Germany The Session

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 replies on “Session #127: Festbier auf Englisch?”

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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?

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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