With the release of seasonal beers being pushed ever earlier on the calendar, mid-August usually marks the appearance of Oktoberfest on the shelves. I even saw one in mid-July this year. While some will grouse about this seasonal-creep, I don't mind so much. I would gladly drink Oktoberfest beers all year long.
The style as we know it was invented around 1840 as an adaptation of the then-popular Vienna Lager style. Also called Märzen—German for March—it was traditionally brewed in the spring to mark the end of what was at the time Germany's legal brewing season. Stored in cold caves, Märzenbier was consumed through the summer. Come fall, the remaining stock was drunk to celebrate the harvest and the start of new brewing season.
This German-style amber lager has a malt-forward profile that showcases the toasty, caramel-like flavors of melanoidin, an aromatic compound resulting from the Maillard reaction, a chemical reaction between sugar, amino acids, and heat that occurs when malt is kilned. This same reaction is responsible for the flavors in many foods—consider crispy toast and well-seared meat. Sharing these flavors in common helps make Oktoberfest beers extraordinarily compatible with many different foods.
Grilled, Roasted, Dry-Rubbed, and Baked
Oktoberfest is a great accompaniment to grilled, roasted, dry-rubbed, and baked meats, especially pork. These cooking methods all bring out those toasty flavors that create resonance with the Oktoberfest beers.
Grilled pork chops are the perfect partner for Märzen beers—here's a recipe to try. Pork chops are actually fairly lightweight, so the sweet flavor of pork is a one to one match with the lager in terms of intensity. The golden brown crust that appears around the edges and in the grill-marks of a well-prepared pork chop gives a great tie-in to the toasty/caramel malt flavor in the beer. Rub the chop with herbs to pull out a subtle German hop character from the beer.
You should also try Märzenbiers with a roasted pork roast or loin. Again, the browning that occurs during roasting will tie into the toasty melanoidin flavors in the beer and the beer's sweetness pulls out some sweetness from the meat. Cook it with onions, carrots, and parsnips for an even better match.
You can also pair Oktoberfest beers with dry-rubbed ribs—either beef or pork. The beer's malty sweetness counters a spicy rub and builds harmony with a sweeter one. Herbs and spices in the rub sit well with spicy hops. When finished on a grill, ribs pick up a toasty crust that melds nicely with the toasty taste of the beer. There's that Maillard reaction again.
The sweet and salty pairing of baked ham with Märzenbiers amps up the beer's refreshing bitterness and complements its natural sweetness. Try this recipe from The Food Lab.
Try Tomato Sauce
The malty-sweet profile of Oktoberfest provides a tasty counterpoint to the acidity of tomato-based Italian dishes, and the toasty malt and spicy hops can tie into the savory elements of the dish.
Oktoberfest beers are awesome with any tomato-sauce topped pizza. The yeasty crust latches onto the malty core, and the beer's slight sweetness cuts the acidity of the sauce. Top it off with mushrooms, onions, and grilled peppers, plus sweet or spicy Italian sausage. (I recently had a bratwurst pizza at a brewpub in Green Bay, Wisconsin; topped with bratwurst, sauerkraut, spicy mustard, and mozzarella cheese. While not tomato-based, it was a surprisingly delicious treat and would be a perfect soulmate to a Märzen.)
Pasta Bolognese works in the same way, balancing sugar and acid, plus herbs and spices that complement to the beer's subtly spicy hops.
South of the Border
For a brief time in the 19th-century, Mexico was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. There were a lot of Germans and Austrians living there, and they brought their beers with them. In fact, Oktoberfest's cousin, Vienna Lager, survived as a style in Mexico long after it had died out in Austria.
I especially like Oktoberfest with lighter Mexican fare like tacos and tostadas. Carefully warmed tortillas are a toasty tie-in to the beer. Oktoberfest and pork are natural companions, so try some carnitas tacos with your favorite Märzen. (You can make an awesome version at home with Kenji's recipe.) Sweet pork complements the malt while the flowery flavor of cilantro plays with the hops. Add a dash of pico de gallo for a bit of acidic contrast.
Oktoberfest Beers You Should Try
At this time of year store shelves are flooded with Oktoberfest beers both imported and domestic. Great examples aren't hard to find. These are a few of my favorites.
Ayinger Oktoberfest-Märzen: This extraordinary example from the Heller-Trum brewery in Aying, Germany near Munich is my hands-down favorite. It's delectably malty with caramel and toasty flavors, but perfectly balanced.
Hacker-Pschorr Oktoberfest-Märzen: Caramel and toast are at the forefront, but floral hops and moderate bitterness provide a subtle counterpoint. Light body and a crisp, lager finish keep it superbly drinkable.
Paulaner Oktoberfest-Märzen: Bready malt up front is supported by a background of caramel. A touch of herbal hops and gentle bitterness provide some balance. It finishes beautifully clean and crisp.
Schell's Oktoberfest: A two-time GABF silver medal winner, this is a great example of the style. A slight tilt in favor of caramel-like melanoidins gives it rich flavor and full body.
Left Hand Oktoberfest: At a comparatively high 6.6% ABV this is a true "fest" style Oktoberfest beer. Biscuity-caramel malt leads the way to a refreshingly dry finish. Light herbal hops ride over the top.
Samuel Adams Octoberfest: Light, well-balanced, and extremely drinkable are good descriptors for this beer. It boasts a delicate interplay of malt and hops in which malt just comes out the winner. The finish is dry with a touch of lingering toffee. It's a good example of the style that is available everywhere.
These are some of my favorite pairings with Oktoberfest beers. What do you like to eat with this seasonal treat?
About the Author: Certified Cicerone Michael Agnew is the lead educator and owner of A Perfect Pint. He conducts beer tastings for private parties and corporate events. His beer musings can be read in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, his own Perfect Pint Blog, The Hop Press at Ratebeer.com, the City Pages Hot Dish Blog, and in respected national beer magazines. He is the author of an upcoming travel guide to breweries in the upper Midwest, due out this fall from the University of Illinois Press. Follow him on Twitter at @aperfectpint