Fall is right around the corner, and with the changing colors of leaves, brisk weather, and pumpkin spiced everything, we also get Oktoberfestbier, Festbier, Märzen, and Oktoberfest-style beers. But what exactly are they? Are they all the same? In this article I’m going to explain the very slight differences of them all. What this post will not cover is pumpkin or yam beers, as they’re not true to any of these styles.
Before refrigeration, beer was brewed only during the cool months of the year due to a high risk of a bacterial infection in beer from hot temperatures. Beer production began in the fall, and ended in early spring, typically in March, hence the name Märzen, which means March in German. Märzen is a full-bodied, rich and toasty lager, while still crisp, slightly sweet but well-balanced and flavorful, with an ABV of 4.0-7.0%. Historically speaking, the common Munich Oktoberfest beer served at Wies’n (the location at which Munich celebrates its Oktoberfest) is dark/copper in color. It has a higher alcohol content than most lagers in order to have a longer shelf life, and make it to the harvest festivals of fall without becoming infected during the summer heat. Märzen’s were left to ferment slowly in cool cellars and caves and would be tapped in the early fall.
Oktoberfestbier came about when Prince Ludwig of Bavaria married Princess Therese Von Sachsen-Hildburghausen. Their wedding was set towards the end of september, they invited the general public, and the celebration ran about 16-18 days. Oktoberfest begins on the third weekend in September and ends on the first Sunday in October or on October 3rd, whichever is later. Naturally they chose Märzen to be the beer of choice which then also became known as, Oktoberfestbier. These beers are brewed just like traditional Märzen’s except with a slightly higher original gravity.
Since the late 20th century, the beer served at Wies’n have become lighter bodied and may also be golden in color. These beers are known as Festbier’s and are a lighter, breadier lager, with a medium bitterness and a pilsner-like finish. It is typically much lighter than the Märzen lagers, and drinks much easier than it’s ABV suggests (the typical range is between 5.8 and 6%). These beers may also be seen at any sort of festival and not just Oktoberfest.
There are only six breweries (Augustiner, Hacker- Pschorr, Hofbräu, Löwenbräu, Paulaner, and Spaten) that are allowed to call their Märzen lagers Oktoberfestbier. The name is actually their registered trademark. Any brewery outside of the city of Munich limits, whether still in Germany or in another country has to name their beer brewed in this style “Oktoberfest-style” beer or simply Märzen. It is an appellation sort of thing. Similar to how not all sparkling wines can bear the name Champagne.
Hopefully this clears up any confusion with these styles. Brooklyn Oktoberfest-style, Weihenstephaner Festbier, Sam Adams Octoberfest, and Flying Dog Dogtoberfest are great renditions of these beers. I do suggest trying the six original Oktoberfestbier’s listed above first though, this way you can have a solid understanding of how these beer style’s are traditionally brewed.