Happy Autumn! And Happy Oktoberfest! O’ zapft ist!
I just happened to have five Bavarian Oktoberfests in my beer fridge, so I decided to post a little review and beer history. Tough job, I know, but someone has to do it, might as well be the Guru…
A quick review: Oktoberfest is a 16-day festival held annually in Munich, Bavaria, Germany, running from late September to the first weekend in October. It is one of the most famous events in Germany and is the world’s largest fair, with more than 5 million people attending every year. The Oktoberfest is an important part of Bavarian culture, having been held since 1810. The festival is held in an area named the Theresienwiese (field, or meadow, of Therese), often called Wies’n for short, located near Munich’s center. Large quantities of Oktoberfest Bier are consumed, with almost 7 million liters served during the 16 day festival. Only beer conforming to the Reinheitsgebot, at a minimum of 12.5% Stammwurze (approximately 6% alcohol) may be served at Oktoberfest. The beer must also be brewed within the city limits of Munich. Beers meeting these criteria may be designated Oktoberfest Bier.
The breweries that can produce Oktoberfest Beer under the criteria are: Augustiner-Bräu, Hacker-Pschorr Bräu, Löwenbräu, Paulaner-Bräu, Spatenbräu and Stätlisches Hofbräu-Münich. Oktoberfest Beer is a registered Trademark by the Club of Munich Brewers.
Crown Prince Ludwig, later to become King Ludwig I, was married to Princess Therese of Bavaria on October 12,1810. The citizens of Munich were invited to attend the festivities held on the fields in front of the city gates to celebrate the happy royal event. The fields have been named Theresienwiese (“Theresa’s meadow”) in honor of the Crown Princess ever since, although the locals have since abbreviated the name simply to the “Wies’n“.
Since 1950, there has been a traditional festival opening: A twelve gun salute and the tapping of the first keg of Oktoberfest beer at noon by the Mayor of Munich with the cry “O’ zapft ist!” (“It’s tapped!”) opens the Oktoberfest. The Mayor then gives the first beer to the Minister-President of the State of Bavaria.
History of the beer style: Also known as a Märzenbier (MARE-tzen-beer, “beer of March”) the style’s origin is credited to Gabriel Sedlmayr, based on an adaptation of the Vienna style developed by Anton Dreher around 1840, shortly after lager yeast was first isolated. It is typically brewed in the spring, signaling the end of the traditional brewing season and is stored in cold caves or cellars during the warm summer months, and served in autumn amidst traditional celebrations.
So – I tasted and formed opinions on the following five brews, not all of which are brewed in Munich (so they don’t qualify for the above list, necessarily), but all of which are German and therefore better representatives of the style (in my opinion) than most North American-brewed versions…
Weihenstephaner – 5.8% abv
- color: clear straw, reminiscent of a pilsner; thin off-white head
- nose: pretzels, graham crackers
- flavor: thin, off-sweet, nice hop bitterness better suited to a Pilsner – not much of an O-fest…
- overall: 3/5 – very tasty beer, but not well-suited for the category
Erdinger – 5.7% abv
- color: slightly hazy straw to gold, thick white head
- nose: pears/apricots, sweet – a little corn (diacteyl)
- flavor: bread, malt, again diacetyl (caramel corn)
- overall: 3.5/5 – not malty enough, too superficially sweet and affected by the diacetyl
Warsteiner – 5.9% abv
- color: crystal clear deep gold, perfect off-white head
- nose: malt, crackers, piney hops
- flavor: rich, burnt sugar/caramel, malty
- overall: 4/5 – from a brewery best known for an outstanding Pilsner, this is a very credible and well-made Märzen. Lovely to look at and eminently drinkable
Paulaner – 5.8% abv
- color: reddish amber, thinnish white head
- nose: floral hops, toasted malt, toffee
- flavor: rich malty up front, dried fruit/raisins, some red wine-like tannins and tartness
- overall: 4/5 – very much a classic example, well-rounded and complex
Spaten – 5.9% abv
- color: amber, totally clear & bright, light off-white head
- nose: malt, mild hops, pipe tobacco?
- flavor: balanced – malt and hops take turns on the tongue, great sweetness and very pleasant bitterness
- overall: 4.5/5
Ironically, the one of the five packaged in a green bottle came across as the freshest. There was not one I would dump down the sink, but clearly the beers brewed in Munich remain the best examples. Prost!
For more information about the Märzen/Oktoberfest style, or ideas on how to brew your own, I recommend (with a large grain of salt) George Fix’s Vienna/Märzen/Oktoberfest in the AHA Classic Style series. Whenever I am seeking information on a style, a brewery, a brewing region, I usually start with Michael Jackson’s “Beer Companion” or “New World Guide to Beer” When brewing or tasting the style, I always refer to the BJCP Style Guidelines, even if I don’t always follow them…