American craft beer geeks love the idea of Oktoberfest, the mythical German celebration that begins this year on Sept. 22, but that doesn’t mean they necessarily have the best grasp on what beer styles are actually represented during that celebration. “Octoberfest beer” is generally thought of as amber, malty lager, but there are in fact two major, separate camps one might be speaking of when referencing “Octoberfest”: Märzen and Festbier.
Märzen is the classical style that was brewed for pre-1990s Oktoberfest celebrations, and is the style loosely emulated by many American brewers to this day … although they don’t always get it quite right. Malt-forward, with rich toasty/bready notes and firm bitterness, the true Märzen isn’t nearly as sweet or caramel-forward as many American brewers interpreted it as “Octoberfest” became a popular fall seasonal release in the ‘80s and ‘90s—think of the venerable Sam Adams Octoberfest as a touchstone here. The more traditional Märzen would be better represented by the likes of Ayinger Oktober Fest-Märzen.
Festbier, on the other hand, is a newer innovation that was meant to offer a lighter variation upon the Märzen formula, but ended up largely usurping it at the annual Oktoberfest celebration. These beers are lighter in color, golden-hued, with a bit less toasty malt and more of a crisp bready/doughy character, which is often supported by a more prominent noble hop presence as well. Less intense, and even more inviting of liter steins, festbier is among the most “sessionable” styles on Earth, and this is by design.
And then there’s O-Katz, full name Oachkatzlschwoaf, which excavates the beautiful middle ground of sorts between the two. St. Louis’ Urban Chestnut is of course a brewery we’ve lauded with praise numerous times in the past, given their consistency in dominating blind tastings of classical German styles, and their Oktoberfest lager is every bit as good as you would expect it to be.
On the nose, this beer is subtle rather than boisterous—lightly toasty malt is the primary backbone, with a little thread of butterscotch or toffee that suggests a delicate sweetness. There’s some nuttiness there as well, and a hint of floral or earthy hops that becomes easier to pick up as you return to it repeatedly.
On the palate, O-Katz is light and crisp—lighter in body and texture than many of the traditional Märzens, while still retaining a bit of the darker malt presence you don’t usually find in festbiers. It’s certainly on the more bready/toasty side than anything you’d overtly refer to as “caramel,” with a very subtle sweetness. “Subtle” is a word that recurs, and you’d be tempted to say “complex,” but the fact of the matter is that this beer isn’t necessarily meant to be complicated—it’s meant to be effortlessly accessible, and it is. It’s assertive enough to be memorable, but so dry and clean that it calls out for a huge platter of bratwurst and grain mustard to accompany it.
Beer like O-Katz is a rare thing; an incarnation of the adage that “less is more.” It’s a masterful expression of the craft of German lager-making, and one of the best American Octoberfest beers that you’ll find anywhere.
Brewery: Urban Chestnut Brewing Co.
City: Saint Louis, MO
Availability: Seasonal, 16 oz cans
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident beer guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.