Serious Beer: This Year's Oktoberfest Brews


[Photograph: Maggie Hoffman]

I'm always torn about Oktoberfest beer. It feels like the right time to be drinking German beers, but the truth is, by the time the bottles from Munich get to the US, they often haven't been treated well. With shipping and poor storage, they lose some of their sprightly bitterness and their rich, sweet maltiness and get, well, a wee bit disappointing.

So I set out this year to try some of America's best märzens. It was definitely a worthwhile project; these beers are just the ticket for getting you into a fall mood. They're rich and crisp, reminiscent of cool fall breezes and rustling autumn leaves. Check out our recommendations—but also keep in mind that freshness is king. If your local brewery makes a märzen, check it out now. If they've got one on tap, order a steinful straightaway.

Serious Beer Ratings

***** Mindblowing; a new favorite **** Awesome, stock up on this *** Around average for the style ** There are probably better options * No, thanks, I'll have water.

Top of the Crop

This year, I wanted to try mostly American spins on the märzen style, but I couldn't resist the call of the Ayinger Oktober Fest-Märzen from Aying, Germany. The scent is full of intoxicating caramel malt, and those rich caramel flavors are nicely balanced with a punch of bittering hops. This beer manages to be both crisp and really rich, with flavors that recall caramel-covered pecans, brown butter, and a touch of fresh apricot. It's beautifully balanced, with a lingering sweetness that makes it a great match for a fresh soft pretzel. ****3/4

A brew out of Wisconsin gives Ayinger a run for it's money—I was lucky enough to snag some very fresh New Glarus Staghorn, and it's definitely world-class. This brew has a bagel-like malty scent and crisp, nearly pilsnery hopping. It's a drier style than the Ayinger, with an aroma and flavor that made me want to put on a sweater and go to a football game. (And I don't even like football.) There's a hint of popcorn and Cracker Jacks, some delicate herbal notes, and a bit of yeast—I'd love to try this with pizza. The finish is toasty and clean. ****1/2

I love Bell's brews for their creaminess, and the Bell's Oktoberfest doesn't disappoint. This beer is a little like the Two-Hearted Ale, minus the herbal resiny hop character. It doesn't have quite the crispness of either the Ayinger or the New Glarus Staghorn, but it offers luscious smooth texture and awesome caramel flavors. There's a hint of cashew and apple cider there two. This beer pours out of the bottle as though it's on a nitro-tap: rich and buttery, with lovely fine carbonation. It's a hearty, belly-filling version of the style, but you should probably make room for a bratwurst alongside it. ****1/2

With a classic caramel-malt nose, the Capital Brewery Oktoberfest is another solid option. This well-balanced beer is clean and well made, malty and pretty which, with good graham-cracker notes and enough crisp hopping to keep it from getting sweet. So drinkable and tasty. ****

I fell for the Karl Strauss Oktoberfest as soon as I smelled it: richly malty, with a hint of honey on the nose, this beer is pretty big-boned. I tasted buckwheat, Smacks cereal, and graham crackers, plus a bit of mustiness. Don't expect West Coast-style hops out of this San Diego brew; the crisp hop bitterness is classic German-style, and the finish is quite clean. Pair this belly-filling beer with pork chops and cabbage. ***3/4

More Oktoberfest Options

Brooklyn Brewery's Oktoberfest is a solid choice, though it probably won't blow your mind. It's crisp and refreshing, with delicate caramel notes and a bit of yeast flavor. This is definitely on the drier and lighter-bodied side for the style. It's a bit more hoppy than some, with a lingering sourness that some might find unappealing. ***1/2

If your tastes veer more toward richness, you may prefer the Flying Dog Dogtoberfest Marzen, which is a bigger-bodied, more intensely flavored brew. It has much more caramel and brown sugar flavor than the Brooklyn, but it's not quite clean. There's a hint of bitterness—burnt sugar?—and a little mustiness toward the end that aren't totally integrated with the other flavors of this beer. Try it with sesame-oil rich Chinese dishes and you might find an awesome match. ***1/2

Over at I Drunk That, my friend Chris wrote an enthusiastic review of Avery's Kaiser Imperial Oktoberfest. I wish this intense nearly-ten-percent-alcohol beer came in a smaller bottle; I couldn't handle more than a few sips. There's a whisper of kaffir lime and pineapple-banana juice. This rich, full-bodied imperial lager has hints of buttery brioche smeared with apricot jam, but it's just a bit too sweet for my palate. ***1/2

There are some nice caramel notes in the Schlafly Oktoberfest, though it's not quite as toasty as some other options. Though some of our tasters weren't crazy about this beer's lingering bitterness, I appreciated this beer's medium-full body and up-front flavor. ***1/4

The orangey-golden Steven's Point Brewery Oktoberfest is drinkable, approachable, and nice in a basic-lager way. It's not a distracting beer, and not an inspiring beer, but it's good (especially when fresh) with a hint of popcorn. Our only complaint is that there's not much in the caramel department, and a little sourness on the finish. ***

Non-Märzen Autumn Seasonals

Don't be fooled by Surly Fest's Oktoberfest garb; this beer is like a märzen crossed with a fruity Northwest-style IPA. We may like this beer even better than Surly's intense and awesome Furious; this one has nice and spicy notes from rye, and a gentle sweet pomelo/tangerine flavor and floral aroma from Sterling hops. One of our tasters couldn't believe that this beer was a lager; it's seriously full-flavored. We'd love to have this in our fridge at all times. ****1/4

If you're a fan of smoky rauchbiers, try to track down a bottle of Breckenridge Autumn Ale. It pours a chestnut brown, with a lovely smoky/roasty flavor. This isn't a heavy beer; the hops and carbonation keep it light. Pair this slightly earthy ale with smoked cheddar or any sort of smoked meat: brisket, kielbasa, you name it. If the folks at Breckenridge aimed to evoke a bonfire of autumn leaves, they've done it well. ***3/4

It's definitely not a traditional Oktoberfest beer, but Left Hand's Oktoberfest is still sippable. It has creamy vanilla notes and a bit of fruitiness, like a caramel-banana-strawberry smoothie. While it won't quell a märzen craving, we'd drink it again. ***1/4

Though we loved the festive candy-apple red color of the Coney Island Freaktoberfest, the flavor just wasn't for us. The backbone is grapefruit pith, and there's a tiny hint of cough syrup in there too. This is one seasonal we'll be skipping. **

Disclosure: All beers except the Ayinger, Bell's, and Brooklyn were provided as samples for review.

Are You Up for Another Round?

Check out last year's Oktoberfest roundup.