What Is Oktoberfest Beer?

While Oktoberfest is a fest, it’s also a specific style of beer. The tradition of Oktoberfest beers can be traced to the beginning of the festival, which was supposedly inaugurated in 1810, when Prince Ludwig of Bavaria took the unusual step of celebrating his marriage in a public festival with the plebeians—instead of a private royal one. The goodwill associated with this feel-good move gained momentum and still exists today.

The irony of the Oktoberfest beer is that it often carries the name of another month—in German, Märzen—March. This owes to the fact that before refrigeration, it was not possible to brew reliable beer in the summer. Because of the heat, fermentations would often go awry, resulting in bacterial infections and spoiled beer. The last feasible time to brew was in March, hence the name Märzen. The beers were brewed to higher strength, as alcohol is a preservative, to further guard against spoilage. Brewed in large quantities in the spring and then sequestered deep in cool caves throughout the summer, these Märzen/Oktoberfest beers would make their long-awaited debut during the fall festival season. Technically, they must be brewed in Munich, though Oktoberfest-styled beers are now made all over.

Appearing in color anywhere from a burnished gold hue to a deep brown with shades of red and orange, the beers are characterized by sweet, almost humid maltiness that’s balanced by a slight bitter note from the hops, though not enough for the beer ever to be considered bitter. Alcohol levels generally hover between 5 and 6 percent.