We tend to associate fall seasonal beers with pumpkin, spice and everything nice. But before we crack open the autumn seasonal offerings that incorporate flavors we broadly associate with the season, there first comes the Märzen, or Oktoberfest-style beer.
Märzen (German for March) beers were historically brewed in Germany right at the end of the brewing season in March. This was the product of Bavarian lawmakers forbidding brewing during the summer months as bacteria and wild yeast could spoil the beer. The beer would then be stored in cold cellars or — due to their proximity to the Alps — in caves that would keep the beer at colder temperatures for the rest of the summer. The beers would then be consumed in late summer and early fall.
This nicely coincided with what would become the celebration of Oktoberfest. The festival originated in 1810 as a celebration between the Crown Prince Ludwig I of Bavaria and Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen. A year later, Oktoberfest was celebrated again, but specifically to promote Bavarian agriculture and the economy. The festival continued to evolve and the association with beer began in 1818, when beer and food stands opened up as an official part of the festival.
Today, the only beers allowed to be served at Oktoberfest must be brewed in Munich and abide by longstanding beer purity laws known as the Reinheitsgebot. These beers are Märzen style — amber-colored lagers with a malt-forward flavor profile measuring at about 5% to 6% ABV. The beer has grown in popularity outside the festival, and thus Märzen/Oktoberfest beers have been exported and American craft brewing has taken to the style.
Not being burdened with tradition, some craft Märzen/Oktoberfests have evolved into beers that barely resemble their traditional Bavarian counterparts, while others do their damnedest to stay true to the historic style. But across the board one thing remains the same: just like the original Märzens, you can only get them for a couple months. This year we got our hands on nine different America-made Oktoberfest style beers. And though they vary in flavor, they all make for a great harbinger to the changing of the seasons.
Raise your stein.
ABV: 6.1% | Fort Collins, Colorado
Colorado craft brewing outlet Odell has gone with a fairly traditional take on the Oktoberfest using Vienna and Munich malts as well as European “noble” hops.
Tasting Notes: The traditional malt varieties used lend themselves to a bready, sweet and slightly funky nose. The flavor is very similar: it tastes malt forward with hints of biscuit and nutmeg spiciness. This is a solid example of a traditional tasting Oktoberfest.
Two Brothers Atom Smasher
ABV: 7.7% | Warrenville, Illinois
The folks at Two Brothers brewed their Atom Smasher to be reminiscent of the traditional style, but it has a barrel-aged twist that comes in the form of oak. As such, Atom Smasher is also one of the higher-alcohol beers on this list, far exceeding the traditional 5% to 6% ABV range.
Tasting Notes: The oak aging comes out strong on the nose, with a scent reminiscent of oak-aged chardonnay, with an additional breadiness. Flavor-wise, it’s a very mellow, slightly sour beer that doesn’t show its higher ABV. There’s some nuttiness, caramel and a very subtle spicy finish.
Great Lakes Oktoberfest
ABV: 6.5% | Cleveland, Ohio
Great Lakes Oktoberfest is constantly cited as one of the best examples of this style (in America). Great Lakes uses Munich malt in their version, which they say brings the nut, bread and caramel flavors most often associated with Oktoberfest style beers.
Tasting Notes: Of the beers we tried, the nose of Great Lakes’ Oktoberfest is the most subtle. You have to work for the acidic, fruity notes of apricot, but they’re there. The apricot continues faintly in the flavor profile. It has a subtle, fruity sweetness to it and a finish that reminded us of the scent of fresh vegetation. Overall it’s a crisp, clean beer. Oddly enough, we didn’t sense overwhelming malt, caramel or bread flavors.
Goose Island Oktoberfest
ABV: 6.4% | Chicago, Illinois
Goose Island’s approach to brewing their Oktoberfest is to mix the best of both German and American ingredients. You have German Hallertau hops and Munich malt working with American caramel malts to produce a unique take on the Oktoberfest style.
Tasting Notes: This one had the most complex nose, with bready, nutty, sour, sweet and toffee notes. The taste was subtly sweet, with toffee, pecan pie, caramel and coffee flavors making up the flavor profile. Despite the complex scent and relatively bold taste, it is also very drinkable.
Sierra Nevada Oktoberfest
ABV: 6% | Chico, California
If you’re looking for an American Oktoberfest most faithful to the ones they drink in Munich, Sierra Nevada’s Oktoberfest will be as close as you get (at least on this list). Unsurprisingly, it is the result of a partnership between Sierra Nevada and a German brewery: Brauhaus Riegele, a brewing mainstay in Germany known for its relatively innovative styles in Germany’s steadfast beer culture.
Tasting Notes: The Sierra Nevada Oktoberfest has malty, caramel hints with some slight funk to it. Flavor-wise it’s typical Oktoberfest: malty, a little nutty and a lingering spicy aftertaste. This is one of the cleaner, more drinkable beers we tried.
ABV: 6.7% | Bloomington, Indiana
Upland’s take on the Oktoberfest doesn’t stray too far from tradition; the beer is brewed using German malts and rare types of German hops. This is another American Oktoberfest that should satisfy German beer traditionalists.
Tasting Notes: Similar to Sierra Nevada and Odell, the Upland is a typical Oktoberfest. You get some caramel and nuttiness on the nose, along with pronounced bready qualities. The taste of the Upland starts strong with baking spices, accompanied by caramel and a bit of corn. While spiciness usually comes near the end of tasting an Oktoberfest, the finish here is relatively clean.
ABV: 6% | Brooklyn Center, Minnesota
Surly is upfront about the SurlyFest being nothing like a traditional Oktoberfest. Though they use a German lager yeast strain and Vienna malt, that’s about where the similarities end. SurlyFest is also brewed with three types of rye and dry-hopped with Sterling hops.
Tasting Notes: The dry-hopping is overwhelming on the nose, with a scent reminiscent of a traditional IPA over an Oktoberfest with a light, floral aroma. The IPA flavor also shows in the tasting, with notes of juicy grapefruit. The rye flavor is there and there’s a distinct nuttiness to it as well, with a somewhat spicy finish.
New Glarus Staghorn
ABV: 6.25% | New Glarus, Wisconsin
Another hyped Midwestern Oktoberfest, New Glarus’ Staghorn comprises a number of best Oktoberfest lists. Unfortunately, New Glarus still doesn’t distribute outside of Wisconsin, so it’s hard to get your hands on, but if you do get the opportunity to try it do not pass it up.
Tasting Notes: Staghorn smells like a crisp, clean lager with — much like Great Lakes Oktoberfest — some fruity sweetness, and some subtle spiciness on the nose. This is also a light drinking beer, that starts a little bitter, but ends with some malty, bready and apricot sweetness. The flavors overall were complex but well balanced. Another one of our favorites in this roundup.
Avery The Kaiser
ABV: 9.3% | Boulder, Colorado
Part of their “Dictator Series,” The Kaiser is Avery’s imperial twist on the classic German style. The Kaiser remains true to the Oktoberfest style with the heavy use of malt varieties including Vienna, Munich and Dark Munich, despite having the highest ABV on this list: 9.3% ABV, far exceeding a traditional Oktoberfest.
Tasting Notes: Very strong notes of sourdough bread on the nose, as well as some maltiness and nuttiness. It’s sweet tasting, and has the same nutty, bready characteristics of an Oktoberfest but turns it up to 11. It’s very bold, and the most full bodied of the bunch. One taster noted that it felt somewhat reminiscent of a Belgian-style beer — with a sort of fruity, spicy taste and a viscous mouthfeel. Overall, it’s one of our favorite takes on the style.