Beer Department: Oktoberfest season!

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It is no secret that the heavily German Greater Cincinnati (Zinzinnati) area loves Oktoberfest season. Our humble little city actually hosts the second largest festival in the world, second only to the original in Münich. Being the proper descendants of German immigrants that we are, we revel in German culture at this festival: music, food, attire, and, most importantly, beer! Festbier is widely consumed, but poorly understood, and that’s a crying shame! Let’s dive into this confusing world of beer and sort things out!

The biggest misconception about festbier is thinking that it refers to a specific style of beer. It doesn’t, so this is where things get tricky. Broadly speaking, anything labeled “festbier” is simply that— festival beer. The specific type of beer being served at the festival can and has changed several times since Oktoberfest’s inception in the late 19th century. The original beers brewed for the fest in the 19th century were actually more akin to a dunkel, a dark, roasty, and heavily toasty lager native to Bavaria. By 1872, amber-colored Märzen-style beers, modeled after popular Vienna lagers of the day, were introduced to the festival and their presence continued uninterrupted at the festival until 1990. Since amber Märzens (literally, March beer, brewed in the spring and lagered in caves until ready to be served in the fall) had dominated what constituted festbier for over a century, American craft brewers took their inspiration from amber Märzens and today the overwhelming majority of American-brewed festbiers are still Märzens. Most American breweries will simply label their festbier as “Oktoberfest” because it simply isn’t on their radar that festbier is any more complicated than one style of beer. Further complicating the matter is that German and EU regulations protect the term “Oktoberfestbier” and reserve it solely for use by the handful of breweries in Münich that brew beer for the festival.

Beginning in the 90s, German brewers, especially those who were from Bavaria but not Münich proper, began brewing a lighter colored sibling to the classic amber Märzen. These new beers, named wiesn after the meadow where the festival takes place, are still lagers but are much lighter and easier to drink. The word wiesn, despite a superficial similarity, has no relation to the German weizen (wheat) or weisse (white). Whereas Märzens use an abundance of Vienna malt, with some Münich malt for support, to create rich, yet elegant, flavors of toast and spiciness or a woodsy character from German noble hops, wiesn beers use mostly pilsner malt with support from Vienna malt for some depth of flavor. Both styles should finish dry and suggest some sweetness or richness throughout the fore- and mid-palate without ever actually becoming particularly sweet. The emphasis for both styles is on elegance, drinkability, and depth of flavor in perfect harmony. There are well-made American examples (see Great Lakes or Hi-Wire, both Märzen in style), but be wary since many American efforts end up being too sweet, relying on sweet caramel flavors or even roastiness to create flavor. This destroys the delicate harmony of great festbier. For my beer picks this month, I chose three Märzen style beers and one wiesn style beer (Weihenstephan) that you should familiarize yourself with immediately.

Long story short, there are actually 2 different styles of beer that might commonly be called Oktoberfestbier: blonde, easier drinking Wiesn and amber, slightly richer Märzen. Most American-brewed examples are Märzens, but be careful because American Märzens can often be too sweet or too roasty for the style. Great festbier, regardless of the color, should be flavorful, drinkable, and begging for another swig. There are great examples of German-made beer in both styles, but the blonde wiesn has largely taken over the festival as European tastes have changed since the early 90s.

I hope this will prove to be a helpful introduction to the glories of festbier. They really are delicious and complex, yet not cerebral. They’re best enjoyed by the liter with good friends, food, and music. Prost!

-Eric Dunaway, Certified Cicerone®

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