Session #127: Festbier auf Englisch?

Autumn leaves somewhere in Europe.

For this month’s edition of the Session, when beer bloggers around the world write on one topic, Al at Fuggled has asked us to hunt down and consider Oktoberfest beers.

This is anoth­er one we were going to sit out because we haven’t seen any on sale and did­n’t have chance to go hunt­ing. But then we decid­ed, once again, to just be the kind of idiots who ignore the instruc­tions and come at it side­ways instead.

So here’s the ques­tion we asked our­selves: what’s the Eng­lish equiv­a­lent of Fes­t­bier?

First, we need to get our heads round what Fes­t­bier means in Ger­many. Yes, we’ve been writ­ing about beer for years and should know by now but the fact is, it seems a bit vague; has been the vic­tim of some appar­ent­ly incor­rect explain­er arti­cles over the years; and, being sea­son­al, has­n’t often been on offer when we’ve been in Ger­many.

So, with­out get­ting bogged down in its his­to­ry, what does it mean now? What does a Ger­man con­sumer expect from a bot­tle with Fes­t­bier or Okto­ber­fest on the label? We decid­ed the quick­est way to get some kind of work­ing answer was to ask a Ger­man, name­ly Andreas Kren­mair (@der_ak) who blogs about beer and brew­ing at Daft EejitHe says…

Good ques­tion… per­son­al­ly, I’d expect it to be slight­ly stronger than an Export-strength beer but not quite as strong as Bock­bier. For a Fes­t­bier, that would essen­tial­ly mean a scaled-up Helles, with a thick­er mouth­feel, pos­si­bly a slight boozi­ness, and maybe a tiny bit more bit­ter­ness, but still rel­a­tive­ly restrained. If it’s adver­tised as Märzen, I’d expect an amber to pale-brown colour, with notice­able melanoidin flavours, i.e. that malti­ness com­ing from dark­er-kilned malts like Vien­na or Munich malt.

Dis­ap­point­ing with a beer labelled as Fes­t­bier/Ok­to­ber­fest-Märzen would cer­tain­ly be either not enough or too much alco­hol, any of the obvi­ous off-flavours that some lagers suf­fer from, too much bit­ter­ness or an assertive hop­pi­ness. In the case of Märzen, the lack of that typ­i­cal malti­ness would be espe­cial­ly dis­ap­point­ing, as it would be an indi­ca­tor for an indus­tri­al­ly brewed Märzen that is essen­tial­ly Fes­t­bier coloured with Sina­mar (Ron Pat­tin­son once men­tioned that some Munich brew­ery does that for the US export mar­ket, but I for­got which brew­ery it was). All in all, my expec­ta­tion of a Fes­t­bier or Okto­ber­fest-Märzen is that I can drink at least 1 Maß of it with­out get­ting drunk, and want­i­ng more after­wards, so drink­a­bil­i­ty is key…

As a bonus, if the beer is served from grav­i­ty instead of keg, and with slight­ly low­er car­bon­a­tion, that makes a good Fes­t­bier even more drink­able in my opin­ion.

That’s some­thing to go on, and more or less fits with what we thought it meant.

So, an Eng­lish equiv­a­lent would be a stronger, rich­er, smoother ver­sion of an every­day style, and a bit stronger than the norm but not Super Strength. Stronger, rich­er, smoother, 5 point some­thing… That sounds a bit like ESB for starters, does­n’t it? The only prob­lem is, ESB is avail­able all year round, and a Fes­t­bier prob­a­bly ought to be with­held if it’s to feel spe­cial.

With that restric­tion in mind, Spin­go Spe­cial, from the Blue Anchor in Hel­ston, occurred as an option. It only turns up occa­sion­al­ly, and is cer­tain­ly rich. The only prob­lem is… it’s not very nice – just so, so sick­ly sweet, and way too strong. It cer­tain­ly fails AK’s drink­a­bil­i­ty test.

Anoth­er can­di­date might be St Austell Trib­ute Extra which is a stronger, malti­er ver­sion of the famous ale that tends to appear on cask in Novem­ber and Decem­ber. (That’s right, not Sep­tem­ber, when Okto­ber­fest hap­pens, or Octo­ber when peo­ple under­stand­ably think it does.) Quite a few oth­er brew­eries (a bit of Googling sug­gests) have win­ter ver­sions of their stan­dards ales along the same lines. So maybe that’s as close as we get, tim­ing notwith­stand­ing.

As it is, British autumn sea­son­als tend to be things with Red in the namerye in the grist, or both, and that’s fine, but it might be nice if those beers were also a full per­cent­age point or so stronger.

Actu­al­ly, ‘autumn ESB’ has a cer­tain ring to it, does­n’t it? How would you go about brew­ing one?

UPDATE 13:47 01/09/2017: Johannes Weiss (@weizen) works at Wei­hen­stephan and says:

As for Okto­ber­fest­bier, orig­i­nal grav­i­ty needs to be even high­er than for Fes­t­bier, and in Ger­many only Munich brew­eries can call it Okto­ber­fest­bier by law.

So there’s noth­ing there that real­ly applies to Britain, but it’s an inter­est­ing dis­tinc­tion.

10 thoughts on “Session #127: Festbier auf Englisch?”

  1. A Fes­t­bier is usu­al­ly a Märzen, it that it’s a beer brewed to a grav­i­ty of 13.5º to 14º Pla­to. It does­n’t mat­ter whether it’s pale amber or even brown, it’s still a Märzen. This “it has to be amber to be a Märzen” is an Amer­i­can inven­tion.

    Andreas, love­ly bloke by the way, is Aus­tri­an, not Ger­man, though he does live in Berlin.

    1. Yeah, we realised after we’d post­ed but he told us he did­n’t mind if we left it as it is, because he does­n’t explic­it­ly state that he’s Aus­tri­an any­where obvi­ous.

  2. The old “win­ter warmer“s would seem to qual­i­fy – like a best bit­ter (i.e. brown, heavy, sweet­ish) but more so, and daunt­ing­ly strong at five or five and a half per cent.

    1. Oh, yeah – might do the job. They tend to turn up a bit late, if they turn up at all, but a revival of win­ter warm­ers would be love­ly.

      1. Well, Phil only said ‘like a best bit­ter’, i.e. super­fi­cial­ly resem­bling, which it is, regard­less of his­to­ry and/or its fam­i­ly tree.

        1. I was flash­ing back to my for­ma­tive years – the late 1970s, dahn sarf – when my men­tal map of good beer con­sist­ed of ‘bit­ter’ (brown, sweet­ish, about 4%, ordi­nary) and ‘win­ter warmer’ (dark brown, sweet, 5%+, rare and spe­cial). Nev­er saw a mild on tap until I came to Man­ches­ter.

          The trou­ble with the Blue Anchor beers is that Mid­dle is already dark brown, sweet and 5%+. Per­son­al­ly I quite like the Spe­cial, but it does­n’t qual­i­fy as a Fes­t­bier-alike on strength grounds alone – more like a Dop­pel­bock. Have you ever had the Christmas/Easter spe­cial Spe­cial, btw?

  3. I’ve just got round to post­ing over on Fug­gled, but short ver­sion is that if you’re look­ing for a sea­son­al, stronger-than-usu­al beer brewed for a spe­cif­ic event, then the his­tor­i­cal answer is an Audit Ale. They were brewed by Oxbridge col­leges with the first of the new har­vest, to be drunk in win­ter at the feast cel­e­brat­ing the com­ple­tion of their accounts. West­er­ham do one cur­rent­ly, but they’re not com­mon.

    But for me the key to Marzen and Okto­ber­fest beers is the months in the name – they are sea­son­al beers. In the UK we were bet­ter able to keep brew­ing through the year, so the main exter­nal con­straint on brew­ing was the fact that hops are so frag­ile. So the big event becomes the hop har­vest – which means our equiv­a­lent of Okto­ber­fest beers are green hop beers. Which for­tu­nate­ly are becom­ing more of a thing, although they are des­per­ate­ly depen­dent on the fresh­ness of the hops – they turn to com­post with­in hours. So the best ones tend to come from the hop-grow­ing coun­ties, where brew­ers can put the ket­tle on and then go out to the hop garden/yard to pick up the hops fresh from the bines.

    Talk­ing of which, a small plug here for the green hop tent at the Can­ter­bury Food Fes­ti­val 22–24 Sep­tem­ber which has ~50 green hop beers but being ear­ly and in East Kent tends to be Gold­ings-heavy (suits me just fine) and also the Tun­bridge Wells fes­ti­val 20–22 Octo­ber (~25 beers, but being lat­er will have more vari­ety). Both in fun loca­tions – Can­ter­bury is in the enclo­sure of the old Nor­man cas­tle, tru­ly a “bai­ley” fes­ti­val and the TW one is Rail Ale on the Spa Val­ley rail­way. No doubt there’s some­thing sim­i­lar in Here­ford or Worces­ter. (no affil­i­a­tion, but Can­ter­bury is prob­a­bly my favourite beer event of the year – and yes that includes GBBF and Indy­Man. Prob­a­bly mis­er­able in the rain, but Can­ter­bury is pret­ty lucky with that)

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