Late September marks the start of the Bavarian holiday Oktoberfest, a sausage-and-suds celebration that began as a wedding feast for King Ludwig I in nineteenth-century Munich and continues today throughout Germany and much of North America.
The traditional beers for the occasion are called märzens, reddish brown lagers made fragrant with spicy German noble hops and sweet with Vienna and Munich malts. These robust beers are perfect for chugging on chilly weekends from giant dimpled liter steins alongside grilled sausages, roasted chicken and braised red cabbage.
Hundreds of German and American breweries throw festivals to celebrate Oktoberfest each year, and many make special one-off beers for the occasion. We tracked down three to celebrate with that, until now, were barely available outside of their respective locales. O'zapft is!—the keg is tapped and Oktoberfest has started!
Firestone Walker Oaktoberfest
Each October, Central California's Firestone Walker throws a raging, all-day Oktoberfest blowout in San Luis Obispo. But until now, its mellow märzenbier, Oaktoberfest, was available only at the festival. "It's the kind of beer that you should be drinking out of a liter mug," says brewmaster Matt Brynildson, adding that many American Oktoberfest-style beers are too heavy or cloying for his tastes. The orange-hued lager goes down easy with sweet, honeyed aromas balanced by a subtle bitterness from German Hallertau Tradition hops. And months of lager conditioning mean that it's smooth, robust and crisp on the finish. Don't let the beer's woodsy name fool you—"Oak" nods to the brewery's hometown of Paso Robles (meaning "Pass of the Oaks"), not to any wood barrel-aging. $11 per six-pack
Minneapolis's Surly Brewing hosts two major festivals during the fall—one a beer-nerdy bash around Halloween called Darkness Day, the other a celebration of its namesake, SurlyFest, an Oktoberfest-inspired lager. Unlike most Oktoberfest beers, SurlyFest isn't a traditional märzen at all. Rather, it's a riff on an archaic German style called roggenbier ("rye beer"), brewed with three iterations of rye for a distinctly dry, biscuity flavor and dry-hopped with American Sterling hops for a floral fragrance and peppery finish. It's currently available only in Minnesota (and occasionally Chicago), but with a new brewery under construction, Surly will soon expand its reach across the Midwest. $10 for four 16-ounce cans
Sierra Nevada Oktoberfest
Smack in the middle of the aromatic hop fields of Chico, California, Sierra Nevada hosts two days of Bavarian-style revelry under a giant blue-and-white checkerboard tent. Now the märzen served at the festival is available nationwide in 12-ounce bottles as part of Sierra Nevada's fall variety pack. The lager's brilliant copper tint and billowy head look fantastic in the glass, while its sweet, nutty aromas and creamy body deliver pure, beery bliss. The strong citrusy hops might be a departure from traditional German märzens, but they're not entirely unexpected given Sierra Nevada's obsessive handiwork with hops. $18 for a Fall Seasonal Variety 12-pack
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