the wedding of King Ludwig and Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen. On the same Theresienwiese fields that hosted those celebrations, Munich welcomes millions of visitors to its giant gala event. Meanwhile, an event on the south end of the grounds has a museum-like atmosphere more akin Oktoberfest's earliest days.
At the core of the event is a vast sea of beer produced by six Munich brewers: Spaten, Lowenbrau, Augustiner-Brau, Hofbrau-Munchen, Paulaner and Hacker-Pschorr. Their "Munich beer" was once an amber-bodied, sweet Marzen -- brewed in March and lagered until the festival's kickoff. That's the beer that U.S. craft brewers emulate with their "Oktoberfest" and "Festbier" offerings, but it hasn't been the Oktoberfest's official beer in decades.
Instead, the more recent of Marzen is lighter in color and slightly more bitter. The balanced lager, commonly referred to as Wiesn (also the name for the Oktoberfest grounds), is still brewed according to the Reinheitsgebot beer purity law. Written 500 years ago to regulate the use of barley, the Reinheitsgebot limits the ingredients a brewery can use in beer to hops, malted barley, water and yeast. Yeast was a late addition and both rye and wheat managed to sneak in as well.
Though the law has reined in German beer styles for generations, it forces brewers to do more with less. If brewers want a coffee or chocolate beer, they roast malt and produce those flavors during the boiling stage of brewing. If brewers want fruit flavors, they have to find hops that yield citrus or tropical fruit characteristics. Though brewers have pushed back and forth on revisions to the purity law, both drinkers and brewers have voiced support for both the tradition it maintains and the perceived quality it provides.
That hasn't stopped brewers in the U.S. from adopting the "Oktoberfest" name to their versions of the beer not governed by German beer law. Munich brewers, in particular, aren't happy about it, with Spaten and Paulaner pointing out that "Oktoberfest Beer" and "Munich Beer" are registered trademarks of the Club of Munich Brewers and fall under the protection of the European Union.
Despite this, and the fact that Adolphus Busch, Joseph Schlitz, Frederick Pabst and Frederick Miller, August Schell, David Jungling (eventually Yuengling) all made beer in the U.S. what it is today, German beer styles don't always get the respect they deserve in the United States. Beer snobs will fight for Belgian Lambic beer styles, but go quiet when you point out that Kolsch from Cologne or Dortmunder from Dortmund are entitled to the exact same protections. The animosity that Germans faced in the U.S. during the 19th century -- and that helped bring about Prohibition -- still survives in a more passive-aggressive form among craft beer drinkers today.
Think we're overreacting? Well, don't believe us. Beverage industry consulting firm Bump Williams Consulting notes that craft brewers produced 234,471 barrels of their take on Oktoberfest beers back in 2011. Despite their fluctuating reverence for the style, sales of it actually plummeted to 206,504 barrels by the end of 2016. Beer snobs will claim to love this beer while looking down their nose at pumpkin beers around this time of year, but the fact is they're still more likely to pick up an India Pale Ale than either of them.
With Oktoberfest upon us and more than 5,300 U.S. brewers producing hundreds of takes on the Marzen style, we took at look at beer industry site BeerAdvocate's rankings of various Oktoberfest beers and came up with the 10 that were most popular (if not the most highly rated) among its drinkers. While some of the Munich brewers make the cut, it's interesting to see who they're keeping company with.
How much did you pay for your pint? These beers will wipe out your paycheck:
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10. Weinhenstephaner Festbier
Bayerische Staatsbrauerei Weihenstephan, Freising, Germany
It isn't a Munich brewery, but you can cut some slack to the oldest continuously operating brewery in the world. The Weihenstephan Brewery dates back to the Weihenstephan Abbey in 768, when a hop garden in the area was documented as paying a tithe to the monastery. However, a brewery wasn't licensed by the City of Freising until 1040, which the brewery counts as its opening date. The Bavarian brewery fell into state hands in 1803, but it kept producing beer nonetheless. Its Festbier, however, isn't as sweet as the Marzen that U.S. drinkers have come to expect. It's mild, it's crisp and it has slightly more hop bite than your average Marzen. U.S. drinkers have embraced it, however, and it'll be interesting to see if U.S. brewers follow their lead.
9. Leinenkugel's Oktoberfest
Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Company, Chippewa Falls, Wis.
The 150-year-old Jacob Leinenkugel brewery was founded by German immigrants and has held to German brewing tradition throughout its history. It's been owned by either Miller or MillerCoors since 1988, but saw its popularity explode nationwide less than a decade ago after it released its Summer Shandy. Now the entire U.S. gets to sip this traditional Marzen and take in its sweet finish and 5.1% alcohol by volume. They also get to see its popularity outpace that of Hofbrau Munchen and Lowenbrau's takes on the style. The Leinie Lodge in Chippewa Falls is humble, but its Oktoberfest has found its way into more hearts than that poured at various U.S. Hofbrauhaus locations.
8. Brooklyn Oktoberfest
Brooklyn Brewery, New York City
Brooklyn's brewmaster Garrett Oliver doesn't play around with tradition, hewing to the original malty, bready style and delivering a close approximation of what drinkers once found in Munich. Granted, it's now coming from a Brooklyn brewery that brews in Utica, N.Y., Australia, Japan, Sweden, Norway and South Korea, but that's just broader commentary on Oktoberfest as a global phenomenon. Mixing German Pilsner malt, light and dark Munich malts, caramel malts, a little Belgian Aromatic malt and both Challenger and Hallertauer Mittelfrueh hops, this 5.5% ABV festbier has become a stateside staple around this time of year and a great representation of Brooklyn's global citizenship.
7. Hacker-Pschorr Original Oktoberfest Amber Marzen
Hacker-Pschorr Brau, Munich
Dating back to 1417 and named for 18th-century owners Teresia Hacker and Joseph Pschorr, Hacker-Pschorr is a huge Oktoberfest presence in Munich. It oversees a handful of festival tents, dishes out roasted chicken and duck and backs a tent that cranks out bratwurst and schweinshaxe (pork knuckles). This is far from the only beer it serves at the event, but it's Hacker-Pschorr's face of Oktoberfest in the U.S. Using Hallertau Tradition and Halletau Herkules hops and a blend of Marthe, Grace and Catamaran malt not typically seen in the U.S., Hacker-Pschorr's Marzen has notes of black currant and cedar that also vary from stateside malt-bomb Marzens. It's a true taste of Oktoberfest tradition, even if it's just part of a full Oktoberfest beer spectrum that Americans seldom see.
Victory Brewing Company, Downingtown, Pa.
We understand that, in Pennsylvania, it's tempting for a brewer like Victory to put out its own Marzen and join the state's big German brewing party.
But so what? They're in a state in which far older, more traditional breweries fall all over themselves to make the perfect Marzen. Victory's own little touch, which adds a little more hop bite to the flavor, pierces that smooth layer of Vienna and Munich malts and gives a drinker just enough of a respite from its sweetness to catch his or her attention.
At 5.6% ABV, Festbier isn't nearly as strong as its hop content would suggest. It's also just mild enough to sneak into the Oktoberfest mix and pleasantly surprise drinkers normally put off by a malty style.
5. Great Lakes Oktoberfest
Great Lakes Brewing Company, Cleveland, Ohio
In a state steeped in some fine German brewing tradition - and home to Hofbrauhaus locations in Columbus, neighboring Newport, Ky., and Cleveland itself - having some easy-drinking Marzen around is just a smart move.
Great Lakes, with its huge Cleveland brewpub and menu of pretzels and sausages, is just the kind of brewery you'd want to brew it, too. Using a classic Marzen recipe, the Great Lakes take is smooth, deeply amber and just a bit maltier than a traditional Oktoberfest, but is also a bit more potent at 6.5% alcohol by volume. The Munich malt gives the Oktoberfest its trademark flavor, while a little caramel malt give it the pleasant color that beckons another sip.
By going easy on the Mt. Hood hops and not messing with an already beloved formula too much, Great Lakes Oktoberfest gives U.S. drinkers perhaps the best approximation of a true Munich Oktoberfest that they'll find on these shores. It's worth savoring.
4. Paulaner Oktoberfest Marzen
Paulaner Braueri, Munich
Paulaner exports its Marzen to the U.S. as Oktoberfest, but brings its lighter Wiesn to the states as well. Not surprisingly, the one with "Oktoberfest" in its name tends to sell better. Last year, I got to speak with Martin Zuber, who has served with Paulaner since 1987 and is now the brewery's managing director, about why Paulaner and other breweries switched from sweet Marzen to pale Wiesn in the 1960s and '70s.
"People preferred the pale version, and one [reason] was the drinkability of the pale version is a little bit higher than the Marzen beer," he said. "There are some lovers of the Marzen beer, but there was also a logistical reason: It was easier to serve only one beer style in the tent."
However, Paulaner realizes that Marzen is still the style that most U.S. drinkers associate with Oktoberfest, and it imports a lot of it into this country around this time of year. Yes, this amber lager tends to be sweeter, but it's still fairly simple. It uses only Hallertauer Tradition hops, dark Munich malt and light Pilsner malt in its recipe. With a history dating back to 1634 and deep ties to Munich through not only its Paulanergarten, Oktoberfest tents and Bayern Munich soccer sponsorship, Paulaner cuts to the core of the city's brewing tradition and has exported it to 27 Paulaner pubs around the globe.
3. Spaten Oktoberfestbier Ur-Marzen
Spaten-Franziskaner Brau, Munich
Known as the Weiser Prew back in 1397, this brewery moved to its current Munich location in 1854 and started shipping beer to the U.S. as early as 1909. It merged with Franziskaner in 1922, then with Lowenbrau in 1997 before being picked up by the precursor to Anheuser-Busch InBev in 2003.
Yep, this is a Big Beer Oktoberfest beer, and, yes, it plays its ingredients a bit close to the vest. But there's a ton of caramel malt and lots of caramel and toffee to go around. What we can assume are Hallertau hops cut it a bit, but this is slightly more full-bodied than the other Munich Marzens. Crisp and near-perfect, this Spaten offering has earned its place in the upper echelons. That it's an Anheuser-Busch InBev beer only indicates that the big global brewer knows what it's doing.
2. Ayinger Oktober Fest-Marzen
Privatbrauerei Franz Inselkammer/Brauerei Aying, Germany
We're convinced that BeerAdvocate users are just trolling Munich. Not only is the the second most-drunk Oktoberfest on their site, but this 5.8% ABV beer is the second highest-rated German Oktoberfest beer behind only Augustiner's, which is much harder to find in the U.S. Just outside of Munich in Aying, Ayinger was founded in 1877 and excluded from Munich's Oktoberfest reindeer games the entire time. Instead, Ayinger throws its own parties in the Munich countryside and makes this 5.8% ABV Marzen that has no time for your hop bite. More liquid bread than bitter hop assault, the caramel malt is only slightly sweet and lends a fine balance to the style overall. It's a bit heavier than your average lager, but those toasted grains only get better as this beer warms. It's Ayinger's last laugh on the Munich breweries, and it is glorious.
1. Samuel Adams Octoberfest
Boston Beer Company, Boston
A whole lot has changed since this beer was first brewed in 1989.
Boston Beer Company is best known for its Samuel Adams line of beers, but it's now an umbrella for multiple operations. Beer only accounts for little more than half of Boston Beer's overall production, with its Angry Orchard cider line taking up much of the rest. The company also drifts into the flavored-malt-beverage portion of the beer aisle with its Twisted Tea products. Even Samuel Adams itself drifted from its Boston Lager and more Teutonic styles and into a line of IPAs.
However, this beer serves as a reminder of Boston Beer's deep roots in German brewing. Boston Beer once swore by the Reinheitsgebot, which made Boston Lager the first U.S. beer to be called "beer" there when it was introduced in 1985. Since then, Boston Beer founder Jim Koch has teamed with the world's oldest brewery, Bayerische Staatsbrauerei Weihenstephan, on the champagne-style Infinium beer and has maintained a decades-long business relationship with German and hop suppliers to procure German heirloom hops (at one point, Boston Beer was the largest buyer of Hallertau Mittelfreuh hops and helped revive the variety). A few years ago, he was awarded the Bavarian Order of Beer at the Brau Beviale global beer trade show, making him the first non-German to receive the award in its 35-year history.
Because of all of the above, and in deference to the German tradition of reserving the Oktoberfest title for Munich beers, Octoberfest dropped the k for the c and went a bit maltier with its formula. That's allowed Octoberfest to hold its own as a fragrant, flavorful 5.3% ABV fall favorite whose caramel-and-biscuit aroma hangs in the air during tours at the Samuel Adams research and development brewery in Boston around this time each year. Since this beer was first brewed, other craft brewers took it as their cue to ratchet up the sweetness on their own Marzens. However, this balance of sweet Caramel and Munich malts with spicy Tettnanger and Hallertau Mittlefruh hops may be the last time a brewer tried to find some middle ground between this style's tradition and modern tastes.
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