The Taste Test: Blind Tasting 48 Oktoberfests

No beer style in the world is more appropriate for its season than Oktoberfest. It’s right there in the name—a celebration of autumn. Balancing the richness of Munich malt with the subtle spice of noble German hops, each sip of Oktoberfest practically feels like the leaves crunching beneath your feet.

It’s tempting to think of Oktoberfest as too old-school and demure—no one is getting their dirndls in a bunch over amber lagers in this age of vanilla barrel-aged pastry stouts. But consider its main context: Oktoberfest is meant to be consumed in copious amounts. It should be flavorful and complex, sure, but easy and refreshing enough to guzzle by the gallon. As anyone who’s found themselves under a blue-and-white-checkered tent can attest, there’s nothing demure about it.

A good Oktoberfest is a balancing act that takes a skilled hand on the brewing paddle to master. So we had to ask—which Minnesota-made versions should we get all zicke zacke with this month?

The Styles

There are only six breweries, all within Munich city limits, that are allowed to call their autumn beer “Oktoberfest” in Germany. The breweries worldwide that imitate this Bavarian classic are generally crafting one of two distinct styles: a Märzen or a festbier.

Märzen (make sure to pronounce it MARE-zten, so everyone knows you’re insufferable) is the more common style for American breweries. These are the malty, amber lagers that most people think of as “Oktoberfest.” They’re so-named because they were traditionally brewed in the month of March, left to lager in cool underground cellars, and drunk during the hot summer months when brewers weren’t legally allowed to brew beer until the brewing season reopened in fall. It became a staple of Oktoberfest in 1841 and dominated the beer tents for more than a century.

But if you were to go drinking under the big tent in Munich today, you’d be served a festbier: a lighter, breadier lager, that features more hop character and a crispier finish. Festbier, also known as Weisn in Munich, is a modern derivation of the classic Vienna lager style that, no surprise, showcases the pale, snappy flavor of Vienna malt. Märzens often lean more heavily on the darker, richer Munich malt—though many use both types, and the exact recipes vary at a brewers’ discretion.

The Field

Our 15 judges—including BJCP-certified beer judges and the Growler’s editorial staff—convened to assess 48 Oktoberfest beers using the BJCP style guidelines for Märzen (category 6A, 37 entries) and Festbier (4B, 12 entries). As always, the tasting was double-blind and curated by Jeff Merriman, instructor of Dakota County Technical College’s Brewing and Beer Steward Technology program.

These same beers were also tasted by legions of our readers and friends at Unlabeled No.2: Oktoberfest, the latest in The Growler’s series of blind tasting events, which was held Friday, September 20 at Upper Landing Park in St. Paul. Their cumulative ratings submitted through the Unlabeled app crowned a people’s choice winner (see the end of the article for the public results).

What We Learned

Our main takeaway is an appreciation for the field at large: the overall quality of this style in Minnesota is high. These 48 beers collectively tasted far better and more stylistically sound than the Hazy IPAs we judged this past summer. It helps that centuries of precedent give this style a well-worn road map—it’s not so much about creativity as it is achieving the perfect balance through flawless execution of brewing.

In fact, the most common flaws we noticed were simply a lack of balance: Märzens that turned the corner from mildly sweet into sticky toffee and caramel, and festbiers that rose from pleasantly bitter to ale-level-hoppy. A few attenuation problems led to some grainy sweet flavors. A couple of under-carbonated examples left us feeling a little flat.

But on the whole, this taste test featured a group of beers that we should be proud to host in our state. Several very good examples, even some perennial benchmarks of the style, missed out on the best-of-show round by mere fractions of a point. On another day, given a different judging panel, they could have placed just as easily. Thus is ever the trouble of beer judging.

We conclude that if you run into an Oktoberfest at a local brewery this fall: order it. It’s more than likely going to deliver on that Old World, pretzel-and-polka goodness.

Advanced to the Editorial Best of Show Round

(in alphabetical order)  = Märzen,  = Festbier

 AEGIR Brewing Der Kraken

A beautiful bread crust malt character. Full-flavored with a patient bitterness that finishes clean.

 Badger Hill Brewing Oktoberfest

Mild and toasty malt flavors worked into an easy-going, enjoyable sip. A great example of the style, if even a bit timid. 

 Bald Man Rocktoberfest

A grainy Munich malt flavor leads the way, with some hop acids popping up after. It tastes well-fermented—that crisp, lager character is noticeable and delightful.

 Garphish Brewing Märzen-GAR

Definitely on the heavy end of the Märzen style—rich, complex malt with a subliminal hop character.

 Inbound Brewco Vienna Lager

It’s on the periphery of the festbier style, but the cereal grain sweetness and somewhat bold hop character endeared our judges nonetheless. It’s clean and easy-drinking, a tad too floral for a fest, but a great ferment with no flaws and a lovely finish.

 Indeed Brewing Oktoberfest

A touch of honey character in a rich and lively festbier. “You could imagine drinking a lot of this,” said one judge. “It’s just poundable.”

 OMNI Brewing Oktoberfest

Mild and toasty malt flavor with a subtle alcohol warmth at the end. Easy-drinking (it could use a little more heft) and maybe a touch too sweet on the mid-palate, but leans drier by the finish.

  Surly Brewing Oktoberfest

Spicy, herbal hops on the nose, with the same on the sip, with doughy malt and good carbonation. Malt complexity was slightly lacking, but a clean, crushable, and beautiful festbier all-around. 

 Urban Growler Brewing Oktoberfest

Skewed more towards festbier than Märzen, but offers a clarion base malt flavor with a tinge of doughy sweetness, and floral hop notes to support it. Finishes dry and clean. Super drinkable. 

 Tin Whiskers Brewing Funkenfest

Starts a little on the sweet side but a fine, bready-rich malt leads the way. Bitterness could be better integrated, but the effect is pleasant. Somewhat boisterous for the style.

 Utepils Brewing Receptional

This festbier just felt right. It hit all the hedonistic highpoints of the style. “I just want to drink a ton of this,” one panelist remarked. Light and thirst-quenching. Break out the boots. 

Third Place

 Spiral Brewing Foxtoberfest

In the Märzen style, there’s a fine line between full and malty and over-the-top rich like a bock. Spiral’s Foxtoberfest nicely illustrates that upper limit. It’s a deep, complex web of Munich malt–rich character that lends a robust bread crust flavor to the soft, sweet body that has just enough bitterness for balance. A beautiful fermentation with a clean finish. Indulgent without being treacly. Harmonious through and through.

Runner Up

 Fair State Brewing Cooperative Festbier

Fair State has proven themselves highly adept at Vienna lagers, and here they deliver exactly the well-defined, light, clean profile you expect from a festbier. The hop character is crisp, bordering on assertive, but well-anchored to a honeyed malt flavor (a few judges wanted a tad more body), with a great deal of complexity for as light as it is. Supremely balanced and super crushable. We could drink Maß after Maß of this stuff.

Best of Show

 Beaver Island Brewing Oktoberfest

Back in 2016, The Growler held one of its first blind tasting panels, a survey of 26 local Oktoberfest beers, in which Fair State’s Festbier was runner-up to Beaver Island’s Oktoberfest. Three years later, with a new judging panel and 23 more entries in the mix, we’ve astonishingly arrived at the very same conclusion.

Beaver Island’s Märzen has an exemplary track record. In 2017, it placed third (bronze) out of 122 nationwide entries in the “German-Style Maerzen” category at the Great American Beer Festival. Our judges confirmed its prowess. They deemed it extremely well-balanced, with a soft and subtle feeling on the palate, just a hint of sweetness matched with the right amount of bitterness and herbal complexity, and a perfect fermentation character that leaves the finish crystal clean. One judge summed it up neatly: “You drink it, and it’s gone, and you want more.”

About John Garland

John Garland is the Deputy Editor at the Growler Magazine. Find him on twitter (@johnpgarland) or in every coffee shop on West 7th Street.