Oktoberfest

If you love traditional German beers as I do, then as a homebrewer you long each fall for Oktoberfest. You have probably heard that this style is complex and time consuming. In part, this perception comes from the fact that traditional marzens and festbiers are brewed in early spring and lagered for 6-8 months. That approach requires a lot of patience, precise temperature control and ties up equipment for a very long time. Don’t be put off, let’s learn more about this outstanding beer style and what it really takes to brew one.

Style History

Oktoberfest or Marzen, originated in the early 1700s in Vienna, Austria. The style as we know it today was created in Munich, Germany after it was brought there in the 1800s. Oktoberfest originated in the late 1800s as “last of the stock” celebrations to use up the previous cold months brewing stock to make room for the new harvest and fresh ingredients and a new round of brewing. The modern “Munich Marzen” was popularized in the 20th century.

The original Marzens were darker, browner in color and more full-bodied than the Oktoberfests we know today. Today’s Marzens are frequently closer to Munich Helles than the original Marzenbier.

Style Profile

If you’re going to brew an Oktoberfest, you need to decide if you are brewing a Marzen or a Festbier. Here’s how they differ:

Here is the summary profile for a German Marzen/Oktoberfest:

Color Range:  8 – 17 SRM
Original Gravity: 1.054 – 1.060 OG
Final Gravity: 1.010 – 1.014 FG
IBU Range: 18 – 24
ABV Range: 5.8 – 6.3%
Appearance: Ranges from amber-orange to reddish-copper; Off-white head with good retention & superb clarity.
Aroma: Clean, deep malty richness with notes of toast, bread; No caramel or roasty aroma; Clean lager fermentation character; No hoppiness.
Flavor: Clean lager fermentation profile; No biscuit, caramel or roasted flavors; Complex bread & toasty maltiness; Hops should be low-to-none.
Mouthfeel: Medium body; Smooth & creamy texture creates full mouthfeel. Carbonation is medium.
Serving & Storage Temperature: 46-48°F
Shelf Life: 3 – 6 Months
Suggested Glass: Stein

Source: BJCP & Kegerator.com

Here is the summary profile for a German Festbier:

Color Range: 4 – 7 SRM
Original Gravity: 1.054 – 1.057 OG
Final Gravity: 1.010 – 1.012 FG
IBU Range: 18 – 25
ABV Range: 5.8 – 6.3%
Appearance: Rich yellow or deep gold with superb clarity and white head.
Aroma: Sweet and moderate maltiness with notes of toast or dough; Low hoppy aromas with herbal, spicy or floral notes; Clean yeast.
Flavor: Moderate to high maltiness with a sweet doughy taste; Bitterness will be moderate, but balanced & crisp; Hoppy flavors will be low to moderate.
Mouthfeel: Body will be medium, smooth and creamy; Carbonation will be moderate; Low alcohol warmth possible.
Serving & Storage Temperature: 42-46°F
Shelf Life: 3 – 6 Months
Suggested Glass: Stein

Source: BJCP & Kegerator.com

 

Guidance when brewing a Marzen/Oktoberfest

Honestly, I’ve been served a lot of poor craft beer Oktoberfests. I think the style is misunderstood by a lot of craft beer brewers. Take a traditional German approach to this style by avoiding making it too sweet or too big. Focus your grain-bill on achieving a bready, toasty, character. You want an easy drinking beer.  Use German noble hops as well.

Base Malts

Start with primarily Pilsner malts and secondarily add Munich and/or Vienna malts.

Secondary Malts

Consider adding CaraPils (up to 5%) to improve head retention.

Hops

German Hallertauer, Saaz, Tettnanger hops would be good choices.

Other non-traditional choices include Liberty and Mt. Hood

Mashing

The authentic Marzen mash is a decoction. For the less adventurous, mash at 151-154°F

Yeast

White Labs offers an Oktoberfest / Marzen yeast (WLP820). Wyeast offers a Bavarian Lager yeast (2206). Omega offers a Bayern Lager OLY-114 that is supposed to be the famous Augustiner yeast strain. For folks preferring dry yeast, Fermentis Saflager S-23 is a popular choice. As these are lager yeasts, target fermentation temperatures of around 50°F depending on the specific yeast you choose.

Water Profile

Since we are talking about brewing a German Marzen, a good water profile might be Munich. More specifically, Munich Boiled water profile is a good choice. Bru’n Water creator, Martin Brungard recommends this water profile for this beer style. If it’s good enough for Martin, it’s good enough for me. Here’s that profile:

Ca: 12 | Mg: 17 | Na: 4 | SO4: 18 | Cl: 8

 

Guidance when brewing a Festbier

Festbier is lighter, breadier, less malty than Marzen. Many think its closer to German Helles, though with more body. You may want to start with a solid Helles recipe and tweak your malt bill from there. In the end, you will want an easier drinking beer.

Base Malts

Start with primarily Pilsner malts, around 80% of your total grain bill. Secondarily add Munich and/or Vienna malts.

Secondary Malts

Consider adding CaraPils (up to 5%) to improve head retention. Many brewers report good results using wheat up to 5%.

Hops

Traditional German noble hops, Hallertauer, Saaz, Tettnanger hops would be good choices.

Mashing

The traditional Festbier mash is a step mash or even a full decoction. For the less adventurous, mash at 151-154°F

Yeast

White Labs offers an Oktoberfest / Marzen yeast (WLP820), German Bock Lager (WPL833), Southern German Lager (WPL838). Wyeast offers Bavarian Lager yeast (2206), Bohemain Lager (2124), Oktoberfest Lager (2633), Munich Lager (2308). Omega offers a Bayern Lager OLY-114. For folks preferring dry yeast, Fermentis Saflager S-23 is a popular choice. As these are lager yeasts, target fermentation temperatures of around 50°F depending on the specific yeast you choose.

Water Profile

As with Marzen, a good water profile might be the Munich Boiled water profile. Again, here’s that profile:

Ca: 12 | Mg: 17 | Na: 4 | SO4: 18 | Cl: 8

My experiences brewing a German Oktoberfest

My hands down favorite Marzen is Ayinger Oktober Fest-Marzen. For me it represents the perfect Oktoberfest taste profile. As such, I’ve been trying to reverse engineer this authentic German brew for several years. To my tastes, this commercial beer is a cross between Marzen and a Festbier. My latest cloning attempts focuses on using all German malts including Pilsner, Munich and Caramunich malts. For hops, I’ve stuck with Hallertauer for bittering and aroma. I’ve experimented with various yeast strains, but I am particularly happy with Omega’s Bayern Lager strain, as it’s supposedly the same strain the commercial brewery in Germany uses.  Consistent with exBEERiments, I have had excellent results fermenting this strain at ale temperatures. For what its worth, I feel my lagers need a month of conditioning to reach optimal taste. Here’s my latest recipe:

Marvin the Märzen

Weyermann Pilsner (54.6%)

Weyermann Munich I (42%)

Weyermann Caramunich II (3.4%)

Hallertauer (60 min.) 17.5 IBUs

Hallertauer (19 min.) 2.3 IBUs

Mash at 152°F

OG: 1.058, FG: 1.014, ABV: 5.7%

IBUs: 20, SRM: 7.8

 

Those are my experiences. Please share yours and help us brew the perfect German Oktoberfest. Prost!

Forum discussion about this article can be found here.

By Tom Ayres