Die Krüge hoch!
Almost every town in Germany has a beer or wine festival ("Fest") between late spring and late fall. The bigger beer festivals are usually late summer and early fall, rom the Sandkerwa in Bamberg, the Cannstatter Wasen in Stuttgart, the Bergkirchweih in Erlangen, and of course the biggest and most famous of them all, the Oktoberfest (or Wiesn) in Munich.
You can't go into a liquor store or bar in the US beginning in late-August and through October without running into Oktoberfest beer offerings and celebrations. So what are the differences between Oktoberfestbier, Festbier und Märzen?
The first difference is based on your location. In the US, any brewery can sell an Oktoberfest beer. In Germany however, Oktoberfestbier or Wiesnbier can only be sold under that name if you are serving your beer at the actual Oktoberfest in Munich, which is limited to the six original breweries that brew within the Munich city limits: Spaten Brauerei, Hacker-Pschorr, Paulaner, Hofbräu, Augustiner, and Löwenbräu. Everything else is a Festbier. In the US, Okoberfestbier is usually associated with a Märzen-style beer.
While the first point was geographical in nature, the next one is historical. In the early 1800s (1818 to 1860s), the beer style then was reported to have been dark and bold due to the technology, or rather, lack thereof. In that era, malt was fired over direct heat, giving the beer a chocolatey, bready profile. Even smoky at times. So the first beers at Oktoberfest would have been a Dunkel (dark lager)!
In 1841 the Spaten brewery introduced a lighter colored, amber lager also made with Munich malt but in combination with a very lightly kilned pale malt. This new easy drinking beer was called a ‘modern Märzen’ and gradually replaced dunkel to became the official beer of the Oktoberfest in 1872. Märzen is a German amber lager – dark copper to reddish brown in color, crisp but also smooth, with sweet toasted bread aroma and faint hints of spice. It is sweetish but with a noticeable Noble hops bite and a dry finish. The typical ABV is 5-6%. The name comes from the time of the year it is brewed - März (March) - and then stored until the late summer and early fall.
The reign of the Märzen as the official beer of Oktoberfest came to an end about a century after its inception. In the 1970s Paulaner introduced a lighter style of beer in response to consumer demand and evolving tastes. This became known as a Wiesn style, also known as a Festbier, named after Theresienwiese (Theresa’s fields) where the Oktoberfest was originally held and is still held today.
It took only 20 years for the Big Six breweries to go all in with this golden lager style. From the 1990s to today, the Wiesn or Oktoberfest style of beer in Germany continues to be a malt-forward lager with light hues and light flavors with similar character profiles of a Helles – malty backbone, spicy and floral hop bite, moderately full body and a dry finish. The ABV is 6-6.5%.
To summarize, the beer served at Oktoberfest changed from a Dunkel to a Märzen in 1872, and then to a lighter Wiesn or Festbier style in the 1990s, the style still served today. In Germany, only the original six Munich breweries can call their beer Oktoberfest or Wiesn, all other breweries have to call it Festbier.
In the US, Oktoberfest beers are usually associated with Märzen, and no naming restrictions exist for local and import breweries.
We served a variety of Wiesn, Märzen, and Festbier at the 2022 BSV Oktoberfest!