Festbier vs Oktoberfest


… in case you are curious

Festbier is the style of beer that you’ll be drinking the next time you are fortunate enough to travel to Munich for the Oktoberfest … or Wiesn as it is known to the locals. It is also the style of beer you drank if you attended Oktoberfest during the past 30+ years. Festbier is distinctly different from Märzen, a traditional style that had a long run as the primary beer style served at Oktoberfest for more than 100 years prior to Festbier becoming the dominant style in the early 1990’s.

Munich’s “Big Six” breweries

As the story goes, the Munich brewers noticed their customers’ tastes shifting toward the paler, crisper, more poundable Festbier style nearly fifty years ago. Augustiner Brau is frequently credited with starting the trend during the 1950’s with their beer called “Edelstoff” (precious material). Paulaner Brauerei is often credited with accelerating the trend during the 1970’s witheir own popular Festbier. By the early 1990’s, the Munich Festbier style reigned supreme at the Wiesn.

Bathtub Row Brewing‘s “OkTUBerfest”

If you have not been to Oktoberfest in Munich, you may not even know whether you have drank a Munich-style Festbier or not. There are a lot of beers out there the U.S. market this time of year labeled “Oktoberfest” or some cute play on the word, but they are rarely intending to be a Munich-style Festbier. The typical Oktoberfest beer brewed by your local American brewery is a Märzen (March beer), a darker, sometimes sweeter and less hoppy style. Not that there’s anything wrong with that I guess. I enjoy both styles, but I find myself longing for a nice Festbier (sometimes called Wiesn bier) when the Oktoberfest chatter fires up each year.

Paulaner “Oktoberfest Märzen” is not the same as Paulaner “Oktoberfest Bier”

Fortunately, you can find Munich-style Festbier in the U.S. where distribution is good and you know what to look for. There is plenty of confusion about the styles that doesn’t make things any easier. There are a number of articles out there that try to sort out the confusion – a favorite of mine is “AUTUMN IN A GLASS: MÄRZEN, OKTOBERFEST BEER, AND VIENNA LAGER” by friend of Prime Passages Franz Hofer. In addition, there certainly are some U.S. brewers who are aiming for a Munich-style Festbier rather than a Märzen when brewing their Oktoberfest beer. Sam Adams offers both an Oktoberfest Märzen and a Festbier (harder to find). To compound things, Paulaner and other German breweries sell their own Märzens in the U.S. labeled as “Oktoberfest Märzen”. If you want to try what they will be drinking at Oktoberfest, look for the beer labeled “Oktoberfest Bier” (with no mention of “Märzen”). In Munich, these are sold as “Münchner Märzen” and “”Wiesn Bier” I think.

Festbier vs Oktoberfest
side-by-side visual comparison at my backyard tasting – Second Street Brewery Oktoberfest, Santa Fe Brewing Company Oktoberfest, Paulaner Oktoberfest Bier, La Cumbre Brewing Oktoberfest

So I am curious: If Munich-style Festbier is considered to be a smooth, crushable, tasty beer – enough so that it is the beer of choice to serve to the millions of people who make pilgrimages to the Oktoberfest – why aren’t there more American breweries trying to make it? Are there American breweries that do make it and have nailed it? Why do most American-brewed Oktoberfest Beers seem to be Märzens instead of Munich-style Festbiers?

I asked the question in a brewing forum I participate in and thought it would be worth sharing some of the more interesting responses:

Many American brewers can’t relate to a beer that is not hazy, sour, or fruited.

Speaking for my brewery, our marzen is an established brand and a great mover for the season. Would love to also do a festbier, but the reality is it would compete with the marzen, and if either hung around after October, they would stop selling altogether.

Most people just assume they are the same or they are scared to try something different.

I’m guessing sales. Marzen is different/unique, in the American market at least. I kinda wish it was the other way around though.

For midwest-y types, the Marzen seems to resonate well with fall, chilled air, and seasonal change. It’s a sort of harbinger of Autumn. And, when I’ve been places that make both the Marzen sells better. Where I’m currently brewing we make a festbier bc I prefer them. 6.2% and golden, leaning twd dry oyster cracker. I prefer Marzen later in the year, however H Halloween and Thanksgiving time, but they must be well attenuated.

Some do, but think consumers chase those Marzen’s more than a festbier. Alot might not even know a festbier is what is consumed in the Oktoberfest now a days.

At our Oktoberfest we added signs describing the marzen and the festbier and in the last two years we have gone from 75% marzen to 75% festbier. You have to educate the consumers. We are serving Paulaner products. We also have a local brewery serving their own Oktoberfest which this year was a Festbier.

Our restaurants serve both. We have the Paulaner and Hofbrau Festbiers and the Paulaner and Hacker-Pshorr Marzens, plus local craft Oktoberfest beers. People enjoy both and the staff like to explain the differences between the two.

I think too many Americans are stuck in the idea that a light golden larger is “macro crap”, so they gravitate to the darker and sweeter historical Marzen.
I’d take a Festbier over a Marzen 4 out of 5 times. Marzen is a great late fall, early Winter style, but too dark and heavy to be drunk by the liter, IMO.

We brew both. Our Festbier sells very well, better than our Marzen but Americans are confused about the difference and many breweries blur the line anyway. Throw in the compulsive American need to barrel age everything and confusion reigns.

No one in the US knows what a Festbier is, would be my guess. Serving a Festbier as an Oktoberfest requires some consumer education. And remember we are all in a bubble in the industry. Most people don’t know about details like that.

I think it’s marketing. When it first hit the US, it was Marzen and Sam Adams version dominated the space. The change in Munich hasn’t taken hold here yet, but you’re seeing more Festbier versions stateside now. I’ve heard a number of folks this year saying how they are preferring the marzens that are not as sweet or caramel forward.

I am more likely to order a Marzen than a fest bier. Fest beers seem like a helles with .5 to 1% more alcohol, maybe a little extra hoppy.

I really like the Paulaner Festbier. The only American examples I’ve had weren’t terribly accurate to the style, but I’m sure better American festbiers do exist.

One thing to keep in mind is that Oktoberfests began in the USA in 1961 in LaCrosse, WI. By the late 1970s, many places had Oktoberfest festivals, powered in part by tourists who visited Munich, or service men and women who were there in the 50s through 80s. The Märzen style was *THE* style of Oktoberfest in those days, and Americans bringing Oktoberfest to the USA were quite fond of the the amber colored rich bier they had there. Remember too that most Americans had only tasted light adjunct lagers before visiting Germany. So the rich amber of the märzen was distinctive and nostalgic. By the time the Munich breweries were switching their focus in the 1990s to festbiers, American microbrewing was starting to take off, and they were brewing their märzens in the fall to market to those nostalgic Americans expecting that style for the Oktoberfest themes. It became expected. Oktoberfests across the country since the 1970s were serving it too, bringing it in from Munich Breweries. It’s why the Munich breweries still market these biers as Oktoberfests, primarily to the USA. There’s also nothing wrong with that.

At our Oktoberfest in Indy at @TGAKIndy we bring them both from Paulaner, and market it as, we have the traditional and we have the new. Both are fantastic, compare and contrast. Drink your favorite.

There’s a reason for the season of the Wies’n.

comments from a discussion in FB Germany Brewing group

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