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
City: Minneapolis, MN
The verdict: Hop-forward märzens are something of a minority American subcategory, and not quite common enough that you ever expect to come across them until you do. In execution, some of them are solid, but most of them left tasters cold if they entered into tasting with a more specific idea of what “märzen” represents. Surly’s popular SurlyFest is one of the better examples of a märzen with significant hop presence, although it doesn’t completely throw in with the hops to the point that they’re the only thing you’d notice. Light citrus and even a bit of something more juicy and tropical make for a very unusual nose for the style, with an accompanying bit of bitterness that is also worth noting, as bitterness is usually very low in most of these beers. Several varieties of rye malt contribute a bit of spice and malt complexity that makes this beer almost like an easy-drinking rye pale ale when combined with the hops. It’s not something you’d cite as a textbook example of märzen, but it works.
City: Boston, MA
The verdict: In any given year, Sam Adams Octoberfest is going to be one of the company’s better-regarded seasonals … and it’s certainly their most consistent, year in and year out. A beer they’ve been making for at least 15 years, one would say that the recipe is good and dialed in, but it actually does seem to adjust itself somewhat to the times. This year’s Sam Adams Octoberfest struck our tasters as a bit less sweet and straightforward in its caramel malt character, with more toasted breadiness and a touch of red, berry-like fruitiness. It’s nice to see Sam Adams still producing a yearly seasonal that does well in blind tastings, and also nice to know that you can probably pick up a pretty good märzen in your corner gas station in 2016. That’s always going to be a valuable thing.
City: Paso Robles, CA
The verdict: Another example of the “hoppy märzen,” and another divisive beer for the tasters, some of whom rated it really highly while others struggled to connect the flavors. The “oak” in the name would probably make one think it was somehow oak-aged, but that isn’t the case, and there’s no “woody” flavors present. Rather, this beer comes off slightly pilsner-like in its profile, with a really nice bouquet of green, grassy and spicy noble hops sitting atop a lighter body of grainy and bready malt. Very refreshing and a bit lighter of body than some of the other examples, it’s ultra-quaffable and makes a great alternative to the heavier and richer versions of the style. Hoppier oktoberfestbiers ended up on the lower end of this tasting, but it’s no surprise that Firestone Walker made what might be the best of the substyle.
City: Warrenville, IL
The verdict: Imperial oktoberfests also didn’t fare the best as a substyle in this tasting, but this selection from Illinois’ Two Brothers is an interesting case of a beer that is significantly higher in ABV than average without fully committing to being a “high-gravity beer”—it’s sort of caught in between, but that ends up really working in its favor. The higher ABV presents itself with just a touch of booziness and an amplification of the red fruit/dried fruit flavors, which combine with a bit of spice to create an impression that is almost slightly cola-like, in a good way. With a high volume of flavor, this is an assertive, richer oktoberfest lager that simultaneously avoids being overly sweet or cloying, which is no easy feat in that ABV range for a lager. Plenty of dark toasted bread and a touch of molasses-like caramelization make for a beer that pulls off its richness pretty well while remaining drinkable.
City: Blanco, TX
The verdict: Texas’ Real Ale Brewing Co. has been something of a sleeper in these tastings, consistently performing well without a ton of fuss or hype, but our esteem for them continues to rise. Here, they give us a well-balanced and somewhat classical, German-style märzen, brimming with the bready flavors we love in this style. One taster used the word “yeasty,” which in this style may be closer to “bready,” in the sense that German lager yeast produces a certain flavor that really does remind one of say, the crust of white bread. The beer drinks very easily—perhaps dangerously so—which is the whole idea of this style, given that it’s meant to be consumed in liter steins. Thinner of body than some of the others, I can see how some drinkers might perceive that this beer isn’t quite aggressive enough, but its malt complexity and balance should be seen as its real draw. Very solid stuff.
City: Munich, Germany
The verdict: The first of the classic German märzen brands on the list is the venerable Hacker-Pschorr, which the brewery advertises as “the original Oktoberfest beer.” It’s a bit richer and fuller than some of the other classic Germans, almost showing just a little bit of booze and red fruit flavors that reminded one taster of a light red licorice with a touch of anise. This particular märzen has the significant distinction of being on the slightly sweeter side, but with a residual sugar that is present before drying out in the finish, which significantly boosts drinkability. Plenty of toasty malt is present here, and a maltiness that is similar to strong English breakfast tea as well. If the best German beers are defined by malt complexity, this is a pretty good blueprint.
City: Asheville, NC
The verdict: The interesting thing about märzen is that small ABV deviations (1 or 2 points) seem to stand out more in this style than they do in others, but at the same time, even a lower-ABV märzen can still feature some bigger flavors as a result of various specialty malts, such as the commonly used Vienna or Munich malt classic to the style. Highland’s märzen, Clawhammer, is nicely dry and quite drinkable, but it also has one of those specific notes of malt complexity that helps it stand out on a table full of märzen—in this case, a low-key nutty flavor, or even a bit of cocoa powder that makes it feel a little bit bigger than it is. Perhaps that’s just how we’re perceiving a very dark, toasty malt presence, but it’s nice to have an alternative märzen in this style that is quite toasty without also featuring significant residual sugar or fruitiness for once.
City: Denver, CO
The verdict: This beer was once just referred to as a “rye lager” as a part of Great Divide’s year-round lineup, but now it’s being recognized for the style it really was the whole time as a seasonal: A märzen. Regardless it’s still some excellent stuff. The rye is unsurprisingly easier to perceive when the tasting isn’t completely blind, but it comes across as a sort of unusual earthiness more than with the predicted peppery spice of dark rye bread. More than that, we get a light, well-balanced caramel maltiness here, mildly sweet but still quite drinkable. Grainy flavors are present on the back end, in an oktoberfest that makes a pretty ideal example of the American approximation of the style. With a drying finish, it’s the kind of pint that’s liable to disappear much faster than you realize or intend. Not flashy, just solidly constructed.
City: Boulder, CO
The verdict: Question: How can you compare a beer like The Kaiser to this field of märzens? Answer: You really can’t. It’s entirely its own thing, but a classic beer of the genre nevertheless. We had several other imperial oktoberfests in the tasting, but the edge goes to Avery’s classic dictator. Big, boozy and hugely rich, The Kaiser is also very sweet, but thankfully not quite as purely sugary as some of the other imperial oktoberfests. Deeply caramelized malt contributes molasses and toffee-like sugar, as well as intense dried fruitiness of raisin and prune. From another tasting sheet: “Cherry, and almost a bit roasty.” If we had a dozen tasters, we’d probably get just as many different descriptors, because that’s the type of beer it is. It’s very much an acquired taste for those who can handle the richness and bombastic caramelization, but a rewarding beer to sit with and sip over the course of an hour. Personally, I always associate it with Halloween of 2010, when I nursed a bomber of The Kaiser during the TV pilot of The Walking Dead. That’s an October memory that has always stuck with me.
City: Cleveland, OH
The verdict: A classic märzen of the midwest, Great Lakes goes for big flavors in their take on the style. There’s a lot going on here—toasty brown bread, a little bit of perceptible noble hop floral tones, and a bit of red licorice fruitiness to begin with. Residual sugar is moderate, pretty much in the center of the bullseye, and you can feel that this märzen is in a slightly higher weight class in terms of ABV. The subtle but present hoppiness is a nice touch that is absent from some of the other American märzens in the same mold. All in all, it strikes a good balance between the richer aspects of American oktoberfest beer with its red fruitiness and toffee-like caramelization with a touch of balancing, hop-driven bitterness. It’s an excellent example of a well-done American märzen that exemplifies what consumers currently expect to taste when they see the word “oktoberfest” on the label.
City: Stratford, CT
The verdict: This enjoyably silly-named märzen from Connecticut’s Two Roads is another big-flavor beer in a fairly small package. A vivid reddish hue hints at the prominent fruity flavors; a very ripe cherry note and English muffin-like biscuit tones. There’s some very deep caramelization here, the type of crystal malt character that is very much like a bowl of Grape Nuts. It’s a specific note of malt complexity that we’ve seen certain tasters love and other ones dislike, but we all dig it here. Still pretty easy-drinking despite some expressive malt, Ok2berfest fulfills the two roles you want out of any good märzen: An interesting malt profile and a suitably dry finish to prime you for that next sip.
City: Columbus, OH
The verdict: This is the Sunday-afternoon-football-on-the-couch märzen—easy-drinking, super clean and the perfect complement to potato chips or pretzels or chicken wings, if you’re feeling positively fancy. It’s all about the malt on the nose, with a well-balanced charge of lightly toasted bread crust and light caramel; nothing too out there. On the palate, there’s light-to-moderate residual sweetness, right about where you’d expect, and also a barely perceptible allocation of floral, earthy hops. Booze is completely hidden, and it’s the kind of märzen you can tip back all afternoon without feeling overwhelmed by its richness. This is the kind of style that excels by being balanced and having no flaws, and that’s what Columbus has going on with their Festbier.
City: Houston, TX
The verdict: Now here we have an interesting beer—an American oktoberfest that a few of the tasters mistook as a product of Germany. There’s some uniquely Teutonic-seeming impressions on the nose: Bready and clean, with a bit of grassiness and even what we perceived to be the slightest of banana esters. This beer drinks frighteningly easily because it’s so clean and precise—the grainy, bready malt flavors are very distinct and well-defined, and it’s lighter on the caramel/deeper toasty malt impressions that many of the American märzens possess. It’s also a bit thinner of body, a true stein-worthy oktoberfest for washing down kraut and wursts and pretzels. Considering that this hails from Houston, it’s also particularly well-suited to a warmer autumn. A very nice beer.
City: Amherst, WI
The verdict: Wisconsin’s Central Waters is a chronically underrated brewery that produces solid versions of any style they touch, from American pale ale to porter, to lager, to barrel-aged monsters. Clean, crisp and malty, their take on märzen is packing a little bit less in the caramel department, but still has some toasty impressions backing up what is predominantly a grainy malt body. There’s also a pleasant touch of hops in this example, which impart a very light but nicely balancing citrus note of lemongrass. That one small addition can’t be underestimated in how much it helps the overall profile, helping to make this beer a real quaffer. In Wisconsin, a state with no small number of German residents to this day, this is the type of beer that would no doubt be appreciated year-round, because a good märzen is the kind of beer you can pair with nearly anything.
City: Tampa, FL
The verdict: Cigar City’s southeastern oktoberfest lager is a pitch-perfect take on “toasty” märzen, and thankfully dry and drinkable enough an example for a climate where it rarely ever feels like true autumn. It features a very rounded, smooth brand of maltiness, creamy in texture with biscuity malt flavors and just a touch of darker honey sweetness, ‘ala buckwheat honey. There’s not much in the way of hops to speak of, outside of a little bit of balancing bitterness, but it doesn’t really need them thanks to the way it stays crisp and dry. There’s none of the cloying, overly caramelized character you see in the most overzealous versions of the style, and in its place you instead get several layers of toasted malt complexity, ending with a bit of nuttiness that is close to the neighboring Georgia pecan. As solid a take on the style as you would expect from Cigar City, even if it’s a brewery you might not immediately think of as a lager producer.
City: Chico, CA
The verdict: Holy cow, did this one surprise us. Put it in a blind tasting, and you too will peg this beer as being one of the classic German versions of the style, and it makes sense once you see that it’s the product of Sierra Nevada’s yearly collaboration with small German breweries—this year being Mahrs Bräu in Bamberg. The nose is a beautiful expression of malt complexity and subtlety, with a plethora of bready, grainy, doughy notes and the suggestion of a light, honeyed sweetness. All of those are present on the palate, along with some pleasing lemony citrus. The only real question is whether the American consumer would identify it as “märzen,” rather than say, a Helles beer, but either way it’s delicious. As one taster put it on his sheet, “like liquid white bread and honey.” If we had known it was from Sierra Nevada in advance, we would no doubt have been expecting a hoppier, more “Americanized” take on the style, but it blows us away that one of the best German-style expressions of märzen—complete with great malt complexity—is from one of the U.S.A.’s oldest craft breweries in California. Don’t expect this to be the caramelly oktoberfest from your neighborhood brewpub, but expect it to be an awesome lager regardless.
City: Freising, Germany
The verdict: When it comes to festbiers from Germany, one is conditioned to expect certain things—great malt complexity, lighter color, perhaps lighter body. And Weihenstephaner’s example has all those things … plus hops? Yes, much to our surprise, one of the best of the hoppy märzens is from the self-proclaimed oldest brewery in the world. We didn’t see that coming! One might almost describe its profile as “pils-plus”—one of the tasters actually wrote “It’s a pils with body.” But what it does is combine the best aspects of noble hops—a melange of floral, spicy and earthy flavors—with lightly toasty, biscuity malt and just enough chewiness and residual sweetness to tell you that this isn’t just a pils or hoppy helles. People will claim that this type of märzen isn’t “to style,” but considering that it’s coming from the oldest brewery on Earth, don’t they get to decide what is and isn’t proper? Märzen is a style that has evolved a fair amount, and we’re glad there are still alternate takes out there that represent what oktoberfest has meant during various points in history.
City: St. Louis, MO
The verdict: Let’s see, is it a classic German beer style? Yes. Do we have an entry from St. Louis’ Urban Chestnut? Yes. Is it right at the tip-top of the rankings? Yup. It all checks out.
There simply isn’t another American brewery doing German beer styles as consistently great as this brewery does them. They were #1 in our blind tasting of 62 pilsners, and their hefeweizen was #2 in a blind-tasting of 39 wheat beers. Now they’re #3 in märzen, and the results should simply speak for themselves. And the reasons for each high ranking are very similar—spectacular malt complexity and subtlety, in ways that very few other breweries can pull off on lighter beer styles. Here, they give us a märzen that focuses in on biscuity, drier malt flavors, with gently toasted notes and just the right touch of caramel. It’s simultaneously substantial and quaffable—“both drinkable and flavorful at once,” to quote one score sheet. It combines the easy-drinking nature of some of the lighter märzens with the best aspects of the toastier, richer American variants. Excellent beer.
City: Cold Spring, MN
The verdict: We didn’t really need specific proof that märzen was a style that could easily work in the lower ABV ranges, but if we were calling for a specific example of that truth, this is the beer we would point to. It makes us wonder why more breweries don’t enhance the drinkability of their festbier even more by working into the 4% ABV range. This Cold Spring, Minnesota brewery gives us a märzen with a lovely, perfumed hoppiness that supports crisp, grainy malt flavors and a light, bright mouthfeel. It’s very dry, and very drinkable—the most guzzle-able beer of the entire tasting, probably. From one score sheet: “The smell of pure malted barley, fresh and ideal.” From another: “Grain bomb?” Not surprisingly, it’s correspondingly lighter on the crystal malt/toasted impressions, but they’re not entirely absent, either. What this beer really is, is drinkability itself. Screw the liter stein. Give us a trough.
City: Aying, Germany
The verdict: And in the #1 spot … a classic German märzen, and all is right with the world. Ayinger is a perennial favorite in this category, and a beer that plenty of American craft beer geeks think of as their annual oktoberfest must-buy, and this result justifies that position in the marketplace. In terms of profile, though, it’s actually a fair bit different from most of the other German märzens that were on the table. It’s somewhat darker for one, with a distinctly creamy, viscous mouthfeel that most of the beers in this style don’t have. Smooth, toasty malt is dominant, with a small but noticeable level of balancing bitterness. Multiple tasters even noted a light citrus note that was also unexpected. Between the mouthfeel and mild residual sweetness, though, the biggest impression one takes away from the Ayinger is the unquantifiable idea of “smoothness” and rounded flavors—there are no rough edges here. It’s quite drinkable, but in a slightly richer, fuller way than in say, the #2 beer from Third Street Brewhouse. It’s a German classic, but it hits a distinctive sweet spot between many of the other German interpretations of the style and the profile that American consumers expect. And as a result, it’s a consummate oktoberfest beer.
Jim Vorel is Paste’s resident beer guru, and he likes his märzens grainy and bready. You can follow him on Twitter for much more beer coverage and blind tastings.