The History of Oktoberfest Beer (and Five to Try Right Now)
Before it was a beer style, it was a party.
The first Oktoberfest celebration was held on October 12, 1810, but far from the drinking festival it's become today, this first party was actually held to celebrate a wedding. Ludwig, Crown Prince of Bavaria (who'd later become King Ludwig I) exchanged vows with Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen, and everyone in Munich was invited to attend. There was music; there was dancing; there were horse races; there was beer. Everyone had such a good time that the royal family decided to host the races again the next year, and the next, and the next. This tradition gave rise to the modern Oktoberfest.
Today, it's the world's largest beer festival. Held annually in Munich, Oktoberfest actually begins in late September, running 16 days and ending the first weekend in October. Some of the traditions of the first Oktoberfest remain -- example, the grounds upon which the festival is held each year are still known as the Theresienwiese, or "Theresa's meadow." But the 6.3 million people who visited in 2014 didn't go to frolick in the grass; they went to drink. You could determine this by the number of arrests made at the festival (720) or the number of people treated by the Bavarian Red Cross for alcohol poisoning (600) or minor alcohol-related scrapes and bumps (7,900). But it's best to just look at the beer: brewers sold 6.5 million liters of beer at this year's Oktoberfest, which equates to about 1,7171,118 gallons or 18,315,925 12-ounce cans.
By law, every single one of those 6.5 million liters was a designated "Oktoberfest Beer," meaning it was brewed according to the Reinheitsgebot (an old Bavarian food purity law that limits the ingredients used to make beer to just water, malt, hops and yeast) and was made within Munich city limits. As such, just six breweries are able to pour at the festival: Augustiner, Hacker-Pschorr, Lowenbrau, Paulaner, Spaten and Hofbrau.
The beer that shares the festival's name has been around in some form or another since at least the 1600s, though in these early years it was more commonly known as Marzen. This is because it was commonly brewed in March (or Marz in German) to take advantage of the last bit of spring chill before the warmer summer months hit. Though they knew nothing of yeast and bacteria, Bavarian brewers had discovered through trial and error that the beers brewed when the temperature was high tended to become sour and gross, while those kept cold remained clean and flavorful. Marzen-style beers were often the last batch a brewer made before the summer; they would store the beer in cold caves to avoid the heat and release them once fall rolled back around.
Oktoberfest's crystallization as an actual, recognized style occurred in the mid-1800s, mostly thanks to Gabriel Sedlmayr, the head of Munich's Spaten Brewery. Before this date, most of those Marzen beers were made with barley toasted with a direct flame. This caused inconsistent color and flavor within the malt -- some was scorched black, some was barely warmed at all. Taking a cue from English brewers, Gabe found a way to heat his barley malt by circulating hot air through it, which gave it a consistent level of toastiness and enticing biscuity flavors. Munich malt, as it came to be known, is still the hallmark of the Marzen style today.
Marzens and Oktoberfests can be known by either name; the flavors and brewing processes will be similar. Most are colored a deep auburn, with subtle bitterness from grassy German-grown hops and malt flavors that can be caramel-sweet or toasty and nutty. Here are five of our favorites that you'll find on shelves right now. Spaten Oktoberfest - 5.9 percent ABV Though it's a descendent of the original Oktoberfest brewed by Gabriel Sedlmayr, Spaten's version is on the lighter end of the style's spectrum today. A paler, cleaner malt character and floral hop flavor make this brew a good starting point for exploration of sweeter, maltier examples of the style.
Ayinger Oktober Fest-Marzen - 5.8 percent ABV Much like the picturesque German hamlet found on bottlecaps from this Bavarian brewery, Ayinger's Oktober Fest-Marzen harkens back to simpler times. In this beer, an aroma packed with toffee and hints of vanilla gives way to a flavor of toasted wehat bread and apple jam balanced by herbal hoppiness. A light body and impeccably smooth finish may lead you to polish off multiple liters.
Victory Festbier - 5.6 percent ABV Combining 100 percent German malts and whole flower European hops, Festbier's a true-to-style Oktoberfest and has a gold medal from the 2007 Great American Beer Festival to prove it. Flavors of yeasty sourdough bread, wheat, peanuts and caramel before a dry finish give you all the taste of Munich without the airfare.
SanTan Oktoberfest - 5.5 percent ABV SanTan's Oktoberfest was, until September of this year, available only on draft; now it can also be found in cans. American-grown Columbus hops give the brew a hint of bitterness, but this is a decidedly sweet version of the style, showcasing an intense caramel and biscuit malt flavor.
Lumberyard Oktoberfest - 6 percent ABV The brewers at this Flagstaff beer-producer are skilled at nailing down classic beer styles. Their expertise is apparent in this Oktoberfest, which, with a complex malt character balancing subtle caramel tones and toasted bread, I'd consider the best example of the style brewed in Arizona.