Thursday marks the official start of the 186th Oktoberfest celebration. Normally, this annual festival attracts millions of visitors to Munich, Germany to imbibe a very specific style of beer. Unfortunately due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the city cancelled this year’s Oktoberfest festival. But, that doesn’t mean that we need to forgo fall altogether.
For our part we wanted to recognize the holiday by digging into its history. Above all, we’ll clarify the exact difference between Oktoberfest, Märzen, and festbiers. Lastly, we’ll give you a few of our favorite classic German and modern American versions to try.
Known here in America for roasty, malty notes, Oktoberfests, Märzens, and festbiers are perfect pints when the weather turns cold. Whether you’re camping out with a classic Hacker-Pschorr Oktoberfest Amber Märzen from the original Munich brewery or enjoying a modern Live Oak Brewing Oaktoberfest from the mostly all-lager brewery in Texas at your next tailgate we’ve found the best beers to ring in the Oktoberfest season.
But first, a little history lesson.
What Is Oktoberfest?
Essentially a lesson in German royalty, Oktoberfest started with a wedding. Bavarian Crown Prince Louis (later King Louis I of Bavaria) married Princess Therese von Sachsen-Hildburghausen on October 12th, 1810.
The nuptials included a raucous party open to the citizens of Munich on the fields in front of the city gates. Named Therensienwiese or Therese’s Fields, the Wiesn or outdoor meadow hosted days of drinking and horse races. In the midst of the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) this party aimed to unite Germans during a tumultuous time.
Oh, and did we mention the royal family provided beer and food free of charge? In conclusion, so much fun was had by all that the festival became a yearly celebration.
Hurdles like cholera and now the COVID-19 pandemic have stymied some Oktoberfest celebrations. But for the most part over the past two centuries every year people gather in Munich to sip overflowing steins in huge beer tents and eat roasted chicken.
Today, Germany’s largest folk festival and one of the most famous beer festivals in the world normally welcomes over six million visitors. And has spawned local celebrations at breweries and bars across the globe.
Why Does Oktoberfest Start in September?
As we mentioned Oktoberfest originally started in October. But during the 1870’s the festival moved to the last two weeks of September for weather reasons. Turns out the end of September has better weather than the first two weeks of October!
What Is the Difference between Oktoberfests, Märzens, and Festbiers?
The answer is a little complicated. In Germany, Oktoberfest means beers that are brewed specifically for the Oktoberfest event in Munich.
Historically, the beers served at Oktoberfest can only come from the large breweries inside Munich’s city limits including Augustinerbräu Münche (Augustiner), Hacker-Pschorr, Hofbräu, Löwenbräu, Paulaner, and Spaten-Franziskaner-Bräu (Spaten).
But over time the official beer style of Oktoberfest has changed.
For instance, during the first 60 or so years the darker Bavarian dunkel dominated. But by 1872 Spaten brewery introduced the more amber hued Märzen, which became the official beer of the fest.
Over the decades, brewers continued to innovate, using paler malts. In the early 1970’s Paulaner introduced a golden colored beer called festbier. After that this style slowly gained popularity.
Today, festbier is the official style of all beers at Oktoberfest. Although still slightly malty these lighter-bodied festbiers are super drinkable and perfect for the two week long celebration.
So, What Does the Term Oktoberfest Actually Mean?
According to European Union regulations only beers brewed by the aforementioned six breweries can use the label “Oktoberfest” (much like real champagne can only technically come from the Champagne region of France). All other breweries must call their seasonal lagers Oktoberfest style beer. But that hasn’t stopped American brewers from using the terms like Oktoberfest, Märzen, and festbier pretty much interchangeably. To further confuse things American breweries will often see beers with punny variations such as Oaktoberfest, Octoberfest, etc.
Today in the States, Oktoberfest is often used as a catchall encompassing Märzens and festbiers. The Märzens here in America typically feature Munich and Caramel malts for beers that tend to be redder, maltier, and slightly sweeter.
Basically, the Oktoberfest-style beers brewed in America are actually nothing like those made for the real Oktoberfest in Germany. Instead, they align more closely with the original styles served in the 1870s.
Of course, there are some brewers in the United States that do adhere more closely to the paler, modern German Oktoberfest styles. But for the most part if you’re drinking an Oktoberfest in America it’s probably a copper-hued, toasty Märzen lager.
Wait, I’m Still Confused. Can You Recap Everything For Me?
Heck yeah! Basically…
Oktoberfest (Oktoberfestbier) – Any beer formally brewed by one of the six big Munich brewers and served on the Oktoberfest grounds. Over the years these beers have evolved from dunkels to Märzens to festbiers. Today, they’re light gold in color and easy-bodied.
Märzens – German amber lagers typically anywhere from chestnut to russet in color. Smooth, toasty, bready, slightly spiced with a bit of a Noble hop bite. Märzens hit around 5-6% ABV with a dry finish. First brewed by Spaten in Germany, in America this is the most common style of what we’ve come to call Oktoberfest or Oktoberfest-style beers.
Festbiers – A strong golden German lager similar to a helles just maltier. The floralness and spiciness of Noble hops are more prevalent in this style. And they’re slightly meatier at 6-6.5% ABV. First pioneered by Paulaner today in Germany festbiers are THE official beer of Oktoberfest.
Oktoberfest-style – Normally falling under the style of Märzen, these beers are brewed outside the city limits of Munich. Again, if you buy an Oktoberfest-style beer in America it will mostly likely be an amber Märzen. Technically only beers brewed by one of the six original breweries in Munich can officially use the term Oktoberfest (Oktoberfestbier).
For our purposes as much as we can we want to recognize all of the above styles. Oktoberfest is a celebration of tradition and we want to respect that. But there are plenty of modern American versions that deserve recommendation as well. But don’t worry we’ve parsed through the field to bring you our top picks for the best Oktoberfest beers to drink at home during this year’s festival.
Here Are the Top 13 Oktoberfest Beers We’re Drinking to Celebrate
The German Classics You Can Find in the U.S.
The best way to experience historic, original Oktoberfest beer is to visit Munich Germany during the last two weeks of Germany. Of course, the festival was cancelled this year. So since we’re all stuck here in the States for the celebrations, these are the versions of Oktoberfest that you can try from the original six Munich breweries here in America. Prost!
Please note that at the time of publication we could not find Augustiner-Bräu Oktoberfestbier available in the U.S. Similarly, because Anheuser-Busch InBev now owns the rights to brew Löwenbräu in North America at the Labatt Brewing Company in London, Ontario, Canada, we have not included them in our list.
Original Oktoberfest Amber Märzen
Hacker-Pschorr – Munich, Germany
Brewed in reverence to the Bavarian Purity Law of 1516 known as Reinheitsgebot, the Original Oktoberfest Amber Märzen from Hacker-Pschorr is a perennial favorite. Amber in color and stunningly smooth, this Märzen stands for everything the style represents – a perfect marriage of sweetness and maltiness.
Hofbrau – Munich, Germany
A true festbier, Oktoberfestbier clocks in at 6.3% ABV making it a bit bigger than its traditional counterparts. Still, this beer is intimately quaffable. Pouring a shiny gold thanks to light barley and Munich malts, Hofbrau’s version feels soft on the palate. The slightly sweet finish gets you ready to go in instantly for another sip. This is the beer you want alongside some of that traditional Oktoberfest roast chicken.
Paulaner – Munich, Germany
According to Paulaner, its Oktoberfest Bier is, “a glass full of October sunshine, strong and golden.” We couldn’t agree more. Built for a feast, this beer began the tradition of the lighter-colored festbiers at Oktoberfest. A harmony of hops and malts, Oktoberfest Bier is actually the best-selling beer at Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany. Pilsner malt gives the festbier its iconic golden hue while Munich malt adds that bready body. Herkules and Hallertauer Tradition hops complement with a strong floral, slightly spicy note at the end. Brewed only once a year for the fall celebration, this is authentic Oktoberfest beers at their best. Bonus: Paulaner also makes an excellent Oktoberfest Märzen, a style first brewed over 200 years ago during the original Oktoberfest. History in a bottle!
Spaten – Munich, Germany
Created in 1872, Spaten Oktoberfest is considered the world’s first Märzen. Towing a lustrous line between amber and gold, this version boasts deep toasty notes complemented by a crisp citrus lemon bite. Simply put, this version from Spaten is not to be missed. Luckily, it’s pretty readily available here in the U.S. Just be careful not to confuse this Märzen with Spaten’s golden Oktoberfestbier, only available in Germany. The Mayor of Munich kicks off the official Oktoberfest celebration by tapping a keg of Spaten Oktoberfestbier. So, unless you travel to Munich you won’t be able to try Oktoberfestbier, but Spaten Oktoberfest is an amazing alternative.
The Modern American Versions We Love
Here are a few versions from American craft brewers that put their own modern spin on the German classic. For the most part these versions will adhere to the more recognizable Märzen style that as we’ve mentioned has become popular here in the States.
Copper Legend Octoberfest
Jack’s Abby Craft Lagers – Framingham, MA
When Oktoberfest rolls around each fall Jack’s Abby’s Copper Legend becomes a staple in our beer fridge. Mainly because it’s just such an excellent expression of the Märzen style. Probably because Jack’s Abby Brewmster Jack Hendler painstakingly aims for his German beers to match up to the traditional styles. Smooth, malty, and super quaffable, Copper Legend is a go-to.
Oktoberfest Lager Bier
Brewery Silvaticus Ales & Lagers – Amesbury, MA
Named one of our top breweries of 2018, Brewery Silvaticus brews an excellent Oktoberfest. Co-Founder Jay Bullen originally brewed this beer to celebrate their first anniversary. Last year we named the Amesbury, MA-based brewery’s Oktoberfest parties one of the top in the country. So you can be sure that this year’s fourth anniversary version would make it to our list. In 2021 Bullen brewed a festbier that stays true to the Munich style. German malts add sweet honeyed biscuit notes while Magnum and Mittelfrüh hops play devil’s advocate with a floral finish.
Schilling Brewing Co. – Littleton, NH
A bit unique, this Märzen from the European-inspired brewery in New Hampshire (one of our favorite to visit in the entire state) is described as an Austrian-style. With a slightly drier finish than its Germany buddy, Konstantin launches only during the Oktoberfest season. Rich caramel and toasted oat notes round out a gorgeous ruby-hued lager. In addition decoction gives this beer an extra layer of complexity.
Metropolitan Brewing – Chicago, IL
Established as a German-style lager brewery in Chicago, IL, Metropolitan often flies under the radar. But the lagers leaving this brewery are top-notch. For instance the brewery’s Oktoberfest called Afterburner. This beer just signifies everything we love about the festive fall season. It’s the warming copper creation we’re drinking in a hoodie around the campfire with friends on a cold autumn evening.
3 Floyds Brewing Company – Munster, IN
Staying true to the German Oktoberfest brewing traditions, Munsterfest from 3 Floyds burns bright as one of our fall favorites. Above all, balanced caramel, toffee, and biscuit notes intermingle with pops of floralness from the Bavarian noble hops. This is a marriage made in Munster.
Urban Chestnut Brewing Company – St. Louis, MO
Brewed each year for Urban Chestnut’s annual Oktoberfest celebration, Oachkatzlschwoaf (pronounced oh-khut-zel-schvoaf translates to tail of a squirrel. We’re not really sure why, but honestly it doesn’t even matter. However you try to pronounce Oachkatzlschwoaf, what we can all agree on is that this lager pours a beautiful burnished copper. Silky and malty with a dense head of white foam that brings a wonderful aroma of toasted malt. In conclusion just how we like our Märzens.
Live Oak Brewing – Del Valle, TX
Live Oak decocts its Oaktoberfest for a complex classic that’s superbly smooth. The velvety construction carries a satisfying breadiness at the beginning all the way through a subtle hop character to the end of the sip. This is the perfect pretzel pairing beer (Yes, this is the only time we highly recommend eating pretzel with your beer. As long as they’re the kind as big as your head). Bonus: This year Live Oak also released Smoaktoberfest, a smoked version using traditional beechwood-smoked barley malt to give the autumnal lager a pleasantly veil haze.
Heater Allen Brewing – McMinnville, OR
An uber-popular seasonal, Bobtoberfest honors Heater Allen owner Rick Allen’s later brother Bob. Pouring a nice crimson, this Oktoberfest-style beer hits all those traditional Märzen impressions – rich, malty, polished, and easy-drinking. If you’re in the Pacific Northwest this should be an Oktoberfest staple in your stable.
Sierra Nevada – Chico, CA
For a ubiquitous version you can’t go wrong with Sierra Nevada’s Oktoberfest. This beer isn’t fancy or fluffy (unless you count the gorgeous head of foam). It’s just an admirable, non-fussy iteration on the style. In other words this beer what Märzens are all about, right? Kicking back and enjoying a no-frills, no-muss beer that tastes like fall in a can.