There’s no doubt that 2020 will be forever remembered by German revelers and tourists as the year without an Oktoberfest. The official celebrations have (understandably) long since been canceled as a result of the still-ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, while recently passed legislation also bans alcohol entirely on the grounds where the world’s biggest beer festival would have been held, presumably to stop irresponsible partiers from trying to reenact the festival on their own. It’s a sad turn of events, but a necessary step as the world fights to hang on and hold itself together before an eventual return to normalcy.
Here in the U.S., though, you can at least enjoy the usual array of Octoberfest/Oktoberfest lagers at this time of year, and isn’t that the best part of the season anyway? In fact, is there any other “seasonal” beer style so beloved by both the beer geeks and casual consumers, and so perfectly suited to this time of year and the particular climate it brings? Flanked by pretzels, bratwurst or schnitzel, what is better than a big mug of Oktoberfestbier? In fact, we wrote a detailed history of the style a few years ago, if you want to learn more.
Given the current climate, Paste hasn’t been engaging in many beer tastings in recent memory, but it still felt like time to line up at least a few märzens and festbiers in the spirit of the season. Years back, we once blind-tasted 55 oktoberfest lagers … this ain’t that, but it’s still a nice survey of what makes American interpretations of märzen and festbier different from each other. Included are a few prominent national examples, along with a handful of local breweries based near my home port of Richmond, Virginia.
This is a particularly interesting offering, and one I was very eager to try, specifically because the 2020 Sierra Nevada Oktoberfest sadly represents the breaking of a tradition that the brewery had been exploring in recent years, brewing their yearly Oktoberfest lager in collaboration with a prominent German brewery. For obvious reasons, that couldn’t happen in 2020, so this lager is the first “Sierra Nevada exclusive” Oktoberfest release in quite a while, and I was curious to see what direction they might take it in as a result. The bottle describes this release as festbier rather than märzen proper, and that definitely follows through in terms of flavor profile, which is notably hop forward.
On the nose, Sierra Nevada’s 2020 Oktoberfest lager is bready and spicy, with some herbal zing and a slightly unusual fruitiness—almost banana bread-like. There’s assertive noble hoppiness on the palate that is herbal and spicy, almost “Czech pils”-like in flavor, which contributes a little bit of bitterness along with a crisp graininess on the malt side. That’s a solid backbone for the lighter “festbier” style of Oktoberfest lager, but the X-factor here is an unusual twist of candy-like fruitiness running through this style, perhaps as a result of the Spalter/Spalter Select hops, which makes it more exotic than most festbiers.
Bingo Beer Co. is a small Richmond-area brewery without a ton of national recognition, but a rock-solid foundation in lager and German beer styles. They’re one of the few RVA-area breweries that consistently has an array of lager styles such as pilsner, helles, Czech dark lager and schwarzbier available, so it goes without saying that Oktoberfest lagers are also clearly in their wheelhouse. This one is specifically described as a märzen, which you can traditionally expect to be more deeply malty, toasty and rich than the more quaffable and hop-centric “festbier.”
In the glass, this one is very dark indeed, with a deep amber/garnet coloration that pushes the limits of what is typical for this particular style. It’s very toasty on the nose, with lots of bread crust—like toast that has almost started to burn—along with dried fruit and clove. On the palate this is very darkly toasty indeed, with dried fruit (raisin) and a bready character reminiscent of Russian black bread with a little honey or molasses. There’s a slight hop bitterness present, but not much in the way of notable hop flavors. This is a deep, rich, paean to maltiness in lager form; a very substantial beer. It could scarcely be more different from something like the festbier from Sierra Nevada, illustrating just how much ground is covered with “Oktoberfest lagers.”
This offering from Three Weavers is obviously in the festbier style, given the name. The L.A. brewery is notable for being a member of private capital-owned “craft brewery collective” CANarchy, which gives it greater reach and distribution across the country than it would have otherwise, although this particular release seems to be limited to California. Three Weavers is perhaps more associated with hop-forward beers than any other style, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see a festbier from them that explores the hoppier side of the style.
This one presents as a medium gold color in the glass, with a hazier appearance than some of the other crystal clear lagers in this particular lineup. Contrary to my initial expectation, it’s not particularly hop-forward on the nose—rather, I’m getting more light bready and yeasty notes, and a very subtle thread of florals. On the palate it heads in a similar direction, with subtle toastiness and some slightly biscuit-like Munich malt flavors, and an overall breadiness that reads almost like an American pale wheat ale. It’s quite dry, and extremely easy to drink, but not the most characterful of this lineup. This is definitely a beer built for volume drinking.
This lager from longtime north-of-Richmond brewers Center of the Universe is a good example of how mutable labels like “märzen” tend to be to American breweries—they can sort of just be applied to any Oktoberfest lager regardless of that beer’s specific profile. The brewery refers to this one as “märzen,” but its character is a bit more festbier-like. They likewise describe it by saying that it “would be right at home in the festival tents of Munich,” and in that we agree, given that festbier is what has been consumed for decades in those tents rather than märzen.
Regardless, this is a very well-rounded and center-of-the-bullseye entry that falls between substyles, with a nose that is very grainy-bready and a bit less toasty than some of the other more intense märzens, balanced by some delicate floral impressions of noble hops. This is quite crisp and extremely drinkable, without ever seeming dull, boasting just enough honeyed sweetness and perhaps the tiniest touch of vanilla accent to make it a real pounder. Drinking this one at noon on a patio, washing down a plate full of bratwurst, there’s little more you could possibly ask for.
Jack’s Abby is of course an institution among lager enthusiasts, one of only a handful of “lager only” U.S. breweries, and as such their Oktoberfest offering has long been enshrined as a beloved seasonal. The brewery doesn’t specifically label this one as either “märzen” or “festbier,” and that seems intentional—it falls pretty squarely between other examples that embrace one or another, representing more of a hybrid style. This beer is like a handshake between malt and hops.
Brilliantly clear in the glass, and with a color that is indeed unmistakably “copper,” this beer possesses an initially light nose of mild, malty sweetness with a touch of wildflower honey, which slowly opens up to greater impressions of bread crust and subtle noble hops. It’s on the drier side on the palate, quite crisp and somewhat grainy—toast is there, but it’s nothing like the more intense “dried fruit” character of an earlier entry such as the Bingo Beer Co. Oktoberfest. Floral, grassy hops instead emerge over time to offer a counterweight to the flavor profile and some accompanying bitterness. All in all, this is one of the more delicate, subtle approaches I sampled here—packed with flavor if you have the patience to suss it out.
Caiseal is a combination beer and spirits brand produced at The Vanguard Brewpub & Distillery in Hampton, VA, and I recently had an opportunity to sample their Oktoberfest lager for the first time. This one falls decidedly more onto the traditional märzen side of the spectrum, with notes reminiscent of the toastiness/intense maltiness found in Melanoidin malt. I’m getting lots of bread crust and dark toasted malt flavors here, with hints of dried and stone fruit (plum?). It’s slightly buttery as well, with hints of toffee and a bit of corresponding sweetness that keeps the beer from being totally dry. All in all, this is another of those more substantial Oktoberfest lagers, a bit like the liquid form of a bowl of Grape-Nuts. It seems to call for the onset of colder fall weather, with a natural habitat that includes campfires and end-of-season cookouts.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident craft beer geek. You can follow him on Twitter for much more drinks writing.