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.

Oktoberfest beers — USA vs Europe

Hofbrau Oktoberfest beer
Hofbrau Oktoberfest beer

The relentlessly thirsty Eric Delia posted some interesting thoughts on American brewers preserving European traditions the other day. This was prompted by an article in the New York Times, where the authors sampled 24 “Oktoberfest-style” beers before declaring that the top three were all American. The article makes the point that while the original Munich brewers are producing lighter and lighter beers, the American brewers have kept to a more traditional style and are doing it better.

It’s an interesting tasting, and has some good observations on the nature of festbiers:

“A good Oktoberfest beer is a masterpiece of balance and integration, delicious without being extravagant”

Although I did find it amusing that they considered beer that was 5.5-6% to be “rather mild”!

Certainly the three (German) festbiers we tried last night exemplified this idea of perfect balance. We drank Augustiner, Hofbrau and Spaten. It’s very difficult for us to describe what these beers tasted like, mostly because they’re absurdly drinkable and we gulped them down. The Augustiner probably won, with a more pronounced malt flavour and a crisp, dry finish that made us desperate for the next sip.

The balanced nature of these beers make it hard to identify specific flavours, but that’s not to say they’re flavourless. They’re certainly all much better than the standard lagers by these breweries, despite their relative conservatism.

In contrast, Brookyn’s Oktoberfest beer did not meet the high standards set by their “usual” lager. It ticks all the boxes in the BJCP style guidelines — it’s a gorgeous amber colour, with a tempting caramel aroma. But it doesn’t taste as wonderful as it looks, sadly. Not that there’s anything wrong with it, it just doesn’t have the same gulpability as the other three we tried. That could be something to do with relative freshness, of course.

Boak