Life

Every Oktoberfest Beer We Could Find, Blind Tasted And Ranked

However excited fictional white girls get about pumpkin spice season in every comedian’s hack bit, that’s me with Oktoberfest beer. For three or four weeks out of every year, I get to experience what life must be like for IPA lovers. If you love the hop bombs, virtually every brewery and bar will have you covered, usually six or seven times over. Where I live, it’s not uncommon to go to a brewery, bar, or grocery store and see 70% of the craft beers be variations on IPAs (some of which aren’t even really IPAs — a “black IPA?” the P stands for “pale,” motherf*cker!). Then the other 30% end up being a collection of novelty flavors, peanut butter fudgesicle sundae stouts, and apology blonde ales. If your go-to style is an amber lager or red ale, or anything with a little color and mild-to-moderate amount of hops like mine, at best, you generally get one option. At worst, you have to settle for a brown ale or a Czech pils (if there’s a helles? I’m over the dang moon!).

Oktoberfest gives us malty lager lovers the one thing we usually don’t get — variety. Of course, the downside of being spoiled for options is that you start having to make tough decisions. In that spirit, and in honor of my favorite beverage season, I decided to round up as many Oktoberfest brews as I could find, taste them blind, and rank my favorites.

Before we get to that, I should note that an “Oktoberfest beer” doesn’t always mean exactly the same thing. You don’t quite see brewers just naming any damned beer an Oktoberfest brew like a lot of them do with IPA, but there is still some variation within the larger umbrella of the style.

Going back to the beginnings of the festival in Munich, which began in 1810, the signature style of the festival was a märzen. A märzen is an amber lager, brewed in March (aka März) and aged through the summer, peaking in September and October right when the festival gets going. A märzen uses Munich malt, bringing a deep orange color and grainy, toasty flavor. The reason I like them is that they usually come on sweet and flavorful, but still finish crisp with just enough bite, thanks to the noble hops and Bavarian yeast.

However (caveat alert), at some point during the seventies, the big Munich brewers who make all the beer at the festival decided that märzens were a little heavy for an all-day kicker like Oktoberfest. They started producing lighter lagers as their official Oktoberfest or Festbier flagships and now you won’t find märzens under the tents. This is why German import Oktoberfest beers taste different than American breweries’ Oktoberfest brews, which generally aim for the old märzen version.

Personally, as an ugly American, I want a märzen when I’m picking an Oktoberfest beer — though I can still enjoy a well-made German light lager. In both cases, my ideal is a nice balance of sweet flavorful malt and crispy hoppy bite, neither too syrupy sweet nor too hoppy bitter or watery.

For this tasting, I just grabbed every Oktoberfest beer I could find here in Central California, plus a handful of other breweries we knew that could ship samples. The pool ended up being a nice mix of American craft märzens, imported German Oktoberfest lighter lagers, and German export märzens — all ranging from the syrupy, rum-raisiny prune brews of the too malty ones, to the bitter, watery, sometimes piss-tasting pilsneryness (sorry, that’s just the way I think of it) of the too hoppy/too watery ones. There were 18 in all, which is probably approaching the upper limit of how many beers you can sample blind and still have coherent taste buds by the end (I didn’t spit either, it seemed somehow both un-American and anti-German).

Oktoberfest Beer
Vince Mancini

Today’s Lineup (in order of tasting)

1. Golden Road Brewing Oktoberfest
2. Sierra Nevada Oktoberfest Amber Märzen
3. Brooklyn Oktoberfest Märzen Lager
4. Alesmith Oktoberfest German-Style Lager
5. Jackrabbit Brewing Company Märzen
6. East Brothers Beer Co. Festbier
7. Temblorfest Märzen
8. Societe Brewing Company Fest Bier Oktoberfest Lager
9. Dust Bowl Brewing Oktoberfest Specialty Lager
10. Firestone Oaktoberfest Oak Aged Lager
11. Paulaner Oktoberfest Märzen
12. Shiner Oktoberfest Märzen-Style Beer
13. Hacker-Pschorr Oktoberfest Märzen
14. Karl Strauss Oktoberfest
15. Hofbrau Oktoberfestbier
16. Samuel Adams Oktoberfest
17. Weihenstephaner Festbier
18. Paulaner Oktoberfest bier

Oktoberfest Beer Samples
Vince Mancini

The Ranking

18. Samuel Adams Octoberfest (Sample 16)

Sam Adams Octoberfest
Sam Adams

The Beer

Sam Adams Oktoberfest, er, Octoberfest, is a märzen -tyle beer brewed with Tettnang, Tettnanger, Hallertau, and Mettelfrueh hops, with 5.3% ABV and 15 IBUs, available every year from about August-October.

My Notes

More towards the dark end of the spectrum, brownish amber in color. On the nose, it has that strong rum-raisiny, almost fruitcake-like aroma, almost like a scotch ale. On the palate… woof, this is rum-raisin city. Waaay syrupy for my tastes, and weirdly not even that sweet? It just tastes strong. This would be hard to drink all day. Drinking this, I can see why the German brewers switched to something lighter.

Rating: 3.75/10

Bottom Line

This was a huge shock for me. Before this tasting, I would’ve told you that Sam Adams generally makes one of my favorite Oktoberfest beers. I buy it every year and generally put it slightly over Sierra Nevada’s. Their flagship beer, Boston Lager, is a great, balanced amber lager that I can and do drink all year round. I’m not sure whether the beer is just different this year or if the branding just had that much of an effect on me. It definitely tastes like maybe they went harder into the maltier, sweeter, more syrupy territory, maybe to differentiate it from the Boston Lager. But that’s all speculaish.

All I know is that this one was too rum-raisiny for me. For what it’s worth, my brother-in-law, who tasted with me (and generally drinks IPAs), had it rated “good… solid” and neither in his top three nor bottom three.

17. Temblorfest Märzen (Sample 7)

Temblorfest Marzen
Vince Mancini

The Beer

Temblor Brewing, out of Bakersfield, California, brews this 5.5% ABV, 28-IBU märzen-style lager every Fall.

My Notes:

This one is more of a brown amber than an orange. I smell sweet toffee and yeasty bread on the nose. On the palate, this one comes on sweet but finishes bitter. In fact, it’s more bitter than I like. The hops on this one tip it more into German pils/IPA territory.

“Bitter bitter.”

Rating: 4/10

Bottom Line:

If Sam Adams was too malty, this was the other end of the spectrum, a little too hoppy/crisp to the point that it finished bitter. I want just enough bite to balance out the malt in a märzen, not this much. For the record, my brother-in-law had this one in his top three, which checks out considering his bitter-skewing palate.

16. Shiner Oktoberfest (Sample 12)

Shiner Oktoberfest
Shiner

The Beer:

Founded by a Bavarian, Kosmos Spoetzl, in 1909, Texas powerhouse Shiner-Spoetzl still brews plenty of German styles, God bless them, including this 5.7% ABV, 18-IBU märzen made with Hallertau and Hersbrucker hops.

My Notes:

Very orange-amber in color. On the nose, lots of yeast and something I can’t quite identify. There’s a weird note in there I can’t put my finger on. On the palate, this one is more bitter than sweet. Not really a fan.

Rating: 4.5/10

Bottom Line

Another big surprise, as I’m usually a big fan of Shiner in general. Texas beers tend more towards styles I like compared to the hop-heavy stuff that dominates here in California. That being said, this one tasted bitter to the point of being slightly unbalanced, and even my brother-in-law had it in his bottom three.

15. Paulaner Oktoberfest Bier

Paulaner Oktoberfestbier
Paulaner

The Beer

One of the big six Munich brewers, Paulaner has multiple Oktoberfest beers, with this one being the German lager type. Brewed with a mix of Pilsner and Munich malt and Herkules and Hallertauer Tradition hops, it comes in at 6.0% ABV.

My Notes:

Light orange amber. This smells like biscuits with honey, it’s really nice on the nose. On the palate, it does have that biscuity flavor, but it’s missing the honey. There’s not enough sweetness to balance the hop bite for me, so it finishes slightly more bitter than I’d like.

Rating: 5/10

Bottom Line:

This one was fine for what it is, but like I said, I tend to prefer the märzens to the German-style Oktoberfest lagers. Paulaner also makes a märzen that finished better.

14. Sierra Nevada Oktoberfest Amber Märzen (Sample 2)

Sierra Nevada Oktoberfest
Sierra Nevada Brewing

The Beer:

Brewed with a mix of Black, Munich, Pilsner, and Special Roast malts, as well as Hersbrucker and Tradition hops with lager yeast, this 5.5% BV brew with 19 IBUs packs flavors of caramel and graham cracker and is released every fall.

My Notes:

Nice amber color. The nose isn’t super strong of anything, but what I can smell has a nice caramel malt character to it. On the palate, this is refreshing and lightly caramel malty but has a more bitter German hop character on the back end.

It’s fine, but I think I prefer sweeter.

Rating: 6/10

Bottom Line:

Sierra Nevada is another one of my favorite Oktoberfest brews. This year it seemed slightly more bitter. It does tend more toward bitter than, say, Sam Adams, whose Oktoberfest tends more syrupy, but it seemed like those differences were more pronounced this year. My wife also had this one in her bottom three. That being said, I’m mostly working with shades of grey from here on out, and from this one on up they’re all pretty drinkable, even if not my favorite of the 18 different Oktoberfest beers I tasted.

13. Societe Brewing Company Fest Bier Oktoberfest Lager (Sample 8)

Societe Brewing Oktoberfest
Societe Brewing

The Beer

Hailing from the craft beer mecca of San Diego, Societe’s Fest Bier Oktoberfest Lager is “inspired by the famed light brews of Munich. Crisp and clean with floral and mineral notes, plus a touch of lemony citrus zest,” it comes in at a sleek 4.6% ABV.

My Notes:

Lighter amber, more straw to orange in color than the deep orange märzen color. On the nose, this has a malty, Czech pils smell to it. On the palate, this tastes very much like a German macrobrew lager. It’s more crisp than sweet, with that bitter-ish hop character, but it’s not overly bitter.

I’d drink this… but I don’t love it.

Rating: 6.25/10

Bottom Line:

This was a bit of an outlier in that it’s an American Oktoberfest beer that’s clearly trying to ape the German Oktoberfest light lager rather than a märzen. It fooled us well. I assumed it was a German macrobrew, and my brother-in-law’s notes had “GERMAN” in all caps. Results were split. Brother-in-law had it in his top three of the first round, and my wife had it in her top three. I guess I was the only objector.

Even I thought it was fine, just a little on the bitter side.

12. Alesmith Oktoberfest German-Style Lager (Sample 4)

Alesmith Oktoberfest
Vince Mancini

The Beer:

From another San Diego brewery, Alesmith’s Oktoberfest is a märzen-style lager coming in at 5.5% ABV and 13 IBU, “characterized by a clean, elegant, and toasty malt character. ”

My Notes:

Lighter amber, more yellow-orange in color. Not a lot on the nose, straw? On the palate, a very light body on this one, albeit with some faint caramel malt and a distant note of hoppy bitterness. This is decent but feels watered down somehow.

Rating: 6.5/10

Bottom Line:

Another “fine but not exceptional” beer for me. My wife had it right in the middle and my brother-in-law had it in his bottom three for the first half. We all thought it tasted a bit light and pilsner-y for what was mostly a märzen contest.

11. East Brother Beer Co. Festbier (Sample 6)

East Brother Fest Bier
Vince Mancini

The Beer:

East Brother Beer Co. out of Richmond in Northern California, brews this “smooth, clean, pale German lager” every fall, with 5.8% ABV and 24 IBU.

My Notes:

Vibrant orange amber color. Caramel malt on the nose, but not super aromatic. I get a hint of grains in there, maybe pumpernickel bread. On the palate, this is sweet but light, and lightly syrupy. It has that German hop character, more on the crisp spectrum as opposed to sweet and malty.

Maybe a little watery?

Rating: 6.75/10

Bottom Line:

East Brother is one of my favorite breweries, partly for the handsome cans, and partly for their line of un-gimmicky, across-the-board-solid beers. My favorite beer they make is their red lager, a biscuity-sweet Vienna lager that, if it had been in this competition, I have to imagine would’ve finished near the top. But they couldn’t just relabel the same beer, so it seems they give their Festbier a little more hops and bite to differentiate it.

I found it solidly drinkable, if neither my favorite nor least favorite, and that’s where all my other tasters had it as well.

10. Karl Strauss Oktoberfest (Sample 14)

Karl Strauss Oktoberfest
Karl Strauss

The Beer:

Another great brewery out of, once again, San Diego, Karl Strauss has been around since ’89, making it kind of an OG in the local scene. This one combines Vienna, Munich, and Carahell malts with Hallertau and Perle hops for a 5% ABV, 20 IBU ode to the märzen style.

My Notes:

Orange to red amber in color, similar to most of the others. There’s a spicy… oak note to the nose? I’m getting wood in this. On the palate it comes on sweet and kind of crunchy. It’s not bitter, exactly, but goes more towards… watery? Solid if unspectacular.

Rating: 7/10

Bottom Line:

I really thought I detected something spicy or oaky in this one that made it distinct from the others. I actually thought it was the Firestone Oaktoberfest, because I know that one is oak-aged. Something about it tastes distinct from the others — I thought it was woody/spicy, my brother-in-law had “bitter” in his notes and ranked it in the bottom of round two. I would class it more as “interesting.” Not better, or worse, exactly, but a slight departure.

I should also note that two of Karl Strauss’s oldest brews, their Red Trolley Ale and Columbia Street Amber Lager, are the kind of can’t-miss sweet malty beers that I’ll pour every time I see them.

9. Hofbrau Oktoberfestbier (Sample 15)

Hofbrau Oktoberfestbier
Vince Mancini

The Beer:

Another one of Munich’s big six breweries, chances are you’ve seen this one in the imports section somewhere. Billed as a “full-bodied, bottom-fermented specialty beer,” it comes in at 6.3% ABV and 23 IBU, with Herkules, Perle, Magnum, and Select hops and a combination of light and Munich malts.

My Notes:

One of the lightest ones, orange in color but really almost yellow. On the nose, this smells like a German man’s urine. Not really, but it has that very pronounced German macrobrewery lager smell to it. On the palate, there’s a nice sweetness on the front end balancing that classic German crispness. Not super memorable, but it goes down really easy.

Rating: 7.5

Bottom Line:

This is very representative of what an Oktoberfest beer has come to mean in Germany, as opposed to the American märzens. I would very much describe this as a “German piss lager,” but it’s a really solid and drinkable German piss lager that I could easily see myself drinking six or 10 of and using to watch down a nice pork knuckle.

It’s a solid version of what it is.

8. Weihenstephaner Festbier (Sample 17)

Weihenstephaner Festbier
Vince Mancini

The Beer:

Weihenstephaner bills itself as “the world’s oldest brewery” and is certainly one of my favorite. This gold lager comes in at 5.8% ABV and 26 IBUs.

My Notes:

Orange straw in color, more towards the light end of the spectrum. Smells like proofing French bread on the nose, pretty aromatic for a lighter beer. It’s sweeter on the palate than I was expecting, with none of the rum raisin flavor. It’s definitely more crisp than malty, but it’s nicely balanced. Very drinkable.

Rating: 7.5

Bottom Line:

Weihenstephaner makes two of my favorite beers on Earth, their Hefeweissbeer Dunkel and Hefeweissbeer, so even though the German light lager-version of Oktoberfest beers is my second favorite of the two styles, I’m not surprised that Weihenstephaner’s version of it is still pretty good. My brother-in-law had it in his top three.

7. Golden Road Brewing Oktoberfest (Sample 1)

Golden Road Oktoberfest
Vince Mancini

The Beer:

A 5.8% ABV, 13 IBU mix of German Tradition hops and a bunch of deep amber malts from Golden Road Brewing, an LA brewery founded in the golden age of 2011.

My Notes:

This one is very rum raisiny on the nose, with some notes of dark bread underneath. On the tongue, it’s sweeter on the palate and less rum-raisiny than the smell led me to believe. It’s syrupy and sweet and definitely leans more malty than crisp/hoppy. This is nice, but could maybe use a little more bite.

Still, pretty good all things considered.

Rating: 8

Bottom Line:

This is a great choice if you like your Oktoberfest beers to skew more sweet and syrupy than crisp and bitter, and divided us accordingly. My wife had it as her top choice and my brother-in-law had it in his bottom three. I’d be curious to see how this one fared in a true Oktoberfest contest, where you have to drink four or five of each beer.

Of course, those conditions are pretty difficult to recreate in the real world with 18 different beers unless you’re Wade Boggs. Maybe next time I can convince Uproxx to let me expense a cross-country flight. “C’mon! It’s for a post!”

6. Hacker-Pschorr Oktoberfest Märzen (Sample 13)

Hacker Pschorr
Hacker-Pschorr

The Beer:

I’m going to defer to the copywriters of Southern Bavaria and just quote them here: “Forbidden as it was to brew in summer, a stronger beer – the Märzen – was brewed earlier in March. It would finally be served at the Oktoberfest, under the ‘Heaven of Bavaria.’ We have returned once again to the age-old recipe and recreated that gloriously smooth, honey-coloured piece of history from times gone by. And all is brewed with due reverence to the Bavarian Purity Law of 1516.”

Beyond that lovely bit of background, we know it has 5.8% ABV and Hallertau hops.

My Notes:

Orange to red amber in color. This one comes on sweet and malty on the nose, with notes of maple syrup. On the palate, this one is very syrupy caramel toffee sweet, but it’s also balanced just enough with that crispy hop note on the back end. This is very solid, though there is a bitterness that builds the more I drink.

Rating: 8/10

Bottom Line:

It’s sad that most of the big German brewers moved away from märzens as their Oktoberfest brews because they can brew the shit out of a märzen when they want to. This was well-liked by all my tasters.

5. Dust Bowl Brewing Oktoberfest Specialty Lager (Sample 9)

Dust Bowl Brewing
Dust Bowl

The Beer:

Dust Bowl, in Turlock, California (you may have seen it in Colin Kaepernick’s terrible Netflix show) brews this amber-colored märzen every Fall, which never feels very autumnal in Turlock. This year’s clocks in at 6.4% ABV.

My Notes:

Nice reddish amber color to this one. Smells strongly of raisin bread on the nose, with maybe a little persimmon. On the palate, this one has a plummy, fruitcake vibe to it, as you might expect from the nose, but it’s nicely balanced by its crispness. This is more rum raisiny than I usually go for, but it’s actually nicely balanced.

Rating: 8.25/10

Bottom Line:

Okay, here’s why blind tastings are weird: my wife and I visited the actual Dust Bowl brewery (which was indeed dusty as shit that day, looking like spring in Abu Dhabi) on our way up to San Francisco less than a week before this tasting, and when we had their Oktoberfest off the tap in the actual brewery, we both thought, “Eh, this is fine, nothing to write home about.”

I even ordered something different for my second beer. Then in the blind, I have it in my top five and she has it in her top three (my brother-in-law also had it in his top two of the first half). Is it possible it tastes better out of the can than out of the tap? Because that seems to be what happened here.

Beer is weird and finicky like that.

4. Firestone Oaktoberfest Oak-Aged Lager (Sample 10)

Oaktoberfest
Vince Mancini

The Beer:

Firestone in Paso Robles, California has been making Oaktoberfest for 15 years — brewed with Weyermann Vienna malt, Weyermann pilsner malt, noble German hops, and Weihenstephan yeast and then lagered in French oak wine barrels. 5.2% ABV.

My Notes:

This is more towards yellow on the amber spectrum we’re working with here. Head is sort of uriney and smells like an American pils. It smells… crisp. On the palate, by contrast, it comes on sweet, with a very light toffee flavor. This tastes like a German macro lager but also an excellent version of that.

“Crisp, refreshing, and sweet.”

Rating: 8.5/10

Bottom Line:

Boy, I was way off. You’d think I’d be able to identify the only oak-aged beer in the tasting, not to mention one I’ve had often at the Firestone-Walker flagship in Paso, but nope. Solid beer nonetheless. As you would expect from one of the OGs of craft brewing.

3. Brooklyn Oktoberfest Märzen (Sample 3)

Brooklyn Marzen
Vince Mancini

The Beer:

This 5.5% ABV märzen out of Utica combines bready malts and German noble hops for a sweet, drinkable lager available every year from August to October.

My Notes:

More of a toffee-amber color. On the nose, I get more caramel toffee on the nose, with maybe some candied pecan nuttiness sneaking in there as well. On the palate it’s sweet caramel and syrupy, combining medium flavor and medium bite. Above all, it’s a very nice balance of malt and crispness, which is exactly what I want in an Oktoberfest lager.

Rating: 8.5

Bottom Line:

For me, this defined that balance between malt and sweet and landed in that 5-6% ABV, 10-20 IBU sweet spot. I should note that my wife had this in her bottom three, but women can be very irrational sometimes.

2. Paulaner Oktoberfest Märzen-Style Beer (Sample 11)

Paulaner Marzen
Paulaner

The Beer:

This mix of Herkules and Hallertauer Tradition hops, pilsner and Munich malts from one of Munich’s big six comes in at 5.8%.

My Notes:

A reddish amber brown color. On the nose, notes of orange and yeasty barley. On the palate, crunchy and sweet on the front end, but very crisp with lots of sparkly head on the back end. This one feels very German macro too, but extremely drinkable. …I kinda wanna crush 10 of these.

Rating: 8.75/10

Bottom Line:

Did I redeem myself for not being able to recognize oak that I did once again correctly identify a German macro? …You don’t have to answer that right away. Anyway, as I said above, the Munich breweries may not have märzen as their flagship Oktoberfest brews anymore, but they can still brew the shit out of them.

This one was a wonderful balance, and all my tasters agreed.

1. Jackrabbit Brewing Company Märzen (Sample 5)

Jackrabbit brewing Oktoberfest
Vince Mancini

The Beer:

While the brewery doesn’t have much information on this one, we know it’s a märzen-style festbier that comes in at 6% ABV.

My Notes:

Darker in color, amber towards brown. Faintly rum raisin on the nose, but more of a substantial brown bread aroma than that kind of alcohol-y, fermenty rum-raisin. Nice. This is somehow crunchy on the palate, refreshing and crisp but also strongly grain forward. Not too sweet, not too bitter with nice caramel malt and enough head to cut any syrupiness from the darker, sweeter malt.

Rating: 8.75/10

Bottom Line:

I’d never had this beer before nor heard of this brewery, and I probably wouldn’t have picked the can up out of a lineup. It doesn’t have the most eye-catching label like the East Brothers or Societe (though it’s perfectly fine), and it doesn’t even say “Oktoberfest” on it (because it’s a märzen and was in the seasonal section I was able to put two and two together). But it’s a damned fine beer. I didn’t actually drink five or six of these in a sitting, but it felt like the kind of beer you’d be able to while still packing in a lot of those nice hearty märzen flavors of brown bread and darker malt.

Final Thoughts

A blind tasting always packs a few surprises, and chief among them was Sam Adams ending up last on my list. I would’ve put money on that one landing in my top five, as I always stock up on it come Fall. Blind tastings are flawed in a lot of ways, too — chief among them being that I’m a firm believer that any drink’s “story” makes up part of how it tastes and the can/bottle design is part of that story. Beer also tastes a little different depending on whether you have it in a bottle, can, glass, stein, or in small plastic cups like we tasted these.

You can’t tell me that Miller Lite doesn’t taste better in the retro can. It absolutely does.

As surprised as I was by some of these — the Sam Adams being low, the Jackrabbit being my favorite, the Dust Bowl tasting so much better than I thought it did at the brewery — when I went back and sipped these in their marked vessels after the blind tasting was over, I didn’t feel like I’d been wrong about any of them during the blind. This year’s Sam Adam’s Oktoberfest does taste very raisiny to me, and the top five or six all were pretty fantastic. That being said, even the lowest ones on the list were still decent, and if we had this kind of variety in amber lagers and orange-red-brown beers all year round I sure wouldn’t be disappointed about it.

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