Today at Oktoberfest and on German labels, and seemingly since the mid-1970s and the dawn of the age of light beer, Oktoberfest beer can mean this classic style or a just a heartier style of the brewery’s main lager beer. The use of both “Oktoberfest” and “Marzen” on a label means the beer is in the traditional style created by Spaten. Marzen is March in German and was the last month in which brewing was possible because of the wild yeasts that quickly propagate during the warm days of summer in the time before refrigeration. The beer was stored in cold cellars (“lager” in German) and drank during the course of the summer. The last of the beers were consumed by the end of the September and early October for the festival and its predecessor fall festivals. The long storage beer ensured an especially smooth and flavorful beer.
It remains today in the best versions of Oktoberfest, even if the beers are not stored nearly as long as they once were. These can make for terrific session beers, especially when the weather is a little cooler than summertime Houston. Since I enjoy the style and drink it regularly throughout the year – much less so in summer – I recently conducted a tasting of all of the Oktoberfest beers I could find in Houston. The results are below.
The ratings are done in a hybrid of my copy of Michael Jackson’s Pocket Guide to Beer (signed by the author himself) and the New York Times wine ratings, [nothing] to ****.
Ayinger Oktober Fest-Marzen ***
Easily the best of the dozen beers, and a very flavorful example of the style, Ayinger just does not disappoint; it is certainly one of the top breweries in the world. Their versions of hefe-weizens and dunkel-weiszens have done very well in tastings I have conducted over the years, and this Oktoberfest, sporting a malty aroma with a hint of nutmeg has a very long, extremely smooth and malty taste with proper touch of sweetness that makes it a very easy beer to enjoy. 5.8% alcohol by volume; 21 IBUs.
Spaten Octoberfest **
Featuring the deepest brown color of the tasting field, this was good, but not nearly as tasty as good kegs I have drank in the recent past. It was smooth enough, but missing some of the malty sweetness that I have come to expect. 5.9% alcohol; 23 IBUs.
Samuel Adams Octoberfest **
Malty aromas were followed by a properly malty taste. Made in the traditional style, Sam Adams has been making this beer for a number of years and knows what it is doing; the best of the American versions. 5.3% alcohol; 16 IBUs.
Paulaner Oktoberfest Marzen * ½
Notes of nutmeg in the aroma and some sweetness in the back of the mouth, but not the best representation of the style, as the beer does not quite come together in the glass. 5.8% alcohol; 24 IBUs.
Karbach Karbachtoberfest * ½ [** in September 2016]
Lighter in color than nearly all of the others and the most effervescent, this had a long taste that was not nearly as malty or strong as the typical style and a bit of an odd aftertaste. That “It’s still summer” is written on the can could be a key to the idea behind this beer, which tasted almost of a blend between the Munich helles, their lighter standard beer, and a Marzen. 5.5% alcohol; 25 IBUs.
Rahr & Sons Oktobefest * ½
The slight malty nose led to a maltier taste with caramel notes and a fairly full body. Not entirely smooth, but a pretty good effort from this Forth Worth brewery. 7% alcohol; 27 IBUs.
Harpoon Octoberfest *
With different aromas, this features a malty taste with a touch of dryness and some rough patches during a sip. Mediocre. 5.3% alcohol; 32 IBUs.
Josesphbrau Oktobefest *
A slight malty aroma was followed by a relatively light body and a touch of sweetness. Made with corn, I wondered. There is nothing charming about this beer contract-brewed for Trader Joe’s by a brewery that has not mastered the art of a Marzen-style lager. 5.3% alcohol; 25 IBUs.
Saint Arnold Oktoberfest *
Thin and odd-tasting for the style with an odd almost soapy taste, like that of Shiner’s version. This prominently features the Saint Arnold’s house aftertaste, which is not at all pleasant for this type of beer. 6.0% alcohol; 24 IBUs.
Shiner Oktoberfest *
Odd with a hint of soapiness in its short taste. Thin for the style and tasting fairly cheaply made. 5.7% alcohol; 18 IBUs.
Brooklyn Oktoberfest ½
A unique take on the style that does not work. Looks that part with its dark copper color, but had none of the maltiness you look for in these beers paired with a bit of spice that does not really, help plus a dryness that was also at odds with both the style and enjoyment. A misstep by a good brewery. 5.5% alcohol; 25 IBUs.
Leinenkugel’s Oktoberfest ½
The worst of the lot and another beer to avoid. The malty aromas led to fairly malty taste that finished badly, just like beers made with cheap ingredients do. 5.1% alcohol; 20 IBUs.
If you enjoy the style or a flavorful smooth-tasting beer with a bit of body Ayinger is the clear winner. The progenitor of the style and one that is available year round, Spaten, is still quite tasty, if maybe more variable than it should be. A freshly tapped keg of Paulaner, always a laggard to Spaten in terms of Marzen, can be very enjoyable as can Sam Adams Octoberfest. If not great, Rahr’s showed some promise, and packs a wallop, too, at 7% alcohol.
The rest, unfortunately, should be ignored.
Original article was initially published in September 2014.
Below, two different Oktoberfest beers sampled at The Ginger Man.