Perhaps the greatest informal dad holiday of the entire year, Oktoberfest stands as the king of the brewing calendar.
Numerous beers styles are common at these events, with the ironically named Märzen the prevailing style and guiding light for offerings from breweries around the globe for this cereal celebration. Festbier and its variants have become synonymous with Märzen, and not just outside of Bavaria, as this term gives the brewers a little more leeway to use lighter (cheaper) malts and inform the style rather than conform to the heavier precursor. These brews tend to be thoroughly lagered and rested, explaining why a “March” beer is consumed in early autumn. Darker caramel malts, with sweetness levels hanging around the dry side of off-dry tend to be the dominant characteristics and hallmarks of this pedigree. The lupulin-dependent among us will find some solace in a moderate Noble Hop-driven bitterness that typically provides between 15 to 30 IBUs, and with an abv usually sitting around 5.8%, drinking for many hours in a tent with legions of compatriots is very feasible.
Here’s a deep dive into some of the most popular Oktoberfest beers on the market — both foreign and domestic — as well as our picks for the best of bunch.
Spaten Oktoberfest – A firm hand of molasses and whispers of tobacco make up the nose with a cameo of yellow apple and raisin. On the palate, brioche gives way to molasses then orange pith and white pepper. Dried apricot and some lingering sugars later appear; off-dry. At the finish, some piney resin announces a decent amount of bitterness. 5.9% abv. B+
Paulaner Oktoberfest Märzen – A study of caramel and roast; malt was absolutely the driving force in this brew. It is honestly quite difficult to pick out non-malt characters out of this glass. There are some hints of lemon oil aroma, and some very subtle pine. However, the story of this beer is caramel, honey, raisin, and molasses; off-dry. 5.8% abv. B
Weihenstephaner Festbier – A huge lemon and orange nose jumps out of the glass, with suggestions of clove. Cracker and light honey coat the palate suggesting a higher sweetness level than was ultimately realized; dry. The finish is dominated by grassy bitterness. 5.8% abv. B
Tucher Festbier – Burnt orange and nearly silent butterscotch aromas cling to the bottom of the glass. A light hand of molasses and clove show up late, but enough to define its body; off-dry. Very little bitterness manifests itself, with hints of kombu at the end. 5.8% abv. B-
American Standby Brews
Samuel Adam’s Octoberfest – Robust banana bread notes waft above the glass. Like a well-trained stagehand, clove and pepper are always around through the whole show, but resolutely in the background. Caramel stays firmly in the spotlight on the tongue and flirt with becoming molasses. It suggests that it might stray into sweet but stays off-dry. Hints of Noble Hops pop up at the end but fall well within the bounds of the style. 5.3% abv. B+
Bell’s Oktoberfest – Significant Meyer lemon is first up in the glass, followed shortly by honey. This beer is very dry, especially for the style. Grassy bitterness shows up early and lingers long after the last sip. The traditional roast malt qualities are there but subdued. It wants to be a pale ale, but that’s probably a smart play for the American market. 5.5% abv. B
Devils Backbone O’Fest – Banana and clove play with some lemon oil and met my nose immediately. Honey and clove dominate with some secondary cracker notes on the palate. Citrus driven hop qualities suggest some bitterness at the finish but call off the dogs and wrap things up with some suggested acidity. Dry. 5.9% abv. B
Von Trapp Oktoberfest – There’s a burnt orange oil aroma here, but it’s whisper quiet. The choice to let hop resin speak so loudly in this brew surely crosses into commentary on the style, because the suggestion of cereals is very quickly outshined by full-on pine and grass notes. It isn’t unenjoyable by any stretch of the imagination, but it strays outside of the style. 5.6% abv. C+
Yuengling Oktoberfest – Brioche and pie crust constitute the nose. An extremely light hand of caramel and biscuit settle onto the palate but don’t linger. The finish is brief and slightly peppery, which is in line with this very dry brew. A technically tight beer but wanting for some character. 5.5% abv. C+
Ayinger Oktober Fest-Märzen – If you want to fully experience a traditional German beer style, check to see if Ayinger makes one. These folks are never afraid to let their yeast do the talking. This is by far the fruitiest beer I tried out of the whole selection, and it is a very welcome expression of the style. The banana profile is absolutely massive and thorough; staring with grassy green banana on the nose and slowly progressing to banana bread at the back of the palate. Clove and white pepper are certainly present and balanced by some subtle honey. Shockingly, this is a dry beer but it fully retains a robust mouthfeel. There isn’t much in the way of a bitter finish, but that’s probably good, as I would’ve just gotten tired of this beer being too perfect. 5.8% abv. A+
Sierra Nevada in Collaboration with Kehrwieder Brewery Oktoberfest Festbier – This is an annual masterclass put on by Sierra Nevada, as their fall collab is an uninterrupted chain of triumphs, with this year’s as no exception. Meyer lemon and apricot make up the opening act; robust but well balanced. Honey is the supporting column here but never contributes any extra sweetness, shifting to a suggestion of orange marmalade. There is a constant theme of ghost acid throughout and it keeps the brew firmly in dry territory. Every facet of this beer is complex, so naturally the finish is a procession of grassy bitterness that shifts to resin late and lingers long enough to make you want to finish the whole can every single time. 6% abv. A+
Hacker Pschorr Oktoberfest Märzen – Are you a Beer Bro adrift, lamenting the downfall of West Coast IPAs and wondering where it all went wrong? Ditto, my dude. A spicy clove-driven banana nose steers right into a citrusy and light body with an elegant, balanced touch of clover honey that remains decisively dry. Deep, peppery resin leaves no doubt that this is cannabinoidally based bitterness; an old friend. An excellent fall selection for any hop-head. 5.8% abv. A