Everything has its holiday. Football has the Super Bowl, food has Thanksgiving, freedom has Independence Day, and beer has Oktoberfest.
Born in Munich, Germany in the early nineteenth century, Oktoberfest is a holiday originally based around celebrating a marriage. The future King Ludwig I (who ended up losing his throne after serious beer riots—but that’s another story) married Princess Therese of Sage-Hildburghausen and invited the locals to celebrate on the fields in front of the city gates.
Because no one drinks beer like the Germans, the populace embraced the festival with open arms and threw in a horse race, a parade, and an agricultural show, and in no time it began a tradition that has lasted through the ages.
In its modern incarnation, Oktoberfest is the world’s largest beer festival, and spans 16-18 days from mid or late September to the first weekend in October. A whopping 6 million people from around the world attend Oktoberfest in Munich each year. No, I haven’t been, but yes I will—for the sake of this column.
Oktoberfest beers aren’t actually brewed in October. Traditional Oktoberfest beers are known as Märzen beers, which get their name from the month of March, when many of them are brewed. This beer gets stored in cold cellars and enjoyed throughout late summer and into fall, finishing off in September and October. These beers age well and often carry an amber hue.
The Germans are pretty strict about their beer laws, so Oktoberfest beers are only allowed to be called “Oktoberfest” if they are from a brewery within the city limits of Munich. All other similar brews are officially called “Oktoberfest-style” beers. Because Americans love freedom and that freedom extends to how we brew beer, there can be a bit of variation in the Oktoberfest-style beers you can get at your local grocery or liquor store.
There are thousands of Märzen beers available from brewers here in the United States. Getting good imported German Märzen beer isn’t all that easy, but if you can I’d recommend the Spaten Oktoberfest. It’s a true Oktoberfest beer straight from Munich and has that great amber color and savory flavor that transports you straight to a German beer hall full of happy, toasty people and the aroma of sausage and pretzels.
If you can’t find Spaten, you have plenty of American-made options. I had two this week, one from Brooklyn Brewery and one from Shiner.
Brooklyn Brewery puts out a fine array of beer, and their Oktoberfest lager is a perfect example of a quality brew. As per tradition it is a malt-forward, full-bodied beer, with a hint of hop bitterness. Brooklyn says they use seven malts and two hops in this beer, all of which combines into a nice amber pour with a small fizzy head and a flavor that screams fall. If you can find it in your beer-purchasing establishment of choice, it’s worth grabbing a few of these to get a good feel for what an American Oktoberfest beer is like.
Shiner, a brewery from a small Texas town of the same name, makes solid Texas beers. If you fly into the Lone Star State, pull up to the bar, and ask for a Texas beer, they’ll probably give you a Shiner. The brewery’s take on the Oktoberfest style is a great illustration of a beer you can enjoy with your friends on your deck while grilling bratwurst, watching football and enjoying the welcome crispness of early fall. It has that quintessential copper-like color, a rich malty-ness and a dry, slightly hoppy finish. It also comes in big bottles, appropriate for the holiday.
So this weekend as the fall air begins to work its way in, head to your local Oktoberfest celebration or grab a Märzen at your neighborhood grocery or liquor store, grill some sausages, and toast to the season. As the Germans say, Prost!