Imagine six million people traveling from all over the world to converge on Munich for two and a half weeks of drinking beer (among other things, but mostly drinking beer) in a tradition that dates back to 1810, and you'll have a rough idea of what Oktoberfest – the real one, in Germany – is like.
It's a cultural celebration of German heritage, originally held in honor of the marriage of Prince Ludwig and Princess Therese in 1810. There are plenty of things to do and see aside from drinking, like fairground rides, games, craft vendors, and plenty of traditional German food. But the real highlight is, of course, the beer.
In the early 1800s, German beer was mostly made up of darker styles, likely akin to modern-day dunkels. So for the first half century of Oktoberfest celebrations, that's what festival-goers were drinking.
But in the mid-1800s, lighter beers started to come into fashion in Germany, a result of influence from brewers in England who were brewing paler styles with light malt. Märzen, a toasty, moderately sweet, copper-colored lager with an alcohol by volume around 5-6%, was developed around this time as a lighter departure from traditionally dark German lagers.
It was commonly brewed in March (hence the name) before the heat of summer made brewing temporarily impossible each year, and then stored until early autumn – later, refrigeration would make brewing it year-round possible, but the style kept its name. And in 1872, Franziskaner brewery (which is now Spaten) brewed a Märzen for that year's Oktoberfest celebration in Munich. It was a hit, and other breweries pouring beer at subsequent Oktoberfests copied the style. It became the de facto beer style of the celebration for the next century, and consequently became inexorably tied to the annual festival, which is why "Märzen" and "Oktoberfest" are now largely synonymous.
And so these rich, toasty, sweetly malt-driven, medium copper-colored brews are what we think of when we hear the word "Oktoberfest."”
But technically (and confusingly) an Oktoberfest doesn't need to be a Märzen – the only stipulations for a beer to be officially recognized as a German Oktoberfest beer is that it must follow the Reinheitsgebot, be brewed within the Munich city limits, and served at Munich Oktoberfest.
About a hundred years later, in the 1970s, German brewery Paulaner wanted an Oktoberfest brew that was a little lighter and less filling – no surprise, given the staggering quantities in which the stuff is consumed during the festival. To give you a rough idea, in 2013, festival-goers drank 7.7 million liters (roughly 16.3 million pints) of beer.
So Paulaner brewed a lager that still had a strongly malt-driven flavor, but was much lighter in both color and body. Like the original introduction of Märzen to the festival, this new style was a hit, and you can now find it being poured in Munich every October, but there's no firm consensus on whether this is its own style of beer, sometimes called "Festbier," or whether it's simply a lighter-bodied evolution of the style that should still be referred to as a Märzen.
In any case, these golden-colored, lighter-bodied beers have been the favored brews for Munich Oktoberfest celebrations more recently, and while German breweries still produce fuller, copper-colored Oktoberfest beers, they're mostly for export to the United States. And so these rich, toasty, sweetly malt-driven, medium copper-colored brews are what we think of when we hear the word "Oktoberfest" – they're what German brewers export to the States, and what most American breweries aim to replicate when they brew their own examples of the style.
While they might not be an exactly right equivalent of what our friends in Germany are drinking around this time of year, American-brewed Oktoberfests are fully delicious in their own right and still have plenty of history behind them.
So if you're in the mood to celebrate the season, grab yourself an extra-large dimpled mug and dive in with a domestic take on the traditional style. There are plenty of great ones throughout the States, but here are a few standouts – if you see them at your local shop, they're well worth picking up.
Great Lakes Oktoberfest – Cleveland, OH
The brewers at Great Lakes are experts at making high-quality Lagers, and this is no exception. There's a strong malt body here, but it's not cloying. Great Lakes says that the toasty, light bread crust kind of body is more dry than sweet thanks to their house lager yeast, which ferments out sugars particularly well to leave an especially clean and not too saccharine take on a Märzen.
It's especially true to style, too – they use a traditional brewing method called "decoction mashing," where they hold back a third of the barley after the mash and heat it back up, giving the beer a deeper and richer maltiness. It's not a necessary step with advances in barley production, they say, but they like that it's a nod to the style's traditional history and that it adds a little bit extra malt flavor without adding any more sweetness.
Sierra Nevada Oktoberfest – Chico, CA
As one of the country's oldest, largest, and most respected craft breweries, Sierra Nevada constantly turns out solid (if not exactly boundary-pushing) offerings. Their Oktoberfest is a particular standout that so expertly hones into the traditional Märzen style that you'd swear it was shipped straight from Germany. That's probably in no small part because each year, they partner with a different German brewer to explore the style's roots.
This year's partner is Brauhaus Miltenberger, who have been brewing in the small town of Miltenberg, Germany for over 350 years. At 6.1% ABV, this is on the stronger end for the style, and so can give you quite the headache if you drink it by the bootful. But with the ultra-rich malt body tinged by a light zing of German-grown whole cone hops (Magnum, Select, Tettnanger, and Spalter to be precise), you might not be able to help yourself.
Surly SurlyFest – Minneapolis, MN
Surly is not a brewery known for hewing close to tradition. Their Oktoberfest, which is not really a Märzen at all, is no exception. Instead of a sweet and straightforward malt bomb, SurlyFest is a dry-hopped rye lager that's spicy, biscuity, and way more hop-forward than anything you'd expect, lending a slight twinge of citrus. It's definitely one of the more unique takes on the style, but still fits for the season with the deep amber color and firm malt body – it's just got some extra complexity thrown in for those who might not want a by-the-book Märzen, which are occasionally criticized as being a somewhat uninteresting.
You can drink it at the brewery's Oktoberfest celebration, also called SurlyFest, which marks its 10th anniversary this year on September 23rd – a day-long, free-entry party spread across their sprawling brewery campus with food, games, glass boots, stoneware steins, and the like on offer.