Autumn is the favorite time of year for many beer aficionados. The light, watery summer brews disappear from the shelves and are replaced by darker, more robust fall seasonal beers, including the acclaimed Oktoberfest.
The Germans have been brewing Oktoberfest Beer, also known as a Marzen, since about 1840 or so. Each mid-September through early-October, it’s served at the biggest party in the world — the official Oktoberfest celebration in Munich, Germany. Of course, smaller festivals are held around the globe every fall.
By style, Oktoberfest/Marzen beer is a clean amber-colored lager know for its slightly sweet, rich, toasty Bavarian malt flavors. Hop notes and bitterness are minimal but subtle tastes of spicy German Noble Hops can often be distinguished. They are normally clear and around 5.5-6.0% alcohol by volume (ABV).
There is a dizzying array of these fall favorites available at the local beer mega mart, with more and more showing up each year. The German brewers are known to be masters in this style but many of their American counterparts have been releasing solid versions for years. We decided to put eleven popular American Oktoberfest beers to the test in a blind tasting. Each mystery brew was graded solely on its own merit with the style guidelines taken into consideration. The only criteria were that the candidates all had to cost under $4 a bottle and be distributed nationally.
The first five in the test delivered one rock star, a few really good American Okto’s and one to avoid. How will the last six stack up? And more importantly which of these all-American brewskis will be crowned Mr. Oktober? Find out below…
Lakefront Brewery Oktoberfest: Milwaukee’s finest comes in a golden color with a sweet malt nose. The 5.7% ABV Wisconsin marzen is on the malt-y side but very sweet, especially for the style. Light for an Oktoberfest and not a good representative of the style. Drinkable but one-dimensional and not up to snuff. Grade: B-
Highland Clawhammer Oktoberfest: The 5.0% ABV fall seasonal hailing out of hip Asheville, NC pours comes in an orange-yellow color. Sweet malt flavors are evident throughout on this light-bodied Oktoberfest interpretation. Nothing really stands out though and it’s a little devoid of taste and boring to be honest. Disappointing, considering the brewery. Grade: C+
Heavy Seas Marzen: Clipper City’s golden-amber colored lager weighs in at 5.75% ABV. On the malt-y side, with light toasty and caramel notes adding complexity. The lager is malt forward but balanced and very drinkable. Smooth and clean with a little depth, this one is a fantastic fall choice. Grade: A-/B+
Victory Festbier: Pennsylvania’s cool craft brewery’s fall entry comes in medium-amber hues. Scents of sweet malt emanate from the glass on this 5.6% lager, it smells fantastic. Rich German malts can be felt throughout with plenty of toasted and nutty notes mixed in. Festbier is brewed with only German ingredients, and it indeed tastes Bavarian. What an Oktoberfest should taste like and simply delicious. Grade: A-
Capital Brewery Oktoberfest: The fall seasonal from Wisconsin’s funky little brewery pours a reddish-amber in color. Rich German malt flavors are evident along with lip-smacking toasted and roasted malt notes. On the malty side but everything is in balance. Tastes like the real deal and it’s a very tasty beer. Grade: B+
It’s encouraging, and slightly surprising, to see American breweries releasing high quality Oktoberfests. We were pleased with all but two or three of the entries and overall we couldn’t quite pick a winner between the two top scoring lagers.
Mr. Oktobers (The best of the best): Brooklyn Oktoberfest & Victory Festbier
Runners Up: Heavy Seas Marzen & Leinenkugel’s Oktoberfest