10 Best Oktoberfests/Märzens of 2021

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Thursday marks the official start of the 186th Oktoberfest celebration. Normally, this annual festival attracts millions of visitors to Munich, Germany to imbibe a very specific style of beer, eat roast chicken, and host massive stein holding competitions. Unfortunately due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the city cancelled this year's Oktoberfest festival. But, that doesn't mean that we need to forgo fall altogether.

For our part, we wanted to recognize the holiday by digging into its history. Above all, we'll clarify the exact difference between Oktoberfest, Märzen, and festbiers. Lastly, we'll give you a few of our favorite classic German and modern American versions to try.

But first, a little history lesson. 

What Is Oktoberfest?

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Photography courtesy of Hofbräu

Essentially a lesson in German royalty, Oktoberfest started with a wedding. Bavarian Crown Prince Louis (later King Louis I of Bavaria) married Princess Therese von Sachsen-Hildburghausen on October 12th, 1810.

The nuptials included a raucous party open to the citizens of Munich on the fields in front of the city gates. Named Theresienwiese or Therese's Fields, the Wiesn, or outdoor meadow, hosted days of drinking and horse races. In the midst of the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815), this party aimed to unite Germans during a tumultuous time.

Oh, and did we mention the royal family provided beer and food free of charge? In conclusion, so much fun was had by all that the festival became a yearly celebration.

Hurdles like cholera and now the COVID-19 pandemic have stymied some Oktoberfest celebrations. But for the most part, over the past two centuries, every year people gather in Munich to sip overflowing steins in huge beer tents and eat roasted chicken.

Today, Germany's largest folk festival and one of the most famous beer festivals in the world normally welcomes over six million visitors and has spawned local celebrations at breweries and bars across the globe.

What Is the Difference between Oktoberfests, Märzens, and Festbiers?

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Photography courtesy of Brewery Silvaticus Ales & Lab

The answer is a little complicated. In Germany, Oktoberfest means beers that are brewed specifically for the Oktoberfest event in Munich.

Historically, the beers served at Oktoberfest can only come from the large breweries inside Munich's city limits including Augustiner-Bräu Münche (Augustiner), Hacker-Pschorr, Hofbräu, Löwenbräu, Paulaner, and Spaten-Franziskaner-Bräu (Spaten).

But over time, the official beer style of Oktoberfest has changed.

For instance, during the first 60 or so years, the darker Bavarian dunkel dominated. But by 1872 Spaten brewery introduced the more amber-hued Märzen, which became the official beer of the fest.

Over the decades, brewers continued to innovate, using paler malts. In the early 1970s, Paulaner introduced a golden-colored beer called festbier. After that, this style slowly gained popularity.

Today, festbier is the official style of all beers at Oktoberfest. Although still slightly malty, these lighter-bodied festbiers are super drinkable and perfect for the two-week-long celebration.

So, What Does the Term Oktoberfest Actually Mean?

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Photography courtesy of Hofbräu

According to European Union regulations, only beers brewed by the aforementioned six breweries can use the label "Oktoberfest" (much like real champagne can only technically come from the Champagne region of France). All other breweries must call their seasonal lagers Oktoberfest-style beer. But that hasn't stopped American brewers from using terms like Oktoberfest, Märzen, and festbier pretty much interchangeably. To further confuse things, American breweries will often sell beers with punny variations such as Oaktoberfest, Octoberfest, etc.

Today in the States, Oktoberfest is often used as a catchall encompassing Märzens and festbiers. The Märzens here in America typically feature Munich and Caramel malts for beers that tend to be redder, maltier, and slightly sweeter.

Basically, the Oktoberfest-style beers brewed in America are actually nothing like those made for the real Oktoberfest in Germany. Instead, they align more closely with the original styles served in the 1870s.

If it helps, the Brewers Association actually separates Oktoberfests into two styles: German-Style Oktoberfest/Wiesn and American-Style Märzen/Oktoberfest.

Of course, there are some brewers in the United States that do adhere more closely to the paler, modern German Oktoberfest styles. But for the most part, if you're drinking an Oktoberfest in America, it's probably a copper-hued, toasty Märzen lager.

Wait, I'm Still Confused Can You Recap Everything For Me?

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Photography courtesy of Metropolitan Brewing

Heck yeah! Basically…

Oktoberfest (Oktoberfestbier) – Any beer formally brewed by one of the six big Munich brewers and served on the Oktoberfest grounds. Over the years these beers have evolved from dunkels to Märzens to festbiers. Today, they're light gold in color and easy bodied.

Märzens – German amber lagers typically anywhere from chestnut to russet in color. Smooth, toasty, bready, slightly spiced with a bit of a Noble hop bite. Märzens hit around 5-6% ABV with a dry finish. First brewed by Spaten in Germany, in America this is the most common style of what we've come to call Oktoberfest or Oktoberfest-style beers.

Festbiers – A strong golden German lager similar to a helles, just maltier. The floralness and spiciness of Noble hops are more prevalent in this style. And they're slightly meatier at 6-6.5% ABV. First pioneered by Paulaner, today in Germany festbiers are THE official beer of Oktoberfest.

Oktoberfest-style – Normally falling under the style of Märzen, these beers are brewed outside the city limits of Munich. Again, if you buy an Oktoberfest-style beer in America, it will most likely be an amber Märzen. Technically only beers brewed by one of the six original breweries in Munich can officially use the term Oktoberfest (Oktoberfestbier).

With all this in mind, whether you're camping out with a classic Hacker-Pschorr Oktoberfest Amber Märzen from the original Munich brewery or enjoying a modern 3 Floyds Brewing Company Munsterfest from the premier Midwestern brewery, we've found the best beers to ring in the Oktoberfest season. Prost!

Here are Untappd's Top-Rated Oktoberfest/Märzens of 2021. 

1. Samuel Adams OctoberFest - Boston Beer Company

2. Ayinger Oktober Fest-Märzen - Ayinger Privatbrauerei

3. Munsterfest - 3 Floyds Brewing Company

4. Oktoberfest (2021) - Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.

5. Oktoberfest Märzen / Original Münchner Märzen - Paulaner Brauerei

6. Spaten Oktoberfest Ur-Märzen - Spaten-Franziskaner-Löwenbräu-Gruppe

7. Warsteiner Märzen / Oktoberfest - Warsteiner

8. Oktoberfest Märzen - Hacker-Pschorr

9. Octoberfest Beer - Bell's Brewery

10. Oktoberfest - Great Lakes Brewing Company

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