Everyone knows that Oktoberfest is a stein-swinging, sausage-scarfing party of epic proportions. But what does “Oktoberfest” mean when you see it on a beer label?
Unfortunately, a lot of times, it means you’re about to get disappointed. The U.S. market is flooded with beers that may say “Oktoberfest” on the label, but are really just overly sweet amber lagers that would make a Münchner weep.
What are the best Oktoberfest beers, then? We’ve compiled must-know information on one of the world’s most misunderstood yet highly popular beer styles; and, crucially, identified delicious versions you should seek out at your local tap house, beer garden, or bottle shop.
Oktoberfest, the beer festival
Like most great human advancements, the now-world-famous beer festival called Oktoberfest in Munich was born out of a sick party. In 1810, a popular crown prince chose to forego a stuffy, noble feast and turn his wedding celebration into a massive public festival. The party had it all: a super fancy horse race, a huge agricultural fair, food vendors galore, and, as of the 1870s, lots and lots of beer tents serving steins of delicious brews.
Today, the festival still begins with the mayor of Munich tapping the first keg at noon on the inaugural day of the celebration.
What is an Oktoberfest-style beer?
Here is where semantics start to fall into play. In the United States, copper-colored lagers marketed in conjunction with the beer-themed celebration are not necessarily the same style of beer served at Oktoberfest. That’s because Germany has far stricter rules surrounding beer and brewing.
The base style for Oktoberfest beer is called Märzen, which translates from German as “March.” That’s when this style of beer was traditionally brewed, just before the weather became a little too warm to make beer without risking spoiling, bacterial infection, or risk of fire from boiling the wort.
Instead, in March, brewers could simply increase the alcohol by volume (ABV) to around 6% to help preservation, and keep it in cold storage caves to be drunk through the warmer months. So, of course, when a crown prince just happens to call a massive party in the last week of September, the beer you’re going to have the most of on hand is the stuff that’s been chilling all summer. It also helps that marzen-style beer is remarkably drinkable in larger quantities.
In Germany, trademark rules dictate that only beers brewed by six breweries in Munich city limits can use “Oktoberfestbier” on their labels and ship it to the tents: Augustiner, Hacker-Pschorr, Hofbräuhaus, Löwenbräu, Paulaner, and Spaten. All of these are available in the US, though some are hard to find. This is done largely to protect the locals from outside infringement and overzealous sponsorship. Other German breweries are allowed to call their timely Märzens “festbiers” if they want to cash in on the buzz around the country, but officially, none are served in the famous beer tents at the Wiesn, the local word for the festival.
Of course, none of this applies to the United States, where we laugh in the face of German lager laws and slap Oktoberfest on literally any beer we want.
What should an Oktoberfest-style beer taste like?
As we said earlier, Oktoberfest/Festbiers/Marzens are a dime a dozen, but the best ones are, first and foremost, refreshing. Additionally, a traditional Oktoberfest beer should be amberish-copper in color with rich, malt-driven flavors of bread crust and vaguely toasty notes followed by a nice, dry finish. This is part of what makes it so easy to take it in by the steinful, even if they do hover around a hearty 6% ABV.
The best Oktoberfest beers to try
Here, a few of our favorite true-to-form Oktoberfest beers that are relatively easy to find in most corners of the country. It perhaps goes without saying that every single one of these pairs exceptionally well with traditional beer garden foods like Weisswurst and pretzels with mustard.
Ayinger Oktober Fest-Märzen
Distribution: Available nationally
It shouldn’t be too surprising that the German brewery that is as adept at brewing benchmark versions of all kinds of German styles makes a truly great Märzen. Of course, not being brewed within Munich, the beer itself is a domestic homage to the great party barely 20 minutes down the road, but that shouldn’t bother you. This festbier is robustly malty with toastiness on the nose and the palate and medium carbonation that just make it so easy to drink. In fact, the only thing not so easy about this beer is finding enough of it around for very long, so don’t wait too long to go out and find some.
Jack’s Abby Copper Legend Octoberfest
Distribution: Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont
If you thought expectations were high for a strictly lager-focused brewery to come up with a killer Märzen, you’d be right. Luckily, Jack’s Abby hits the mark with its homage to Oktoberfest.
This beer pours a slightly hazy, amber-orange with brighter bready notes on the nose, where carbonation levels are just right to make it smooth on the palate without filling the belly, and German noble hops weaving through the dry finish that’s on the subtle pleasingly bitter side for the style. The 16oz can format is a bonus.
Von Trapp Oktoberfest
Distribution: Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont
The von Trapp family—yes, that von Trapp family—has long been established in Vermont, first as gifted performers, then as renowned innkeepers. In 2010, they entered the brewing game, and create traditional German beer styles with some American influences.
Their Oktoberfest stands out as one of their best: The nose and the palate have malt richness, but, like some other domestic takes on the style (thanks mostly to local tastes), this one has a slightly hoppier finish with perceived noble hops. If you happen to be in Vermont, it might be worth stopping by the brewery’s own Oktoberfest celebration.
Sierra Nevada Oktoberfest
Distribution: Available nationwide
In previous years, Sierra Nevada has brought German breweries like Bitburger stateside to produce its Oktoberfest. The results are consistently one of the best widely available Märzens on the market.
In 2022, Sierra Nevada Oktoberfest features German hops, a biscuity nose and roasty, graham cracker flavors.
Hacker-Pschorr Original Oktoberfest Amber Märzen
Distribution: Available nationally
Just because the idea of planning an entire trip to Munich may feel like such an ordeal doesn’t mean you can’t drink like a festival goer. Hacker-Pschorr’s is a legally proper Oktoberfest, made within Munich and served at tents at the Wiesn to throngs of revelers. It has toasty bread crust and rich malt flavors, but, like all great Oktoberfest beers, it stops short of sweetness, making it easy to sip for hours.
Zero Gravity Oktoberfest
Distribution: Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont
Zero Gravity has been a fixture on the Vermont beer scene for over a decade, and if there’s a style that this Burlington-based brewery can’t nail, they haven’t found it yet. Their Oktoberfest is American by country of origin only, using German hops, malts, and a long lagering period to create a nod to the Old World styles that rarely get recreated with such finesse. It’s an incredibly drinkable version of one of the world’s most drinkable styles, which by our measure makes this a double success.
Fair State Festbier
Distribution: California, Connecticut, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Texas, Wisconsin
The midwest is arguably the country’s hotbed of authentic German beer interpretations, so it should be no surprise that one of the best breweries in Minnesota cranks out a perennial Märzen that is adored far and wide. This take is appropriately built upon Munich and Vienna malts and noble-hopped to create a dry, bready finish that makes that third stein feel like you’re just getting started.
Half Acre Lager Town
Distribution: California, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Maine, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin
Not all Oktoberfest-style beers have to loudly proclaim themselves as such. In fact, some of the best festbier-appropriate contenders ditch the blue checkered label art and are available for more than one month each year. Such is the case with perennial Midwestern darling brewery, Half Acre whose Märzen bravely flies under the radar by simply dubbing itself a “lager” first and an “Octoberfest beer” second. This is an impressive German lager, with the sturdy malt frame you’re looking for that finishes with a refreshingly dry kick.
San Diego, California
Distribution: Nearly every state… use the brewery’s beer finder tool to find it!
AleSmith’s adorably named AleSchmidt has all the hallmarks of a classic märzen: It’s toasty, with a malt-forward profile and slightly sweet profile that all but demands to be drank on a crisp fall night to the soundtrack of clanking steins and accordions. But lest you forget this is from the west coast, there’s a little extra hop bitterness to goose you on the back of the palate.
Kulmbacher Mönchshof Festbier
Distribution: On draft only in California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Washington, Washington, DC
Sometimes, finding the best German-made festbiers requires doing a little research, a little traveling, and a bit of old fashioned luck. That may be the case for anyone in search of Kulmbacher, which is one of the most celebrated steinbiers in the Franconian village where it’s produced. It’s a staple of the famous Kulmbacher Bierwoche (“Beer Week”) every July and, luckily, its US distribution means you don’t need to book airfare to try it for yourself.
Athletic Brewing Oktoberfest
Distribution: Available nationally
Athletic Brewing has completely changed the non-alcoholic beer game, so naturally, it only makes sense that it’s created with a perfect non-alcoholic beer to celebrate Oktoberfest. Its Oktoberfest beer is brewed with Vienna and Munich malts and Germany Hersbrucker hops, so you’re still getting that rich and deep festival beer flavor without compromising on calories and ABV. Plus, this way, everyone can celebrate Oktoberfest.