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What makes a beer an Oktoberfest beer?

Before you drink an Oktoberfest beer, learn how to identify one.
Photograph: Colin Beckett
By Heather Shouse |

If your notion of Oktoberfest is taken from Beerfest scenes of busty, dirndl-clad, stein-toting fräuleins, well…you’re not far off. Perhaps Munich’s famed festival carried more cultural content when it began in 1810, but these days most of the focus is on drinking. Accordingly, Pete Crowley’s upcoming take on the fest at Haymarket Brewery goes big on beer, with every brewer in town toting over kegs of their Oktoberfest. But what, exactly, is an Oktoberfest beer? First, what it isn’t: It isn’t a pumpkin beer, or a light beer, or a dark beer, and it’s actually more of a September beer than October (the Munich fest is held the last two weeks of September into the first weekend of October). What it is is märzenbier (“March beer”—named so because historically it was made in the spring and aged until fall), amber to copper in color, medium-bodied, with caramelized malt flavor and mild bitterness. Ever since Spaten brewery introduced a märzenbier to Munich’s Oktoberfest in 1841, the terms märzen beer and Oktoberfest beer have been linked and interchangeable.

These days, as tradition gave way to racking up sales by making lighter beers people can drink more of, you’ll find so-called Oktoberfest beers that lean pale and lack that malty oomph and copper color of the originals. Skip those. Instead, go for textbook examples of Oktoberfest märzen brewed in Germany, like Spaten or Paulaner. Or try local takes: Haymarket’s Oktoberfest will feature classic examples of märzen, incorporating Munich malts, German hops and lager yeast, from breweries such as Solemn Oath, Three Floyds, Rock Bottom, Goose Island Brewpub and Revolution. Half Acre, Piece and Metropolitan will be in attendance as well, though these will pour other styles of beer. Doesn’t matter—any style of beer can fuel chants of “eins, zwei, drei, g’suffa!” (“one, two, three, drink up!”).

Haymarket’s Oktoberfest (737 W Randolph St, 312-638-0700) takes place Saturday 29, 2–6pm. It’s $45 in advance, $50 at the door, and food and beer is included.

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