Before we visit a little history and the style, we need to know what kind of beers Oktoberfestbiers really are. There are two main types of beer — lagers and ales. Lagers are bottom fermented at colder temperatures and ales are top fermented at warmer temperatures. Oktoberfests are the former, ranging in color from amber to dark, remaining slightly opaque.
Oktoberfest started in 1810 when Prince Ludwig of Bavaria married Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen. In celebration of his marriage and in effort to unite the people, 40,000 Bavarians attended the “reception.”
While millions of liters of beer were drunk, the celebration was first centered on horse racing. Everyone had such a good time, Oktoberfest continued each and every year since, adding food and beer stands as time went on. It officially lasts 16 days, starting in mid-September and lasting until October 1. Now, over 6 million attend every year, guzzling over 5 million liters of beer in only a couple weeks time. And that’s only in Munich!
Countries around the world, especially the US, have adopted their own forms of Oktoberfest. But they usually take place in October. If anything, to make it easier for Americans to make sense of the festival and let Americans attend both their local and the Mecca of Oktoberfests.
But when did the beer style start? It’s hard to say and there’s a lot of debate of the exact origins, but it most like came about a couple hundred years before Oktoberfest or Bavarian Marzenbier actually began. Because these beers are fermented at a cooler temperature, they were brewed sometime in March (Marzen) to be consumed during the later summer and fall months. They’re brewed at cooler temperatures, and sometimes at a higher ABV (alcohol by volume), in order to preserve the beer and keep it from spoiling in warming weather.
There are a lot of breweries out there and most of them make an Oktoberfest. Ayinger, Paulener and Spaten are German breweries that stick rather closely to the traditional style. Dogfish Head, Samuel Adams, Left hand, Brooklyn and Great Lakes are a handful of American breweries that also keep to the tradition of the style.
But make no mistake, there are plenty of breweries out there that actually brew ales and call them Oktoberfests. While they aren’t truly so, they’re more an ode or nod to the Marzen. And there’s nothing wrong that because all beers have place along side each other. However, if you want the true style, try a few listed above or take a gander at the label.
And if you really want to stay traditional or at least experience Marzens in the old ways, you must drink the beer out of steins — beer containers with a handle that come in half or full liters. Originally made of stone, clay and even wood, these handy holders of liquid refreshment shaped the way the world drinks beer today. Even though they’re still made of decorative clay today, glass has taken over, adorning mantles and display cases all over the world.