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Oktoberfest: Brewers Hoist Steins, Talk Märzens

The calendar has finally flipped to October, which means that drinking Oktoberfests is now legally permissible. Surely none of the upstanding readers of this website have been indulging in this style of beer that has been widely available since August. 

(Something something seasonal creep.)

Beer fans in the DC metro area have a lot to appreciate in their Oktoberfest/Märzen and Festbier selection. For purposes of this piece, let’s go with the Beer Judge Certification Program’s descriptions of Oktoberfest/Märzen as a more malty, amber-colored lager whereas Festbier tends to be a lighter-colored but stronger-than-Helles pale lager.

I’ve always known there were a lot of these beers in the area every fall, not just from our local breweries but all of the imports and examples from regional and national craft breweries, too. What I had never really thought about was how to choose among them. At least not until I was staring at a beer menu at Kingfisher in Logan Circle a few Saturdays ago. How do the local versions differ? How do brewers and breweries decide how they want theirs to end up? 

I decided to find out.

I’ll run down some of the local options first and then share what I learned from local brewers when I asked them about the decisions that went into their Märzen/Oktoberfest/Festbier. All of this information comes from the breweries’ websites.

Port City Oktoberfest

Port City Oktoberfest / 5.2% / 24 IBU

“A clean, malty lager for fall.” Our Oktoberfest is a traditional Märzen style lager, brewed with German malts and hops. This beer is a brilliant amber with gently sweet flavors of crusty bread, leading to a clean, dry finish punctuated by just a touch of noble hops. Served in the ‘keller’ or ‘Zwickel’ style – unfiltered and completely naturally carbonated – our Oktoberfest is full-on authentic.

DC Brau Oktoberfest / 5.5% / 25 IBU

“At DC Brau, we love our German lagers just as much as we love our heavily-hopped American ales. We feel it only fitting to offer an Oktoberfestbier to continue the German tradition of celebrating the marriage of Bavarian Crowned Prince Ludwig to Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen in 1810. But let’s be honest, we like any excuse to get together with friends and family to raise a stein of this elegantly balanced, malt-forward amber lager to welcome in the changing of the seasons. Prost!

Oktoberfest includes a variety of malts, including Weyermann Barke Munich, Weyermann Barke Pilsner, Weyermann CaraMunich II, Weyermann CaraMunich III, and Canada Malting Pale Wheat, plus German Tettnang hops.

Atlas Brew Works Festbier

Atlas Brew Works Festbier / 6.1% / 22 IBU

“Our irreverent take on a German-style Festbier. An increased hop profile features a blend of German and American hops. The Atlas Festbier is lighter in both color and body than a traditional Oktoberfest beer resulting in a more drinkable lager. Sweet bread notes from the malt, orange blossom aromas from the hops and a clean yeast profile make for a stein-worthy Festbier.”

Gordon Biersch – Navy Yard Festbier / 5.3% / 24 IBU

“Amber lager with a slightly sweet toasted maltiness. Balanced by the subtle spice of German Hersbrucker hops. Hops: Hersbrucker. Malt: Pilsner, Munich, Caramunich”

Red Bear OktoBEARfest / 5.3% ABV / 21 IBU / 16oz $7.75

“Floral – Melanoidin – Bread. Fall is upon us! In the beer world that means Oktoberfest (AKA party time!). This traditional Märzen (or Oktoberfest beer) is a clean, malty lager that goes down easy! Time to turn on some Polka and practice your chicken dance!”

Bluejacket Hill House / Fest Lager / 6.5% / 16oz $6 / 4-pack $12

“malt + toasty & nutty. A festive amber lager brewed with four malts,. dutifully hopped with Spalter Select, then traditionally lagered for 6 weeks. crisp & composed, with an elegant interplay of toasty malts & earthy, floral hops.”

Rocket Frog Helleanor / Helles / 5.3% / 20 IBU / $6.50 16oz

“German malts, German hops, and German yeast. I try to make beers true to style, especially traditional beers like a Munich Helles. These beers could be made with similar North American malts, but it wouldn’t taste the same. I make it a point to use ingredients from the country of origin for any beer style, but in a pinch there are some specialty malts that I have used that are perfect substitutions for certain specialty European malts. This is a low color Pilsner malt that keeps the color the palest of pales. I also feel like the Helles style should be crystal clear, so long cold conditioning is helpful to achieve this. The word “hell” is German for “bright.”

District Chophouse OktoberFest / 6.5% / $7.5 20oz

“Vienna Style Lager Light Amber with notes of bread and caramel. .50¢ is donated to W.I.L.L.”

Jailbreak Oktoberfest / 5.5% / 24 IBU

“Our Oktoberfest is our take on the traditional Bavarian Märzen lager. Unabashedly malt-forward, this medium-bodied dry lager exemplifies balance between a carefully curated selection of German malts, ester-free lager yeast, and the appropriate tinge of continental hop character. Captivating aromas of actively baking bread and palate sensations of toffee-laced sourdough crust punctuate every aspect of the drinking experience, to the extent that our arms are already tired from raising our steins!”

Old Ox Oxtober Bier

Old Ox Oxtober Bier / 6% / 22 IBU

“Oxtober Bier is a Märzen-style lager in the true German tradition. Vienna malts and nice toastiness drive the flavor. Very clean, smooth, and malt forward with rounded malt sweetness accompanied by nice biscuit and toast accents. A pleasant hop bitterness adds balance.”

What is the Märzen/Oktoberfest style?

If the verbiage and statistics above run together for you, you’re not alone. The IBUs and ABVs are all within a very narrow range. Same with the adjectives. Full disclosure, this post was originally intended as just the rundown of the local beers but seeing the converge piqued my interest. If there’s a consensus that this style operates within a fairly narrow range, then what are the knobs brewers have to tweak to distinguish their version? Do the materials used matter as much as the technique? Less? 

In his excellent book “The Beer Bible,” Beervana’s Jeff Alworth writes up each style, its history, nuances, brewing notes, and good examples. The Märzen/Oktoberfest section has an intriguing quote from Bayern Brewing’s Jürgen Knoller: “I have a degree in brewing and malting, so when I talk to a maltster, I can tell him, this is exactly what I want. Still, 75 percent of the profile of your beer is happening in the malthouse. The influence you have as a brewer – I mean give or take – you have maybe 25 percent chance to influence it in the brewhouse and 75 percent of the character is already preset at the malthouse.” Alworth adds, “It is possible to make an amber lager with American pale and specialty malts that looks like a German Märzen, but the taste won’t be identical.” That question of a brewer’s ability to expand upon the natural ingredients they choose to work with also intrigued me.

To get to the bottom of some of these questions, I reached out to a number of local brewers to see if they agreed with the above and to get their broader thoughts and approaches on the style. They were happy to chat about what appears to be a favorite style for many of them. 

First, I wanted to know what makes these individual beers tick ingredient-wise. So I asked some variation of the question, “What are the recipe development choices that you think lead to that profile?” Here are the responses I got back, lightly edited for length and clarity.

Jeff Hancock, President, Co-Founder, and Brewmaster, DC Brau: Traditional Ofest’s are known for their rich, malty notes and aromas coupled with a balanced hop character. For DC Brau’s recipe, I chose classic German malts and hops for the style. German grown Pilsner malt makes up the base follow by Munich, Munich II, Munich III and finally some Wheat malt. Tettnang hops are used throughout the boil. The beer is fermented cold with a Bohemian lager strain of German origin. What you’re left with is a clean, full bodied lager that has rich malt flavors, aromas of biscuit, bread and caramel. A noble hop note that counter-balances the malt with very subtle, spicy aroma based on when they’re added in the wort boil. Wrap all of the aspects together and you get the Oktoberfest that we’ve produced for the last three years. I just really love this style!

Jonathan Reeves, Head Brewer, Port City Brewing Company: The recipe is a Märzen strength Vienna lager. If you were to make a Venn diagram of the two styles, both Märzen and Vienna, the color, strength, IBU’s etc. of our Oktoberfest, it would fit nicely in the overlap. All of our beers are unfiltered. Our lagers are also naturally carbonated. We think it adds more complexity. Whether a lager is served filtered or unfiltered, it’s important to do a cold fermentation and a long cold lager to develop the proper flavors. All of our lagers require at least six weeks to make. Our Oktoberfest does drop bright in the bottle and can be served crystal clear with a still pour from the bottle or when tapped from a well-stored keg.

Rob Fink, Lead Brewer, Jailbreak Brewing Company: In terms of recipe development, our description is premised on a love for the classic German iterations of the style, not necessarily other American interpretations of it. Given that love, we attempted to blend four different base malts (all German malts from the maltster Weyermann – Vienna, Munich Type I, Munich Type II, Abbey Malt [like a turbo-charged Munich malt]) to achieve a complexity of malt character that did not rely on crystal malts or other types of specialty grains. For example, we really wanted to veer away from the candy-like sweetness of Samuel Adams Oktoberfest. Bavarian lager strains are known for being soft and ester-neutral, so went with yeast from Augustiner to drive home that character. In keeping with tradition, we also used Hallertau Mittelfruh in a single bittering addition to provide a whisper of hop character and the appropriate level of bitterness.

Daniel Vilarrubi, Head Brewer, Atlas Brew Works: I like to let people know Atlas Fest Bier is an “irreverent” take for a number of reasons. Our Festbier is lighter in color and body (as well as a touch higher in alcohol) than a traditional Märzen. This is pretty standard for modern Oktoberfestbiers. The modern Festbiers were pioneered by Paulaner in the 70s, with the idea to make a beer that wouldn’t fill you up and finished a bit cleaner. As far as I can tell, the goal was to drink more at Oktoberfest. It’s a noble goal. Typically Märzens are made with Vienna or Munich malt (or a mix) as the base; ours has both with about 1/3 Pilsner malt mixed in to lighten it up. Atlas also uses a mix of German and American hops. Mandarina is a new school German hop whereas Mt. Hood is an American hop with a very floral, almost noble, profile. So our German hop is more out of place than our American hop in the recipe. Honestly, this is pretty funny to me, but I don’t think anyone else cares much. Besides that, I chose the hops we use because they really hit the profile I was looking for. I love the floral character of Mt. Hood, and the fruitiness of the Mandarina and slight malt sweetness give the beer a nice honeysuckle brightness.

Atlas uses a mix of German and American malt as well. Our Munich and Vienna come from Bamberg and our Pilsner malt comes from Wisconsin. The choice of Pilsner malt here mostly just came from my comfort with it. It’s our base malt on almost every recipe and I just know it well.

Last thing is that we dry hop our Festbier. Dry hopping seems pretty standard in the American craft beer community but traditional German breweries are really just starting to mess with it. Even most American breweries from what I can tell aren’t dry hopping Festbiers and Märzens. In the end, the Atlas Festbier isn’t anything totally wild but it’s for sure not a typical Oktoberfestbier for Germany or America.

DCBeer: I see for base and specialty malts you’re mostly using German malts. Are you adamant that German styles incorporate German malts? Any reason why? 

Rob Rodriguez, Head Brewer, DC Brau Brewing Company: When developing recipes for styles from a specific region, especially styles centuries old, I prefer using malts from those countries.  Many maltsters have been around for centuries and create unique characteristics to the style from the region it hails. Weyermann malts are no exception. I also like honoring the families and style by using malts from the regions where the beer was born.

Rob Fink, Lead Brewer, Jailbreak Brewing Company: We definitely used all German ingredients, malts included. I don’t know if I would necessarily say adamant, but we prefer to use traditionally appropriate ingredients for traditional styles whenever we can, which I suppose, you could fairly characterize as adamant. To answer your question, I would not use American malts in a Märzen, at least not yet. American maltsters have yet to achieve the level of quality found in their German counterparts, and it has to do with the depth of flavor. American equivalents of a German Vienna or Munich malt are typically one-dimensional by comparison. Raw sensory data is the best way to prove this; I would challenge any brewer to chew on some Weyermann Munich Type I and tell me any American equivalent has better flavor.

Jonathan Reeves, Head Brewer, Port City Brewing Company: We use German-made Vienna, Munich, and Caramunich malts in this beer as well as German hops. The malt does not necessarily have to be of German origin, but you can’t make a Vienna Lager without at least using Vienna malt. You might approximate the color with the use of a small amount of crystal or roasted malt, but you will not duplicate the flavor. Large proportions of kilned malts like Vienna and Munich are essential when making certain German styles.

Russell Carpenter, Head Brewer, Rocket Frog Brewing Company: German malts, German hops, and German yeast. I try to make beers true to style, especially traditional beers like a Munich Helles. These beers could be made with similar North American malts, but it wouldn’t taste the same. I make it a point to use ingredients from the country of origin for any beer style, but in a pinch there are some specialty malts that I have used that are perfect substitutions for certain specialty European malts.

DCB: If you had to guess, how much of your Oktoberfest’s profile is derived from what comes in with the malt versus what you can do with it in the brewhouse?

Jonathan Reeves, Head Brewer, Port City Brewing Company: It’s definitely the malt but also the hops, yeast, and water. We do a single-step infusion mash and not a decoction mash. Traditionally these beers were decocted. Decoction (pulling out a fraction of the mash, boiling it, and then adding it back) originated as a way to control the mash temperature without a thermometer; with the side effect of developing certain signature flavor compounds known as melanoidins. These compounds can be added through judicious use of malt varieties. Many modern German breweries have moved away from decocting as it is very energy intensive and Germans are obsessive about energy conservation (which is laudable), but it is still done. 

Even though these are generally malt-forward beers, there is a limited space for hops to shine through, especially with the Vienna style. Most craft lagers, in my opinion, are either over-hopped or under-hopped or hopped with the wrong hops. Figuring out a schedule to produce a subtle hop character for these German styles has been harder than formulating an authentic malt bill.

Lastly, water chemistry is crucial for good beer, especially as they become lower in gravity. Since a couple of our flaghips are on the sessionable side, we are focused on water quality. Water quality reduces the extraction of harsh grain and hop flavors and produces a clearer wort and as a result a brighter beer.

Russell Carpenter, Head Brewer, Rocket Frog Brewing Company: I think the malts contribute more of the characteristic flavor to Helleanor, however the bottom-fermenting lager yeast and long conditioning (lagering) time provide the crisp, clean taste and finish. This style of beer is normally pretty dry, so a lower mash temperature is appropriate to give a more fermentable wort composition. I also use some Best Malz Heidelberg in the grist. This is a low color Pilsner malt that keeps the color the palest of pales. I also feel like the Helles style should be crystal clear, so long cold conditioning is helpful to achieve this. The word “hell” is German for “bright.”

Rob Rodriguez, Head Brewer, DC Brau Brewing Company: Malts are king with this style. Choosing the right malts and blending to create a perfect balance of caramel/toffee and toast to create a rich flavor without being cloyingly sweet is key.

Rob Fink, Lead Brewer, Jailbreak Brewing Company: In terms of ingredient selection versus brewhouse, I see the equipment as a means to maximize the flavor possibilities of the raw ingredients, but there are almost always some mechanical limitations to achieving whatever the maximum “flavor” contribution could be. At Jailbreak, we retrofitted our boil kettle so that we can perform decoctions, and I believe that decoctions, depending on how they are administered (length of boil, rest times, number of decoctions, etc.), can absolutely add a depth of malt character that cannot be achieved via raw ingredient selection alone. In the case of Märzen, hops aren’t as important to me, but I’m not hopping our Oktoberfest with Citra or anything like that.

DCB: Märzen is a style with a lot of history, which also means it has pretty tight guardrails. What do you think are the knobs available to tweak in recipe development for brewers?

Rob Rodriguez, Head Brewer, DC Brau Brewing Company: One area I enjoy seeing brewers take is an old-style approach of aging with oak. As stainless steel is an invention of the early 1900’s, oak was common to ferment, mature, and store beer. This adds a unique characteristic honoring our craft before modern techniques and materials.

Daniel Vilarrubi, Head Brewer, Atlas Brew Works: I think we have plenty of room to play around. It’s a style that’s been around since the 1840s which makes it just a bit older than steam beer (California Common). They drank Dunkels at Oktoberfest before they had Märzens, and since the advent of the Festbier, you’d be hard-pressed to find a Märzen at Oktoberfest. I think it’s always good to learn how a beer is made properly to style, but I also think most brewers in the States enjoy putting their own spin on styles, and we shouldn’t stifle that.

Rob Fink, Lead Brewer, Jailbreak Brewing Company: Märzens are always malty, and so long as the overall flavor profile is primarily derived from an array of German malts, I think that’s pretty much the only guardrail in my opinion. Malt selection is probably where you’ll see the widest variability. Some can be made with mostly Vienna malt, others have Pilsner, Vienna, and Munich, while others have a combination of all three in addition to small amounts of character malts like Caramunich. In terms of hops, some Märzens have flavor or aroma hop additions, others just have a single bittering addition. Knobs that could be tweaked by a brewer within the relatively tight parameters of Märzen, really come down to the proportions of the above-referenced malts, its how you would distinguish yourself. In terms of yeast, selection is still important. You’re looking for a clean lager strain that is going to leave the appropriate textural perception. Interestingly, there [are] some Bavarian lager strains that smell malty all to themselves.

Jonathan Reeves, Head Brewer, Port City Brewing Company: In the US, a Märzen is the amber colored Oktoberfest beer, but in Germany it has a different connotation. It is more of a gravity range (13 to 14 plato) and less about color. A Märzen can be golden like the super Helles beers they now serve on the Theresienwiese or it can be quite dark like Aecht Schlenkerla’s Rauch Märzen. So, yes, there are a number of options, you could make a subtly hop-forward Golden Märzen or a darker, smoky Bamberger Märzen. [Ed. Note: If you can find Port City’s smoked Rauch Märzen its very much worth a try.] 

Russell Carpenter, Head Brewer, Rocket Frog Brewing Company: Any beer style, including Märzen, is always up for the brewer’s interpretation. That being said, the Märzen style in the US is always amber/brown and most of the time finishes very sweet. There are many brewers that will use traditional methods (step mashing, decoction, etc.) to produce this style of beer, however the malts we use today are very well modified and don’t require decoction mashing. Specialty malts are also available that will contribute flavors/aromas characteristic of the beer style that the brewer might desire in the finished beer. Brewers will normally make an amber lager as their “Oktoberfest” beer, however Bavarians normally drink Helles during Oktoberfest. It is a less filling beer that can be consumed a liter (Maß) at a time. This is what I like making, so my “Oktoberfest” beer is a Munich-style Helles.

DCB: Any favorite Oktoberfests beyond your own that you’d either be happy to see yours compared to or that you’re happy to see on a beer menu?

Russell Carpenter, Head Brewer, Rocket Frog Brewing Company: I really enjoyed Helles Awaits from Ocelot recently. The head brewer, Jack Snyder was telling me about how he put the “Ocelot spin” on it by using Wa-iti hops from New Zealand. These hops are not traditionally used in a German lager, but have the “noble-like” flavor/aroma that you would find in Hallertau, Tettnang, Hersbrucker, etc. The brew team over at Solace also have a good Märzen out now called Gute Nacht. It is crisp, clean, and NOT sweet with a subtle toasted bread flavor and spicy hop bite.

Rob Fink, Lead Brewer, Jailbreak Brewing Company: My all-time favorite of the style is still Ayinger Oktoberfest-Märzen, it’s so incredibly soft. It has this subtle, quiet elegance that I associate with the very best German lagers. This year’s Sierra Nevada collaboration with Bitburger was really, really good though. That big hit of pillowy texture you get mid-palate is that special Bitburger yeast singing at the top of its lungs! 

Daniel Vilarrubi, Head Brewer, Atlas Brew Works: I really like the Sierra Nevada Festbiers that come out each year. They do collaborations with German breweries each year and they’re always [been] great. There was one they did with Mahrs Brau a couple years ago that I loved. The Spaten Oktoberfest was the first Märzen I ever had and I still love it. Locally, I think Port City makes a great Märzen, too. While it would be great to pull a comparison to any of those, the Atlas Festbier is a bit of its own beast and I think I’d be disappointed to see it thrown in with anything more traditional.

Rob Rodriguez, Head Brewer, DC Brau Brewing Company: I really like the Sierra Nevada and Ayinger Oktober Fest-Märzen. Great caramel/toffee and bread characteristics focusing on balance versus sweetness as I frequently see.

Jonathan Reeves, Head Brewer, Port City Brewing Company: I don’t get out much, but I always enjoy Sierra Nevada’s annual interpretation, Bell’s makes a good one, so does Blue Mountain. Locally, I like Dynasty’s this year. I hope to drink something Oktoberfest like at Bierstadt in Denver next week as well as Pfriem’s at the Great American Beer Festival.

Big thanks to the brewers for their thoughtful responses. It’s extremely interesting to compare and contrast their philosophies about a style they each obviously think about a lot. Getting this kind of insight gives me even more appreciation for the tasty local examples of Märzen/Oktoberfest/Festbier/what have you available to us, and I hope it does for you, too. Stay tuned for future iterations of, “I never thought about this style that much, I wonder what makes the brewers tick on it.” Prost!

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