Octoberfest beers are a very popular style with American craft breweries, and excellent examples can be found from coast to coast. We chose a handful of American versions and sat down with a tasting panel to suss out what elements of the malty lagers we liked best.
The Octoberfest Style
Octoberfest beers, at least what we are used to seeing from American craft breweries, hew closely to the tradition German style of a Märzen or “march beer.” These Bavarian lagers were first brewed prior to the 16th century and have remained popular, especially at the yearly Octoberfest celebration in Munich.
Michael Jackson has the following to say about the style:
Originally a beer brewed in March and laid down in caves before the summer weather rendered brewing impossible. Stocks would be drawn upon during the summer, and finally exhausted in October. Marzenbier has a malty aroma, and is a medium-strong version (classically, more than 5.5 percent alcohol by volume) of the amber-red Vienna style. It is seasonal to the Oktoberfest, where it is offered as a traditional speciality alongside paler beers of a similar strength.
Octoberfest beers are a versatile lager that pairs well with food and is relatively sessionable. Similar to the balanced Vienna-style lager, American Octoberfest beers are tipped more towards the toasted malts with a heavier body and an earthy nobel hop character.
We selected four beers from across the country for a blind taste test to determine what we like in a marzen and which craft brewed example showcased those characteristics the most.
Our three person panel sat down with a Beer of Tomorrow Flight Mat and four unmarked tasters of Octoberfest beers. The contenders were:
- Boston Beer – Samuel Adams Octoberfest: The most widely available of the brews, the Sam Adams version is common in grocery stores, bottle shops, and taps though the autumn months.
- Hangar 24 – Oktoberfest Fall Lager: The fall seasonal release from Redland’s Hangar 24 brewery with somewhat hit-or-miss Los Angeles availability in our experience.
- Victory Brewing – Festbier: A very highly regarded Marzen from Philly’s Victory brewing. Tough to find, but not impossible.
- Schlafly – Octoberfest: Schlafly Beers don’t make it very far out of their Saint Louis home region, but we were given a few super-fresh bottles from a friend to add to this tasting.
We started the tasting by discussion the style and what we should expect from the beers, then we got our noses in the glasses and started sampling.
Tasting The Beers
The first thing we noticed after setting up our flights and giving all the glasses a good sniff was just how similar all four beers where. There was very little variation in color, with the beers ranging from golden amber to an amber gold hue.
There was a bit more distinction in the nose between the four. Sweet toasty malts were the most common with an understated hop aroma. Various levels of bready yeasts were present, with the Hangar 24 sample exhibiting the most yeast character. All the beers fell into a very narrow range of %ABV with the Hangar 24 a the high end (5.7%) and the Sam Adams at the low (5.3%). This was going to be tougher than we expected.
We swirled and smelled and sipped each beer in turn vacillating between agreeing on the subtleties of each brew and arguing which was most distinct. It didn’t take us long to decide that all four examples were brewed very close to style with only minor differences in flavor and aroma between them.
I would have expected a more varied field of contenders based simply on different yeasts and different water at each brewery. The reduced impact of the lager yeast during the colder fermentation and long condition period in these traditional German styles would reduce subtle yeast differences, and the breweries may have treated their water to match the quality of Munich water sources.
Our Panel’s Opinions
I’m sure that certified judges and trained tasters would be easily able to discern more notable differences between the four beers, but our panel was stymied by their similarities at first. Though after discussing each sample in sequence and really focusing on them we drew a few conclusions about the different beers.
We all to preferred a more pronounced toasted malt flavor and appreciated the more attenuated beers that had less lingering sweetness and a lighter mouthfeel. The level of spicy and earthy nobel hop flavor and aroma was another key point, with the more balanced beers doing better among the tasters.
With three tasters who have different preferences in beer, and four samples that were very close in flavor, aroma, and mouthfeel I expected a wide-spread of favorites, but the panel’s rankings were very similar. Myself and Christina scored the ranked beers identically, and Hamish‘s rankings weren’t drastically different:
Our Choice: Hangar 24 Oktoberfest
Chosen as the top beer by myself and Christina, and as the #2 choice by Hamish, the Hangar 24 Fall Lager takes the crown in the American Craft Octoberfest Face Off! The panel liked the toasty and bready malt flavors of the beer, and we found biggest hit of herbal hops in the Oktoberfest’s finish. The Hangar 24 example was praised for its complex aroma, and it also had the lightest body of the line-up and was deemed the most drinkable of the four. All the tasters could imagine sitting down in a bier hall with a liter stein of this beer.
The Schlafly version was a bit of a darkhorse in the tasting, being added at the last-minute and replacing a traditional imported Octoberfest in the line-up. Hamish liked the slightly sweeter malt body of the Schlafly version especially the more pronounced caramel flavors. I found it to be extremely drinkable and balanced with a crisp finish, and it just lost out to the Hangar 24 beer in my evaluation.
The other two beers were both fine examples of the style, and they were both tasty and flavorful, but they fell slightly short of the mark set by our favorites. It was an extremely close race, and I’m sure even small variations in our environment or to our palates could have changed the results.
The Marzen style is approachable for neophyte beer drinkers, and the easy-drinking beers that we sampled do not stray too far from each other. Many American craft breweries produce an Octoberfest or Marzen style beer, and I’m comfortable in saying that if you like one Octoberfest beer you should like most of them.
We’re getting towards the end of the window of availability for these fall seasonals, but they all work as excellent matches to the Thanksgiving feast that is coming up. Turkey Day is a great excuse to try out some Octoberfest beers; bring a couple of different versions to the family dinner and see which you like the most with your turkey and stuffing!