For our companion piece on the history and modern role of märzen, check out our Let’s Talk Beer Styles: Märzen piece here.
Since 1950, the traditional celebration of Munich’s Oktoberfest has been kicked off with a cry from the incumbent mayor of the city: “O’zapft is!” Loose translation, from the Austro-Bavarian dialect: “It’s tapped!”
He’s speaking, of course, about beer—traditional German festbier in particular. Märzen or Märzenbier, often simply referred to as “Oktoberfest lager” in the U.S.A., is the traditional beer of the event, and has been a German, Austrian and Bavarian staple since the 16th century. And like other German beer styles, it made the journey to America with German immigrants, who eventually brought along the clean-fermenting German lager yeast used in its construction. In the American craft brewing industry they’ve long been a staple seasonal beer style of the early fall—the kind of style that few breweries produce year-round, but many produce from August-October.
That seasonality is understandable when you look at the style and really consider what it is: A malty amber lager. Lagers in general are tougher sells in the craft beer industry than ales, and they also demand more tank time for, well, lagering. At the same time, märzen is also a style that has its fair share of detractors among American craft fans, some of whom criticize it as overly sweet, nichey or just plain boring in construction and execution.
But despite that, Oktoberfest beers also have many die-hard fans who await the arrival of the style on shelves each fall, from their local American craft breweries to the classical, long-beloved examples from German brewers such as Spaten, Ayinger and Weihenstephaner. And so, we gathered as many of these bready, toasty, caramelly amber lagers together as we could for a typical Paste-style blind tasting and ranking.
EDIT: By the way, if all of these beers make you thirsty (and we know that they will), you can check out a very complete list of all the city Oktoberfest celebrations in the U.S. to find the Oktoberfest closest to you via Everfest, a global festival-discovery website based in Austin.
A Note on Beer Acquisition
Like every other blind-tasting at Paste, we acquire these beers in a variety of ways. Most are sent in directly by the breweries when we send out a call for that style. Others we’re able to purchase directly because they’re available in Georgia, which is how we came by the German beers in this tasting in particular. In that sense, we’re at the mercy of what is available, but we were thankfully able to acquire most of the classic German märzens.
Rules and Procedure
- We accepted anything sent to us, as long as it involved “märzen,” “oktoberfest” or “fest” in the description, or was categorized as such. There was no specific ABV limit, which means that a few beers labeled as “imperial märzen” or “imperial oktoberfest” were accepted. Ultimately, we decided that those imperial märzens (such as Avery’s The Kaiser, for example) didn’t have an inherent advantage in this style, and might even be at a disadvantage overall in a style where tasters have a very specific idea of what makes a märzen.
- There was a limit of two entries per brewery, which obviously wasn’t an issue. The beers were separated into daily blind tastings that approximated a sample size of the entire field.
- Tasters included professional beer writers, brewery owners and beer reps. Awesome, Paste-branded glassware is from Spiegelau.
- Beers were judged completely blind by how enjoyable they were as individual experiences and given scores of 1-100, which were then averaged. Entries were judged by how much we enjoyed them for whatever reason.
The Field: Oktoberfests #55-20
All in all, we’d say that 55 märzens is a damn good number to have assembled, and more than we expected would probably arrive for this particular style. With that said, the increased number made this style that much harder to blind taste. Suffice to say, we haven’t had many styles where so many of the beers were very similar to one another. If we went through, hunting for one particular type of märzen profile, I could probably put together a 20-beer tasting out of these that would be almost indistinguishable from one another. The style just lacks the huge range of flavors and substyles that you see in something like American IPA.
With that said, when you taste 55 of these things, you do notice a few trends emerging, especially in the American vs. German examples of the style. The modern German take on märzen tends to be lighter in color since the 1990s … or more accurately, they vary more in color, all the way from “Helles märzen” up to brownish “dunkel märzen.” The blondish ones, of which there are many, are significantly lighter in depth of maltiness than many of the American märzens, with more pronounced grainy, bready, doughy flavors, which can blur the line between German-produced märzen and Munich helles lager. The American ones, on the other hand, are often more deeply toasty, fruity and especially caramel malt-driven. For the most part, one doesn’t see lighter versions of the style from American craft brewers, owing to audience expectation—this is a beer that American craft beer drinkers almost invariably expect to be amber, orange or reddish in color.
But I digress. What I meant to get into above is that the degree of deviation between the beers in this style was quite small. Most of the märzens in The Field below could probably have ended up in the top 20 on a different day of the week, and most would be perfectly serviceable for your own backyard wurst cookout. So don’t be too sad if your favorite brand doesn’t make the ranked portion.
As usual, the beers below are simply listed alphabetically, and are not ranked. I repeat: These beers are not ranked.
Ale Asylum Oktillion
Ballast Point Dead Ringer
Bauhaus Brew Labs Schwandtoberfest
Bells Brewery Octoberfest Beer
Blue Pants Brewery Oktoberfest
Boulder Beer Dragonhosen Imperial Oktoberfest
Braxton Brewing Co. Oktober Fuel
DC Brau Oktoberfest
Dry Dock Docktoberfest
Fort Collins Brewery Oktoberfest
Full Sail Session Fest
Heavy Seas Treasure Fest
Lakefront Brewery Oktoberfest Lager
New Oberpfalz Oktoberfest
Old Mecklenburg Brewery Mecktoberfest
Point Beer Oktoberfest
Red Hare Hasenpfeffer Oktoberfest
Revolution Brewing OKtoberfest
Short’s Noble Chaos
Spaten Oktoberfestbier Ur-Märzen
Thirsty Dog Barktoberfest
Uinta Fest Helles
Upland Brewing Co. Oktoberfest
Wild Heaven Craft Beers Autumn Defense
Wiseacre Oktoberfest: Gemutlichkeit
Yee-Haw Brewing Co. Oktoberfest
Next: The finals! Märzens # 20-1