Given the hot weather we’ve been experiencing it may not feel like fall is upon us, but once football season kicks off it can’t be long until the leaves start changing color. If the deluge of pumpkin beers invading the shelves has you cursing fall beers as an egregious affront to the Rineheitsgebot don’t despair, fall is also the time for wet hop pale ales and Oktoberfest beers. It’s a little early for wet hop ales, but with the start of Munich’s Oktoberfest a few days away this is prime time for the malt-forward beers of autumn. So it seemed high time to organize the first Pat’s Pints blind taste test in over a year to see how Ohio brewed versions of this classic German lager stack up against each other and the German imports.
I’ve always thought that an Oktoberfest and a märzen were one and the same thing, but it turns out that’s not quite correct. For many years märzens were the predominant style at Oktoberfest, but starting in the mid-1970’s things began to change. Paulaner was the first to create a lighter more drinkable beer because they thought the traditional style was too filling. According to the head brewer at Paulaner they wanted something “more poundable,” and it’s hard to argue with that logic for a beer that’s served in one-liter steins.
The new style caught on, proving that even in Germany change is possible, and since the 1990’s most of the beer served at Oktoberfest is the lighter version. The BJCP calls this new-fangled version festbier, because strictly speaking the name Oktoberfest is an appellation that only six breweries within Munich are allowed to use. If that’s not confusing enough some of the Munich Oktoberfest beers exported to the states, including Paulaner’s, are based on the more substantial märzen style recipes. The bottom line is that when a beer is labeled Oktoberfest it could be either the festbier or märzen style.
Before going any further let’s see how the BJCP guidelines describe each style.
Festbier – A smooth, clean, pale German lager with a moderately strong malty flavor and a light hop character. Deftly balances strength and drinkability, with a palate impression and finish that encourages drinking. Showcases elegant German malt flavors without becoming too heavy or filling.
Märzen – An elegant, malty German amber lager with a clean, rich, toasty and bready malt flavor, restrained bitterness, and a dry finish that encourages another drink. The overall malt impression is soft, elegant, and complex, with a rich aftertaste that is never cloying or heavy.
So there you have it, we’re looking for a beer that manages to convey rich maltiness without finishing sweet. The color tends to be amber to copper hued from the use of Munich and Vienna malts, and the hop presence should be restrained if not imperceptible.
The Judging Process
The judging panel consisted mostly of veterans from past Pat’s Pints blind taste tests. Hans Gorsuch, Chris Mercerhill, and Nick Bates are all experienced homebrewers not shy to share their opinions on beer. Mark Richards, co-host of the Pat’s Pints Podcast as well as production and distribution manager at Land Grant Brewing, is always an invaluable member on these tasting panels. Ted Clark has no particular qualifications to be on a beer tasting panel, but he usually brings good cheese so I like to include him whenever possible. We were joined by two newbies this time around: Fred Lee, president of Actual Brewing and a larger than life figure in the Columbus craft beer scene, and Randi Taylor, who is a baker at Whole Foods. After all who better to judge a malt-forward style than a baker. A big shout out to Ralph Wolfe who provided invaluable assistance by pouring and distributing the beers so we could evaluate them blind.
We tasted the beers sequentially and scored them using the BJCP scoring system (50 points in total, divided into 12 points for aroma, 3 points for appearance, 20 points for flavor, 5 points for mouthfeel, and 10 points for overall impression). At the end of the contest tasting sheets were collected and the scores for each beer averaged. German music played in the background and we broke for delicious homemade pretzels, courtesy of Hans, about halfway through. To calibrate our scoring we started by scoring the Paulaner Oktoberfest and comparing notes to an evaluation by BJCP grandmaster judge Gordon Strong that I downloaded from the internet.
We tasted thirteen beers and evaluated twelve, probably four more than optimum if truth be told. Apologies to some of the locals that I didn’t manage to squeeze in, like Zauber, Elevator, and Smokehouse. As you soon see we included beers from Land Grant and Actual in the tasting, which I’m sure will have some questioning the objectivity of the results. What can I say, I like to have knowledgeable people on the tasting panel, and Mark and Fred bring that in spades. I can assure you that beers were served blind, and when it came time to average the scores Mark’s score for Lawnraker and Fred’s score for Weiner München were thrown out. I should also disclose that North High and Homestead provided their beers for the contest free of charge. After all this isn’t the GABF or even the state fair, it’s just what an ordinary group of beer lovers think about these beers.
Here are descriptions of the beers we tasted arranged from lowest to highest score (I revisited each beer after the contest to augment the tasting notes, assisted by Hans). I have to say at the outset that of all the tasting panels I’ve done I don’t remember one where the beers were so closely grouped. The spread from the lowest to highest average score was only seven points (33 to 40) on the fifty-point BJCP scale. No less than 6 of the 12 beers were rated as the top beer by at least one judge. So I wouldn’t fixate on the rankings, but look to the tasting notes to find the beer that best suits your preferences. Without further adieu here are the results.
Great Lakes Oktoberfest (6.5% abv) Golden amber, almost the color of honey, with very good clarity. The taste is like a slice of bread with a smidge of honey drizzled over it. It has a nice rounded malt profile, more malty than the median beer in the field, but at the same time a little undercarbonated. A combination that makes it seem a little heavy compared to most of these beers. Hop flavors and aromas don’t really register, but a slight bitterness appears near the finish that was not universally liked. This is a four-time medal winner at the World Beer Cup and the highest rated beer in the field on BeerAdvocate.com, but with our panel it finished at the bottom. I’m sure to catch some grief over this, but when you do a blind taste test you’ve got to report things as they fall. Still with an average rating of 33 out of 50 this is not an objectionable beer by any means.
Weihenstephaner Festbier (5.8% abv) Pale golden yellow, tending toward the color of a pilsner. Exceptional clarity, so clear that you could read a newspaper through it were it not for the differences in refractive indices of water and air. There is a pronounced sweet honey aroma, with floral overtones. The taste is maltier than the color would suggest: bready malts with a hint of sweetness, deftly balanced by enough hops to produce a clean, satisfying finish. A pilsner-like hop bitterness appears as the very end. Very much on the festbier end of the spectrum this is a beer made to go down easy and keep you coming back for more.
Homestead Oktoberfest (5.2%) Amber colored with some translucence. Very much to style with sweet, bready malt aroma and flavor that falls somewhere between Paulaner and Weihenstephan. The lager yeast and six weeks cool conditioning makes for a smooth, highly quaffable beer. Maybe it’s just my imagination but there seems to be a very subtle citrus hop note in the background which may not be to style but works well with the toasted malt flavor. Among the beers for which this statistic is available it’s 28 IBUs is second only to the Sierra Nevada-Mars Bräu collaboration in terms of IBUs. The finish leaves you with a lingering malt aftertaste.
Ayinger Oktoberfest Märzen (5.8% abv) Somewhere between amber and copper in color and more transparent than Bernie Sander’s tax returns. Like almost every beer we tasted the aroma is malt forward with deep floral notes from the hops in the background. The malt profile is more full flavored than the Weihenstephaner, with some sweet caramel accenting the doughy bready flavors. There is also a faint fruitiness that one or two panelists described as cidery.
Sierra Nevada – Mars Bräu Oktoberfest (6.0% abv) A collaboration beer made with German heritage malts and an obscure German hop called Record. The color is golden yellow, the palest of any beer in the field, and strikingly clear. Not only does it look like a German pilsner, it smells and tastes like one too—bready malts with the distinctive graininess of a pilsner, but the low level additions of Vienna and Munich malts adds a touch of sweetness that rounds off the sharp edges. Oh yeah, there’s a healthy dose of floral, spicy hops in the mix too. It’s unquestionably the hoppiest beer in the field, even more so than the 30 IBUs would suggest. Finishes with the clean, crisp bite of a good pilsner. As an Oktoberfest it’s an outlier, but as a German pilsner it’s pretty damn good.
Wolf’s Ridge Oktoberfest (5.4% abv) Copper-hued and crystal clear, topped with a creamy off-white head this gorgeous beer gets my vote for the best looking beer in the field. Rich malty notes of toasted bread and caramel express themselves very evenly throughout each sip. Medium to light bodied with a super clean finish. I hosted a dinner at Wolf’s Ridge for an out of town visitor two days after the contest and everyone who took my advice and ordered an Oktoberfest walked away satisfied. It pairs beautifully with roasted pork loin, and I’m sure it would do just as well with bratwurst and potato salad.
Two Brothers Atom Smasher (7.7% abv) This beer is an outlier in a very different way than the Sierra Nevada Oktoberfest. It’s oak aged and weighs in at a hefty 7.7% abv, which overshoots the 5.8-6.3% abv BJCP guidelines by a country mile. The moniker, Atom Smasher (chosen as an homage to the now retired particle collider at nearby Fermilab) seems appropriate for what could easily be dubbed an imperial märzen. The color is somewhere between amber and copper. The mouthfeel is immediately recognizable as more viscous and substantial than its competitors. Obviously the brewers have been a little more liberal with the Vienna and/or Munich malts here and the effect is a toasty maltiness with overt notes of caramel and toffee. While you might think the rich, elegant malt profile would lead to a sweet, cloying finish, the oak and/or the hops keep things from becoming too sweet or boozy. Given the abv and the flavor profile it’s an impressively drinkable beer. Among the thirteen beers we sampled this was my favorite. If you are looking for an Oktoberfest to contemplate while sitting around a campfire under the fall foliage this is the one for you. Drink it from one-liter steins at your own peril.
Rhinegeist Franz (5.4% abv) Amber in color with the crystal clear clarity that seems to be a recurring theme. The taste is bready malts, more the golden inside part of a loaf of freshly baked bread than the toasted crusty outside. The use of Vienna and Munich malts must be fairly restrained here, because there’s not much in the way of caramel or toffee. Neither is there any detectable hop presence. The mouthfeel is light bodied and fairly carbonated, one of the only hints that this is an ale rather than a lager. An easy drinker that should appeal to the masses, and did well with this panel, but some wanted to see a little more malt character.
Now we’ve reached the top four finishers in the field. Because the results were so close and the methodology of the tasting experience not terribly well controlled, I felt it would be a disservice to rank one above the other. Call it a cop out if you will, but I’m convinced that if we changed the tasting order or did this with a different panel of judges the order could easily change. So without further delay here are the final four in alphabetical order. If you want to crown a champion do your own taste test at home.
Actual Weiner München (6.3% abv) This translucent golden-amber lager is brewed with lager yeast imported from the Weihenstephan brewery in Münich. The malts lean more toward the golden, bready end of the spectrum. A little darker and maltier than the offerings from Weihenstephan and Rhinegeist, but still constructed for optimum drinkability. There’s just the right level of carbonation on the tongue and the clean lager character shows through in the mouthfeel. The finish is impressively clean with just enough residual sweetness to leave you wanting more. Even though it’s a full percent higher abv than the other finalists the drinkability does not suffer in the least.
Columbus Brewing Company Festbier (5.3% abv) A reddish-amber beer, the CBC Festbier is the only one amongst the final four with the brilliant clarity to match the German beers. Toasted malts are the main attraction here with subtle hints of caramel and toffee. There’s the impression of sweetness but it’s one of the driest beers in the field, maybe too dry for some palates. Despite the color this highly drinkable beer leans strongly toward what the BJCP calls a festbier and a less toward the richer märzen style, as the name promises.
Land Grant Lawnraker (5.6% abv) Land Grant uses six different malts in this beer and it shows (2 row, pilsen, caramel Vienna, dark Munich, caramel Munich, melanoidin). Visually it was the darkest beer of the evening, going past copper halfway to ruby. The toasted malt character is accented by more caramel and toffee notes than you find in most Oktoberfests. Brewed with kölsch yeast this is one of the two beers in the field that is an ale rather than a lager, but you have to pay very close attention to notice. There’s no fruity esters that I can find, but with the benefit of hindsight you could argue the mouthfeel and taste are not quite as smooth as a true lager. If you like your beer local and your märzens rich and complex this is the beer for you.
North High Oktoberfest (5.4% abv) The Norden Hoch (German for North High) is golden tawny colored like the fur of a lion, translucent rather than crystal clear, topped by an attractive creamy white head. Even from the aroma you can tell they’ve approached the style from a different direction than most. It’s got the distinctive aroma of pilsner malts accompanied by floral hop notes. The pilsner-like profile continues in the taste, the malt flavors are more grainy than toasty with a pleasant sweetness. The hops are less evident in the taste than they are in the nose. The finish is drop dead clean with neither bitterness nor lingering aftertaste. The overall taste profile sits about midway between the Sierra Nevada Oktoberfest and the Actual Weiner München. If you have a soft spot for German pilsners (and who doesn’t), but want something that can plausibly be called an Oktoberfest look no further than the Norden Hoch.
Several years ago I wrote off Oktoberfest beers as too malty for my tastes. I don’t know if my tastes have matured, but this taste test has me singing an entirely different tune. These beers really shine at conveying a rich malt profile without stepping into the cloying, sweet territory that turns me off. The unexpectedly strong showing of the Columbus-area beers can be summed up succinctly: fresh beer = good beer. If the local breweries had to ship their beers across the Atlantic and serve them in Munich I’ve no doubt the results would be entirely different, but if you live in the middle of Ohio I highly recommend you give the locals a try. It’s the perfect match for fall tailgates, navigating corn mazes, or quenching your thirst after a hard day of raking the leaves.
If you want to take it to the next level and enjoy one of these beers at an Oktoberfest celebration here are some options:
- Munich Oktoberfest (the original, if you haven’t reserved your table already forget about it) – Sept 17 to Oct 3
- Oktoberfest Zinzinnati (Cincinnati’s celebration is the largest in Ohio and claims to have the world’s largest Chicken Dance) – Sept 16-18
- Columbus Oktoberfest (This three day festival is held at the Ohio Expo Center. In past years local craft beer options were not available but I see this year there is a craft beer garden promising Ohio craft breweries, no details are provided) – Sept 23-25
- Zauber Oktoberfest (Featuring beers from six craft breweries, including German specialists Zauber who host this annual event) – October 1, 4-9 pm
- Actual Weinerfest (Actual Brewing hosts an annual celebration of hot dogs and beer) – October 1