One thing is for sure at Oktoberfest everyone is drinking German lager. These are called Oktoberfestbiers in and around Germany. Within this family of German-brewed lagers there are two types: the dark, malt-forward Märzen and the lighter, hoppier Festbier.
Today most beer consumed at the Oktoberfest festival is the second type of lager. It is golden in color and has a distinct hop flavor and the malt flavor is more biscuit like and subtle than that amber Märzen.
What does the beer at Oktoberfest taste like?
The beers at Oktoberfest taste like a more flavorful version of American Light Lagers like Bud Light or Miller Light. Compared to those watery light lagers, Oktoberfestbiers will have more malt and hop character.
Amber Oktoberfest beers called Märzens have flavors of toasted bread that is reminiscent of the outside of the giant soft pretzels you see around Munich. They finish dry with a pleasant amount of bitterness that keeps the flavor balanced. The malt flavor can be rich and bready but the beer never feels heavy or syrupy. These are still brewed in Munich but they aren’t served at the actual festival, though during Oktoberfest season you’ll find Marzens at bars and restaurants around town.
The golden lagers that are poured in the actual tents at Munich Oktoberfest will have more fresh baked bread flavor from the malt, which sometimes reminds me of fluffy dinner rolls. They have more mild grassy and herbal notes from hops than the Marzens. These golden beers also finish substantially more bitter than a Bud Light, but not nearly as bitter as a hoppy IPA.
Any beer you get in an Oktoberfest tent will be easy drinking and subtle, that’s why they are served in massive one-liter glasses! It’s easy to drink that much of these traditional German lagers. Even though it is easy to drink stein after stein, be careful! These beers tend to be above 6% abv, stronger than most other lagers. The Augustiner Oktoberfest is a boozy 6.3% beer but it tastes as light as any other lager.
All Oktoberfest Beers Must be Brewed in Munich
There are only six breweries that can serve beer at the official Oktoberfest festival. Tradition states that in order to be poured on the grounds of the festival (also called the Wiesn) the beer must be brewed within Munich. The six breweries are Paulaner, Augustiner, Hofbräu, Löwenbräu, Hacker-Pschorr, and Spaten.
Each of the six breweries celebrate the festival in their own way by decorating their tents in particular colors and making special brews for the festival. Some breweries bring both a Marzen and a Festbier, while some breweries make only a Märzen or only a Festbier. For example, Paulener brews it’s Oktoberfest bier (a Festbier) as well as its Oktoberfest Märzen (a traditional Märzenbier). But Paulener only serves the sparkling gold festbier in its tent.
When Did Oktoberfestbiers Start to Get Lighter and Hoppier?
Originally, brewers made Marzens in late spring (usually March, the month they get their name from!) and kept them in the cold cellar through the hot summer months because brewing wasn’t possible with high ambient temperatures. By the time the beers came out of the cellar to drink in September, most of the hop aroma had disappeared. This meant the clean lagers tasted like liquid bread crust (in the best way!) with a balancing bitterness and very low hop flavor perception.
However, technology has improved! Modern refrigeration made brewing a year round activity and lagers don’t need to be stored for a whole summer. Not only did technology change, but the Oktoberfest event did too. As the festival shifted to focus on food and beer, breweries started to realize there was a little problem with their beer, it was too filling! People with stomachs full of rich toasty Marzen bought less beer. To solve this problem in the 1970s Paulener released a golden beer for Oktoberfest. It still had the taste of high quality German malt but it was less intense than the amber lagers of past festivals. Plus an increase in bitterness made the beer seem more quaffable.
By the 1990s the full-flavored rich Marzens fell out of favor with the people of Germany completely. Now, Instead of toasty lagers, breweries started making a golden beer that was served fresher and still had some herbal, grassy hop character. All six tents serve this version and it is the festbier you’ll see in the giant steins of Oktoberfest today!
What Kinds of Glasses Should Oktoberfest Beers be Served in?
During the Oktoberfest event itself you’ll see sparkling golden festbiers filling the one-liter steins. The waitresses in the Oktoberfest tents wear their recognizable Dirndls while carrying 10 to 15 one-liter steins. Those glasses add up to more than 50 pounds in her hands! A liter of beer weighs about 2.25 pounds add another 3 pounds for the hefty beer glassware and you have a serious work out.
However, one liter is a pretty massive serving size and not everyone is ready to down a full Maß. Even though the one liter size is traditional, you can now find half liter steins at the festival. Which means more work for the staff that has to bring you another glass of beer, but a little less weight while they carry it.
Another common glass in Germany is the Willi Becher glass which typically holds 500ml but there are smaller sizes as well. Both Marzens and Festbiers are served in a Willi Becher as well as many other German lagers like Schwarzbier and Helles.
Until 1893 the steins at Oktoberfest were traditional “Steinkrug.” These one-liter beer vessels were even heavier than the glass steins because they were made of stoneware or clay. These “Steinkrug” are where we get the term “stein” we use today. Which is funny considering Steinkrug literally means “stone jug” and there’s nothing stoney about today’s glass versions!
Where can I find Oktoberfest Beer in America?
For some reason, in the United States we’re still stuck in the 80s and most Oktoberfestbiers brewed by American craft breweries are of the amber colored Marzen variety. These are still absolutely delicious, especially the ones from Jack’s Abby and Victory Brewing Company.
Luckily, America doesn’t need to brew its own festbier, plenty of German breweries import them! One of the most common festbiers in grocery stores and bottle shops in the United States is Weihenstephan Festbier. The official Oktoberfest breweries of Munich also import their festbiers starting in late August through mid-October.