If you go to Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany, and get a beer, it will be a golden-colored, German pilsner-like festbier. But stop by nearly any U.S. brewery and ask for an Oktoberfest, and chances are good that you’ll receive an amber-colored märzen, which was the official beer of the Munich celebration from 1872 until the lighter festbier took its place in 1990.
Which one is the real deal?
“Beer styles change and evolve constantly, so I’m not going to label märzen or festbier as the one ‘true’ Oktoberfest. They both have histories rooted in tradition, and they both can legitimately be called ‘Oktoberfest,’” says Kyle Williams, owner of Brevard Brewing Co. “The one I brew is a märzen style, which is the rich, malty, fuller-bodied version of the Oktoberfest styles. This version is what most Americans associate with Oktoberfest, so it’s certainly the most marketable. In other words, it’s what people expect to get when they order an Oktoberfest.”
Williams brewed his Oktoberfest for the first time at home around 10 years ago, and the recipe has remained unchanged even after it debuted at his brewery in 2012. Luke Holgate, head brewer for Hi-Wire Brewing, piloted Zirkusfest Oktoberfest in 2013, Hi-Wire’s first year as a brewery, and released it then as well.
A fan of robust, malty lagers, as well as the history of märzens — prior to refrigeration, they were brewed in March, the source of its name in German, and then “stuffed in a cave until October” when the summer heat had dissipated — Holgate likewise took that direction for the brewery’s Oktoberfest. He knew what he wanted from the flavor profile and tested three different combinations, everything from an all-Munich malt base to a Vienna base to a pilsen base, and essentially landed right in the middle with a percentage of each malt.
“That Munich character, that melanoidin character, is to me what makes the style distinct. So we use some kind of melanoidin malts to really bring those flavors out,” Holgate says. “American drinkers can be so different than an international audience. I feel like some of the subtleties of a festbier would kind of be lost. It would be like, ‘Oh, this is like a pilsner or a lager,’ whereas märzen is distinct from a typical American lager. It gives it a different direction to take for the fall.”
For Holgate, balancing fermentation flavors with malt flavors and hoppiness without having one single element stand out too much makes märzen a challenging style to get right. As with most lagers, a märzen doesn’t have a huge hops profile, which he notes can serve as a crutch for brewers to block off-flavors or undesirable fermentation characteristics. As such, he didn’t want a cloyingly sweet beer or a bitter beer, but a nice mix.
Williams, however, identifies a different primary hurdle. “The biggest challenge of brewing this beer, as with any lager — especially a higher-gravity lager like this one — is the fermentation and aging process. You have to be sure to pitch a very heavy dose of healthy yeast, give it plenty of time to ferment and even longer to age,” he says. “Ales can be pushed out in a matter of two weeks. My American lager can be turned over in as little as four. But Oktoberfest requires at least a minimum of six weeks to ferment and age, preferably more. This means that it ties up tank space at what is the busiest time of the year.”
The effort has proven worthwhile. Williams says Oktoberfest is “by far” his best-selling seasonal, though he also points out it’s the most popular seasonal style in the country regardless of region or brewery. For 2018, he brewed 60 barrels, 15 more than he produced in 2017. Zirkusfest ranks third in sales among Hi-Wire’s seasonals, but Holgate suspects it would chart higher if the brewery could produce more of it.
Much as märzens once filled German caves throughout the warm months, he says, Zirkusfest ties up Hi-Wire’s cellar “all summer long” — seven weeks, to be precise — and production-wise it doesn’t make sense to make more than the 560 barrels that were filled for 2018, compared with 400 last year.
That’s the case despite Zirkusfest winning the gold medal in the German-style märzen category at the 2016 Great American Beer Festival. Holgate recalls watching the awards ceremony on a computer in the brewery’s office while several Hi-Wire employees were in Denver attending the event in his stead.
“The category came up, and they listed bronze and silver, and I was like, ‘Eh. All right, next year.’ Then they listed us, and we had this eruption. We freaked out,” Holgate says.
“It was always important for us, especially in my mind, to distinguish ourselves as a lager brewery. We’ve put a lot of focus on that over the years, and to pull a medal in a national competition was huge for me, personally, and for us as a company to really say, ‘We’re here, we’re making lagers the right way, and if you want a light, drinkable beer, pick a Hi-Wire.’”
The brewery submitted Zirkusfest again in 2017 in the same category, and while it didn’t win anything, Holgate was ecstatic when Wedge Brewing Co. took the top spot for its märzen. He says the consecutive victories further establish Asheville as a legitimate hub of quality American beer and traditional German styles. Still, both he and Williams have noticed that some of the less-informed beer consumers confuse Oktoberfest with its seasonal cousin, pumpkin beer, though they’re working on politely remedying that mindset.
“When my bartenders try to sell [Oktoberfest], I often hear, ‘Does it have spices in it?’ or ‘Does it have pumpkin in it?’” Williams says. “The only way to combat this is with information and knowledge. Most savvy beer people know the difference between the two, but you have to explain it to the less-educated, which isn’t a big deal. That’s what customer service is all about, and that’s why I have knowledgeable bartenders behind the bar. We’re happy to answer questions and provide information without being pretentious about it.”