Technically speaking, no “Oktoberfest” beer brewed in the U.S. is actually Oktoberfest. According to European Union regulations, only six German breweries—all within Munich, the same ones that are allowed to serve beer at the annual Oktoberfest celebration—are allowed to make beer that carries the label. (That’s obviously never stopped U.S. brewers from calling their beers Oktoberfest, though.) According to the Oxford Companion to Beer, the Prince of Bavaria once tried to bring beer from a brewery he owned to the original Oktoberfest, and even he was denied access.
But as strict as the regulations are for what can be considered Oktoberfest beer, the style of the beer has never been strictly defined—and it’s changed several times over the past 200 years. Dunkel beer—a dark lager—was traditional until 1872, when the stronger bock beer started gaining in popularity. After World War II, marzenbier (a deep amber lager with a slightly lower alcohol content than bock) became traditional, only to be replaced in the 1990s by beer that the Oxford Companion to Beer describes as having “a golden color and a slightly sweetish malty nose, with medium body and a low to moderate bitterness.”
In the U.S., however, the darker reddish-brown marzenbier is still the style of choice for Oktoberfest beer—and all the ones I’ve tried are remarkably true to style. At first I thought that would make them easier to compare—while it’s fun seeing what brewers can make with pumpkins (or pumpkin spice) or how they interpret winter beer, comparing a pale ale to a milk stout is pretty difficult. The problem is that even after limiting my tasting to beer from midwestern breweries, I still ended up with 14 to try (and that’s not even everything out there; I would have loved to taste the New Glarus Staghorn, which gets great reviews, but didn’t have time to drive to Wisconsin for it). For about the first half-dozen beers, their similarity did make them easier to compare—but at some point they all started to taste the same. With few exceptions, they had a malty, biscuity backbone and a bit of sweetness—the type of beer you’d want to drink on a brisk fall evening.
That’s not to say all the beers did taste the same—even with palate fatigue, I could pick out plenty of differences, not to mention favorites, among all 14 beers. And I swear local favoritism isn’t responsible for the fact that the Metropolitan Afterburner turned out to be my favorite, followed closely by Revolution’s Oktoberfest. I’ll admit, though, that it doesn’t look good that my third favorite, Schlafly, is from my hometown of St. Louis—but Two Brothers Atom Smasher came in right behind that, and I don’t have any particular affection for Warrenville (though I do consider Two Brothers a local brewery).
After I determined my top four I gave up on ranking the beers and just divided them into two categories: ones I’d buy again, and ones I wouldn’t. They’re listed below, along with very brief notes on each. For a more detailed description of three out of my top four beers, take a look at my colleague Philip Montoro’s Oktoberfest post from a couple years ago (he didn’t try Schlafly, which wasn’t yet available in Chicago).
Metropolitan Afterburner: Barely sweet and incredibly complex, with notes of caramel, peanuts, and dark fruit. There’s a touch of spicy, bitter hops on the finish that balances out the toasty brown sugar flavors.
Revolution Oktoberfest: Slightly sweeter and nuttier, with lots of bready malt and fruitiness. In a weird way, this was refreshing.
Schlafly Oktoberfest: A little more tart than the others, in a tongue-tingling kind of way, but with plenty of caramel and biscuit flavors.
Two Brothers Atom Smasher: Tastes like graham crackers and blackberries; a toasty beer with some fruity tartness and a hint of spice. Aged in oak barrels, the tannins from the wood give it a distinctly dry finish reminiscent of black tea.
Half Acre Lager Town: One of the hoppier Oktoberfests we tried; it’s floral and toasty with plenty of sweetness balanced by a bitter finish.
Great Lakes Oktoberfest: Spicy and very malty, another of the drier beers; it made me think of rye bread.
Central Waters Oktoberfest: This one reminded me of animal crackers (in a good way); it has a fair amount of tartness to balance the caramel maltiness.
Summit Oktoberfest: Sweet, malty, and well-rounded, a typical Oktoberfest; a bit on the sweet side for me, but not too syrupy.
Baderbrau Oktoberfest: Like Summit’s Oktoberfest, this one is very typical, with a rich, satisfying flavor but not a lot of complexity.
Urban Chestnut Oachkatzlschwoaf: I expected to like this unpronounceable beer more than I did, since Urban Chestnut is an excellent brewery (the name apparently means “tail of the squirrel”). But while it wasn’t terrible, it had a slightly sour flavor that I didn’t enjoy.
Goose Island Oktoberfest: As soon as my friend tasted this one, she said, “it tastes like a penny”—and it does have an unpleasant metallic aftertaste in addition to being syrupy sweet.
Upland Oktoberfest: Thin-tasting—not a good quality in a beer that should be lush and full-flavored.
Berghoff Oktoberfest: Light on flavor, inoffensive but uninteresting.
O’so O-toberfest: This was one of the few beers that didn’t seem to fit the marzen style—it was funky and sour and tasted sort of like a cider.