Craft Beer of the Week

The History of Oktoberfest Beer (and Five to Try Right Now)

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See also: 8 Oktoberfest Celebrations in Metro Phoenix

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.

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Zach Fowle
Contact: Zach Fowle