Beer styles Germany

Investigating Festbier

We’ve generally found German-style Festbier (festival beer) alluring in theory and disappointing in reality.

Its appeal is twofold: first, it’s a seasonal rarity; and, secondly, it’s a traditional part of German beer culture.

The disappointment is that its base characteristics are not things we look for in lager, being:

  1. strong
  2. heavy
  3. sweet

The words we most often jot down when we’re drinking it are those classic cliches ‘cloying’ and ‘sticky’.

Simon Clarke has a more positive spin on the same flavours, though: “That sweet malty breadiness makes it totally ‘steinable’…”

As Andy Parker of Elusive Brewing put it in a post on BlueSky:

“I love the sense of occasion and tradition of finding and drinking them more than the actual beers, which are all very well made of course…”

But it’s generally hard for a British drinker to really get to know Festbier, unless they spend a lot of time in Germany, at the right time of year.

Andreas Krennmair, author of Bavarian Brewing in the 19th Century, and Louise Krennmair live in Berlin and are Festbier fans. As Louise says:

“It probably helps if you live in Germany or are drinking it in Germany as you get the atmosphere, and fresher beer. My favourite is probably Schönramer Festbier which comes out at the start of December and we drink it at a bar in Berlin on New Year’s Eve at Frühschoppen.”

Andreas says: 

“What makes it enjoyable for me is the fact that I can have that beer only once a year for a few weeks, so it’s always a surprise what a particular beer is going to be. If you remember what it was the previous year, differences, even if they’re subtle in the grand scheme, are noticeable. Is it more or less bitter? What about the hop aroma? This is sweeter than last year, where does that boozy taste come from, etc.. In terms of Bavarian beer (excluding Franconia), I think it is the epitome of what a good pale lager can be – if it’s brewed well, of course. And, most importantly, what makes it stand out for me from other seasonal beers or brewed for festivities: it is still very sessionable, a bit dangerous with ~6%,so you always have to pace yourself…”

A pint of slightly hazy yellow beer with the Moor Brewing logo on the glass.
Moor Brewing Festbier 2023.

Testing our prejudices in 2023

Festbier seems to be more available in the UK now than it has been in the past, which gave us a chance to drink a few different examples and test our prejudices.

As Bristol is now something of a lager-brewing city, we were able to find a couple of local examples.

Lost & Grounded brewed a Festbier for the Oktoberfest event at its taproom earlier in September. It had the benefit of tasting extremely fresh which added a layer of interest and complexity. Though in many ways a textbook example – dark golden, 5.6% ABV – it was also distinctly bitter, and therefore better balanced, at least to our taste.

As ever, though, we started to find it a little heavy even by the end of the first round, and had to take a break with their flagship Keller Pils. By contrast, Keller Pils tasted even more delightful: light, spritzy, flowery…

When we went back to the Festbier for another go, it still impressed us, but we noticed a certain boiled sweet sugariness that confirmed our previous views of the style. It’s authentic, and correct, but almost reads to us as an off-flavour.

Moor Brewing’s take on Festbier, at 5.8%, seemed less successful. To the standard sweet heat it added a layer of haze and chewiness. There was some spiky apple there, too. Perhaps this is what you’d find if you drank Festbier in some Franconian village? We’re glad to have tried it but it feels like an odd outlier.

By way of calibration, rather wonderfully, we were also able to pop to our nearest supermarket, a branch of Lidl, and buy a gift box including multiple bottled German Festbiers.

On the one hand, this really highlighted the importance of freshness as a characteristic of the best German beers. Several tasted papery and ancient, battered about by the chain of logistics that got them from brewhouses in Bavaria to a retail park in Brislington.

On the other hand, it also underlined a point made by Louise Krennmair: “There is more to Festbier than Oktoberfest.”

Wildbräu Kirtabier was dark, orangey and syrupy, almost like Spingo Special.

Teisnacher 1543 was well balanced with just a dab of welcome rustic character.

Irlbacher Gäubodenvolksfestbier read to us as something like a strong pilsner: pale, powerfully bitter, and our favourite of the bunch.

More interesting than enjoyable

The fundamental problem is this: much as we enjoyed exploring and pondering on Festbier, nothing we drank pleased as much as Lost & Grounded Keller Pils, or Augustiner Helles.

What is the problem Festbier is designed to solve?

A need for something special to mark an occasion. The desire to loosen up. And perhaps to add interest in a beer culture that prizes consistency and tradition over novelty.

And what problems do we, Jess and Ray, have? We’re uptight lightweights enraptured by the consistency and tradition of German beer culture.

Festbier is not built for us.

4 replies on “Investigating Festbier”

What is the problem Festbier is designed to solve?

Come now, we can at least address the pop culture answer: It was more steinable than the older Märzen.

“…which are all very well made of course…” Not a comment on the post as a whole – but there’s the issue with taking beer cultural serious right there, neatly summed up. Nothing in human experience qualifies for that sort of blanket statement. As for Festbiers, too often the maltose cloy leans into cardboard. No doubt, as Andreas says, it’s best fresh (like all beers really.)

I sort of see what you’re getting at, as it is basically just Helles dialled up to 11, rather like Abbot Reserve. But, as you say, it’s very much linked to a particular occasion. And I find it an appealing beer style in its own right for those colder Autumn and Winter evenings.

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