Nowadays, fall seasonal beers often invoke images of pumpkins, spice, and other nontraditional brewing ingredients. And while this may be all the rage today, it was not always this way. In fact, for almost 200 years, traditional lagers known as Marzens (a.k.a. Oktoberfests) were the sure sign of fall. German brewers made traditional lagers in March and would store them all summer long in caves to keep them cold. This aging, or "lagering," helped the beer's flavors improve. German residents would celebrate these beers at their annual Oktoberfest celebrations.
The words "Oktoberfest" or "Marzen" are often used to describe these delicious fall lagers — "Marzen" being the German word for March, when the beers were brewed. For much of this beer style's history, these beers tended to be on the darker side (deep amber to copper color), with a lot of delicious malt flavor produced by the Munich and Vienna malts used to create these beers. In modern times, the trend has become to produce lighter-style beers, closer to the traditional Helles style ("helles" is the German word for light) that appear gold in color and are still flavorful, but lighter on the palate than the traditional examples.
Beers of this style have a dominant flavor and aroma characteristic known as "melanoidins." What that means to the average beer-drinking consumer is that as the malts used in the beer are kilned (baked) to get their color and flavor profile. They then create flavors that hint at both fruit and toasted bread, but aren't quite definitively either. In other words, if you have an Oktoberfest beer, you may taste flavors that remind you of toasted bread and fruit, depending on the brewer's use of malts in their interpretation of the beer.
So, call it a Marzen, a Festbier, or an Oktoberfest. It's up to you. But no matter which you choose or which side of town you frequent, get out and enjoy this traditional, delicious fall classic while it is still available at these local breweries.
Dark Munich Lager
Helton Brewing Company
This clear, dark copper, malt-forward masterpiece is a wonderful showcase of malt's melanoidins. Munich malt can be used as a base malt or as a character malt to add complexity, but brewer Brian Helton goes all in by using Munich as 50 percent of the grain bill in this dark lager. The flavors are beautifully developed, the beer is perfectly clean, and it redefines the word "refreshing" when you're looking for the perfect beer on a fall afternoon. The hops are subtle in this beer, as it's intended to be all about the malt.
Tahelenbak Helles Lager
Saddle Mountain Brewing Company, Goodyear
This deep gold, very clear lager is one of two fall seasonal lagers offered by Saddle Mountain Brewery in Goodyear. This beer is full of flavor yet lighter and a little more subtle than a traditional Marzen. Though a little high for a Helles, the body, color, and flavor profile is completely in range for a modern-day Oktoberfest, of which Tahelenbak is a great example. A nice balance of character malts used to craft this beer helps to achieve a rounded, pleasant flavor profile. Some hop aroma and flavor is present, but light, melanoidin malt flavors are pronounced.
North Mountain Brewing Company
Fruit notes including fig, golden raisins, and apricot blend with toasted Italian bread crust aromas in this Oktoberfest brew from Phoenix's North Mountain Brewing Company. The flavors are pronounced and forward, probably more so than the other beers in this list, with a sweetness lingering in the back of the palate into the finish. The nontraditional sweetness likely comes from the ramped-up alcohol content — because at 6.6% ABV, this brew is at least a full point above the traditional Marzen range. Go big or go home, right?
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Peoria Artisan Brewery, Litchfield Park
With this beer, Peoria Artisan Brewery has created a traditional Oktoberfest, rich in flavor with a refreshing, semi-dry finish. True to the traditional Marzen style in color and flavor, the aromas (mostly toasted malt) are very subtle, with no perceptible hops. Despite the overall lack of aroma, everything is amped up in the flavor highlighted by the traditional toasted malt character along with some floral hop flavor for balance.
Pedal Haus Brewery, Tempe
Clear copper in color, with an off-white head that persists on the sides of the glass, this beer produces aromas of plum and other dark fruits as well as rum-like aromas. A medium body with medium carbonation, Doc Marzen is actually "gluten reduced," which might make it more appealing to those looking to reduce their gluten intake. The beer produces a malt-forward presentation with flavors of Vienna bread crust and the fruit with some nutty flavors, finishing crisp.