As September approaches, we start to think about celebrating the wedding of Crown Prince Ludwig, and Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen. What? Who? Well, maybe not. In many cities, the end of September means it is time for Oktoberfest! Oktoberfest Beer season is one that many people look forward to, some because of the changing of the seasons, but for many, including myself, a change of style. Gone are the lighter “lawnmower beers”, and we welcome the slightly darker, more malty, sweeter style that is known as Oktoberfest or Marzen.
This celebration started as a wedding celebration for royalty and the brewers at Hacker-Pschorr (as it is known today) were commissioned to use the best malts and only the finest hops of the harvest for this beer. As this festival continued throughout the years, the same formula was used with little variations. To this day, only beer that is made within the city limits of Munich is allowed to be served at Oktoberfest. These beers must also be brewed according to the Reinheitsgebot at a minimum of 6% alcohol. If these criteria are met, they may be designated “Oktoberfest Beer”, which is a registered trademark by the Club of Munich Brewers.
The “Oktoberfest style” of beer is a subcategory of the Vienna style of beer. Historically, the terms Marzen and Oktoberfest referred to a brewing process, not a style. You can still find a few commercial examples of the Vienna style or “German Common” in most liquor stores. Dos Equis Amber and Negro Modelo are the most available. However, from the research I have done, Dos Equis is considered to Vienna’s as Miller Light is to Pilsners.
With the advancement in malting techniques it has become common place, if not expected, for most breweries to have their own Oktoberfest style beer. Many American brewers are leading the way in making some of the finest beers of the style without having to go through the extensive decoction or step mashing process, but even to the American palate many German breweries still set the bar. You can always count on a classic Oktoberfest beer from the likes of Paulaner, Hacker-Pschorr, and Hofbrau, but if you can get your hand on some you will happy you found Ayinger Oktoberfest – Marzen, as well offerings from Left Hand, Bell’s, Surly and New Glarus. Oddly enough, the two best-selling Oktoberfest labels in the US are not on any top 50 list of the style, namely Samuel Adams and Leinenkugels.
There is one man we can thank for Oktoberfest as we know it today. In 1950, Thomas Wimmer, Munich’s very popular Lord Mayor, started a ceremony that is now a worldwide media event. Each year the mayor of Munich taps the first keg of beer in the Schottenhamel beer tent to open the Oktoberfest, yelling to the people ‘O’zapft is!’ (‘It’s tapped!’). Incidentally, the skill that the mayor develops over the years and the number of hammer-blows he has to use to tap the keg play a large role in his prestige among the Munich townspeople.
In my opinion, the best part of Oktoberfest and the Oktoberfest style of beers is the chance to sit down with friends on a cool night with a soft pretzel and an authentic German style beer that has always been associated with royalty, celebration, and Gemütlichkeit. Enjoy! Ein Prosit!