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Where have all the good Oktoberfests gone?

Disappointed by overly sweet Oktoberfest lagers, we asked the best brewers what makes a märzen shine.
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WEB_20160919_Oktoberfest_SmallFall is the best beer-drinking season. You can try to fight me on this, but you will lose. A few weeks ago when brown ales and Oktoberfests began arriving in the office, DRAFT staff did a collective version of the excited-jazz-hands emoji.

This bright-eyed enthusiasm was not to last, though. As we opened Oktoberfest beer after Oktoberfest beer, disappointment settled over the office like a late-autumn storm cloud. These beers, on the whole, were a letdown. Why?

First, let’s examine what makes a good Oktoberfest lager. Most beers labeled Oktoberfest purport to be märzens, a German-originating style of toasty, bready, amber-hued lagers that are elegant, dry and sessionable (essentially, my dream beer). However, these days most beers served at fall festivals in Germany are probably closer to a strong Helles; the Beer Judge Certification Program acknowledged this in adding a separate Festbier entry to its guidelines in 2015. OK, so we’re open to Oktoberfests that are either märzen-rich or are slightly less toasty, closer to a festbier.

But we really found few passable versions of either style, even after tasting a few dozen examples. (It reminded me of the wave of mediocre imperial stouts earlier this year.) What gives? Of course, many of the stalwart German-made Oktoberfest lagers—Ayinger, chiefly—will forever be delicious. But why were so many American versions falling short? I picked the brains of the brewers who make Oktoberfests that we really enjoy to settle the mystery. Their commandments:

1. Brew with Vienna malt. “I think a problem for a lot of brewers is they’ll just use a base pale malt for their Oktoberfests,” says brewer Lisa Allen of lager specialists Heater Allen Brewing in McMinnville, Oregon. “It’s all about the malt in an Oktoberfest, so you need really high-quality malt.” Pale malts, the type that form a base for an American pale ale, say, don’t produce the range of toasty, deep bready flavors that characterize this style. And because a märzen shouldn’t have a distracting level of hops or yeast flavors, there’s not much to hide behind if you’re using boring malts. “Like many other German lager styles, it’s about the subtleties of the malts and just a touch of hop bitterness, balanced with sessionability,” says Florian Kuplent, the Bavarian-born brewmaster at Urban Chestnut Brewing Co. in St. Louis, Missouri.

2. Consider the decoction mash. This is a traditional method of mashing, or converting brewing grains to fermentable sugars. It involves transfering a portion (usually about a third) of the gooey mash from the mash mixer to a kettle, heating it to release those coveted toasty flavors, boiling it, and then returning it to the main mash mixer—and then repeating the process twice more. It’s a pain, and most breweries don’t have the equipment or time to do it. But, according to brewers from Braxton Brewing Co. in Covington, Kentucky (makers of the totally delicious, new-to-cans Oktober Fuel märzen), it’s essential: “It gives you additional layers of complex malt aroma and flavor that you can’t get any other way,” says Braxton’s head brewer Evan Rouse. It was worth the effort, adds Braxton brewmaster Richard Dubé: “When we designed our equipment, it was designed for decoction. When we were approaching suppliers, they looked at us like we had three heads.”

3. Use lager yeast. This seems to go without saying: The best Oktoberfest lagers are brewed with a lager yeast. But some breweries, in an effort to speed up fermentation, use an ale yeast (at lower temperatures), which ferments much faster than a lager yeast does. Ale yeast, though, often produces fruity aromas and flavors known as esters, which are distracting and inappropriate in an Oktoberfest lager. “Part of it is that people are trying to crank [lagers] out too fast, so a lot don’t use a lager yeast. They’ll use a German ale yeast just to get it finished faster,” says Lisa Allen, adding that Heater Allen brewed this year’s Bobtoberfest at the end of April and has been lagering it since.

4. Make it drinkable. Above all, Oktoberfests were originally designed to be consumed in rather large quantities, in steins, at rowdy fall festivals. Nothing about the beer should be too sweet, too filling, too sticky on the palate. “If it’s overly sweet and cloying, that’s not what I’m looking for,” says Kuplent. “Once you’ve finished your first, if you feel like having a second and a third, it’s a success.”

One Comment

  • Nick says:

    Oh dear. The BJCP seem to be ignorant of the dozens or perhaps hundreds of beers brewed around Germany, at different times of the year, for local festivals, and which are called “Festbier”. The thing is, a few of them might be like the bland, pale, “poundable” modern-day Munich Oktoberfest beers, but the bulk of them, at least those that I’ve had, and I’ve had quite a few, vary considerably from the Munich Ofest variety.

    Like, alcohol content. Some are just over 5%, and many or even most are weaker than the Munich ones, stayin around 5.6% or so. The Munich ones are intended to get people drunk and parting with their money as quickly as possible.

    Colour & malt profile also varies, with some being nearly black. And nearly all the ones I’ve had have been considerably maltier than the Munich Oktoberfests. And then some are even well-hopped and bitter, most notably the one Löwenbräu of Buttenheim, Franconia (not Munich or one of the other Löwenbräu breweries) brews for the Annafest in late July in the town of Forchheim. This fest is one worth seeking out for the Festbier-curious: there are a good 10 on offer, varying from golden to black, malty to hoppy. (Most are brewed for the Annafest, but some are the same recipe the breweries use for Festbier at other times of the year.)

    Anyway, it’s an unfortunate choice of style name to use; why couldn’t the BJCP have used “Modern Münchner Oktoberfest” instead? Good on you for calling out what’s happened with the dumbing down of the Munich stuff, in any case.

    Such a complicated beer world today.

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