Originally introduced as a celebration for the marriage of Crown Prince Ludwig and Princess Therese in 1810, the Oktoberfest celebration in Germany traditionally starts the third weekend in September and ends the first Sunday of October. While the festival has evolved to feature modern diversions like amusement rides, Oktoberfest is still all about the beer; featuring a maltier version of German lager that is stronger (by German standards) at about 5.8% to 6.3% alcohol by volume. As a culture that’s always looking for an excuse to party (come on now, do you even know what you’re celebrating on Cinco de Mayo?), Oktoberfest celebrations have gained popularity in America with some local large festivals and enough neighborhood celebrations to make that purchase of Lederhosen or a Dirndl worth the money. To help you prepare for your own Oktoberfest celebration, we conducted a blind tasting of five commercial examples available in the Indiana market. Our past tastings have focused on styles that American brewers can be credited with inventing or taking in new directions. But an Oktoberfest tasting demands the inclusion of some German breweries to gauge if American brewers have caught up to their German counterparts. So the field for this tasting tapped German beers from Ayinger and Paulaner to go with American OFests from Left Hand, Sun King, and Upland. The beers were served in a random order to our tasting panel, and the identity of each was not revealed until after the panelists had submitted their individual rankings. Joining me on the panel for this session were Lafayette reporter Jason Cook and guest panelists Steven Banach and Amanda Civis. Here is a summary of each beer sampled, with the brewery’s description followed by the panel’s tasting comments. Beer #1: Left Hand Oktoberfest – This is no festivus for the restuvus – on the contrary – we start brewing in the Spring and it takes a full two months to reach lagered perfection. Biscuity, malty goodness dominates upfront while the noble pedigree hops lend a properly spicy, dry finish. Zicke zacke, zicke zacke, hoi, hoi, hoi. 24 IBU 6.6% ABV
|Amanda: Golden Amber in color. Malt forward aroma. Medium to light mouth-feel with a nice level of carbonation, giving just a slight sting on the tongue. Taste reminiscent of raisin bread with some hop bitterness towards the end and a clean finish. Buy a couple and discuss with friends.
Amanda’s Rank: 3rd
|Jason: Light amber in color with a big, sweet, malty nose and body. This example had everything going for it until the finish. Some sort of lingering bitterness (not the good kind) remained that served to undermine what had started out as a nice beer.
Jason’s Rank: 3rd
|Nathan: Brilliant copper color with low head and rich malt aroma. The aroma and strong toasted malt flavor with hints of caramel get this beer off to a great start. But it’s all downhill from there. The malt flavor gives way to a bit of lingering bitterness and noticeable alcohol. This is followed by a sulfur note from the lager yeast. This beer was promising, but the lack of clean finish hurts the drinkability and knocks it down on my list.
Nathan’s Rank: 5th
|Steven: Pours a clear, light copper hue with no visible lacing or head. Aroma is a bit boozy with caramel notes. The taste is very malty, light amount of fruity hops, slightly nutty, touch of carmel, with a medium mouthfeel. The finish on this brew is dry, warm, and lingers for awhile. This brew is too boozy for my taste. While high on alcohol content, Lefthand’s version would keep you warm on a cool, autumn day.
Steven’s Rank: 3rd
Beer #2: Sun King Oktoberfest – Sun King Oktoberfest is a traditional German-style lager. Crafted with choice German malts and noble hops, our Oktoberfest has a clean malty start with a slightly earthy hop character and a crisp, dry finish. 5.8% ABV
|Amanda: Golden color. I used the word light a lot in my notes. Light sweet malt aroma. Light to medium carbonation, no extra tingle on the tongue. Light mouth-feel. Very clean and well balanced taste with no extra sweetness or bitterness. Has a crisp quality to the finish that dries your tongue just for a second before making your mouth water. This was one of my favorites and if I were out all day at a fest eating anything from German-Style Potato Salad with Ham to Every Baked Apple Dessert this is the beer I’d choose. Buy a few for your next tailgate.
Amanda’s Rank: 2nd
|Jason: Deep golden in color with a light nose with some hop presence. The body had a light, sweet malt character with just enough hop flavor and bitterness. Finish was mostly clean with just a slight sweetness that lingers on the tongue. Overall a pretty solid beer that I would definitely drink again.
Jason’s Rank: 2nd
|Nathan: Lighter in color and aroma with a moderate level of carbonation. This one has a softer overall profile with moderate toasted malt and a slight minty flavor. Very clean and smooth finish with no lingering bitterness or off flavors. A well made, enjoyable, easy drinking beer that just lacks a bit of the flavor complexity displayed by my top two choices. But it’s definitely a beer I would order again.
Nathan’s Rank: 3rd
|Steven: This brew poured a light amber color with a small amount of lacing ring. Aroma is floral hops with caramel notes. The mouthfeel was full with plenty of munich and crystal malt flavor. Spicy noble hops balance out this beer perfectly with a toastiness, crisp finish. Sun King exemplifies a great representation of an oktoberfest beer with the alcohol content, malt, and hop profile dead on for the style.
Steven’s Rank: 2nd
Beer #3: Paulaner Oktoberfest Bier – This beer is an institution: the Oktoberfest Bier® from Paulaner, with its full-bodied, pleasant taste definitely pairs beautifully with the hearty delicacies along with Hendln or Schweinshaxen. Its alcohol content of 6 % volume makes it somewhat stronger than the usual lager beer. With a hint of malty sweetness the Oktoberfest Beer possesses the perfect balance. 6% ABV
|Amanda: Golden brunette in color. Initially I had a hard time, picking up flavor and aroma, on this one. My notes from the first pour were little to no aroma, took 3 sips before I got any flavor to stick and when it did all I really picked up was a little bitterness. The second pour was a completely different story. The aroma and flavor were both of slightly burnt toast. It made me want a pat of butter and a jar of spoon fruit. After taste was of bitter hay/grass. I couldn’t get behind this one. Buy a bottle and see what you think.
Amanda’s Rank: 4th
|Jason: Pours a light amber in color with a moderately sweet & hoppy nose. This beer didn’t agree with me from the very first sip. I’m not terribly familiar with the noble hop varieties but apparently the stronger hop presence of these is what had me cringing. Not much else for me to say on this one.
Jason’s Rank: 5th
|Nathan: Muted copper color with a lasting head and higher carbonation than the other examples. Full-bodied toasted malt character with a clean and slightly sweet malt character in the finish. Plenty of grassy, tea-like hop character in this one that lingers through the finish. The best hop profile of the group in my opinion. Despite the prominent hop flavor, the beer has a slightly stale character from just a touch of oxidation. I really enjoyed this beer, the finish was just a bit too sweet to make the top of my list.
Nathan’s Rank: 2nd
|Steven: Paulaner’s Oktoberfest brew turned out to be my favorite of the flight. This beer poured a dark amber color with a malty and grassy hop aroma and was the darkest beer in the tasting. The spicy, noble hops complimented the malty, semi sweet, full body of this beer. Noble hop flavor was very apparent in this pour. Moderate alcohol content throughout from start to a dry, long finish. I would definitely seek this beer out. The flavor of this beer was able to withstand the voyage from Germany to America perfectly and still tasted fresh.
Steven’s Rank: 1st
Beer #4: Ayinger Oktober Fest-Marzen – Rich, golden color. Slightly sweet, malty nose. Medium to big body and alcohol. Soft dryness from long maturation. 21 IBU 5.8% ABV
|Amanda: Golden brown color. Heavier mouth-feel with nice carbonation. There is a nice complexity and layering of flavors going on. Everything from fruits like peach, grape and apple to more subtle notes of ginger, cinnamon and nutmeg. But the flavors of sweet malt and hop hold their own and linger on this one. I wouldn’t mind killing a day with this beer, friends, a grill, bratwurst and some cabbage to braise. I could also see enjoying a couple of these all by themselves. Buy a few and invite me over.
Amanda’s Rank: 1st
|Jason: This was my overall winner. Deep golden to light amber in color with a mild, unassuming nose. First sip for me and the flavor just seemed to pop. Seemed to have a bit more complex malt character than the others with a nice hop balance. Flavor seemed to linger a bit, possibly from being a bit more carbonated, but for this beer, that was a good thing. Will have to add this one to my beer shopping list.
Jason’s Rank: 1st
|Nathan: Golden color that trends toward the lighter side of the style. The toasted malt character was nicely balanced with some herbal hop character. This is complemented by a slight orange peel character that gives this beer a unique twist. There is a slight touch of alcohol in the finish, but this is where the beer really shines. Clean, crisp, and dry with a fuller mouthfeel and flavor profile than the other samples; the beer finishes beautifully and leaves you wanting more. An excellent example of the style. Yeah, go get you some of this.
Nathan’s Rank: 1st
|Steven: The appearance of this brew had quite a bit of lacing around the glass with a copper color. The nose on this brew was very light hops and low munich malt. The first thing I noticed when tasting this beer was the high carbonation level. In addition, Ayinger’s representation of this oktoberfest had a light skunky, sour flavor that had a lemon aftertaste. Unfortunately I wasn’t impressed with this beer, but it could have been a bit spoiled on its travel.
Steven’s Rank: 4th
Beer #5: Upland Oktoberfest – Our Oktoberfest is a traditional Bavarian lager featuring all-German malts and rare German hops. This dedication to authenticity produces a beer that would be as at home in Munich as it is here in the Midwest United States. The aroma is authentic, the taste sweet and malty, and the finish crisp and hoppy; perfect for a beautiful fall day! 16.5 IBU 6.5% ABV
|Amanda: Golden amber color. Malt forward aroma of yeasty bread. Light to medium carbonation. I wanted more malt flavor to come through on the taste of this beer but it’s not there. I get a bitter flavor start to finish, if you’re a hop head you might appreciate that. Buy a bottle and see what you think.
Amanda’s Rank: 5th
|Jason: Golden color with a moderate lager-y nose. Whole flavor profile of this beer seemed to be a bit thin. Lighter body allowed a more bready, pretzel-y flavor to come through with moderate hop bitterness and higher carbonation. Seems like they were almost playing it a bit safe with this one.
Jason’s Rank: 4th
|Nathan: Light colored and highly carbonated with a light malt aroma. A bit more caramel flavor than most of the other examples is balanced some herbal hop character and low toasted malt. A grassy hop character shines through more prominently in the finish. The finish is clean, but doesn’t exhibit the crispness featured in the better examples leaving the flavor slightly muddled. This is a tough one to rank. I would drink this beer again, it doesn’t exhibit any notable flaws, but it’s just lacking anything remarkable in the flavor to set it apart in this field.
Nathan’s Rank: 4th
|Steven: The first thing I noticed about Upland’s beer was the heavy carbonation and lace ring around the tasting glass. The color was a golden, light amber color. This was also the lightest colored brew in the flight. Aroma was light carmel and a burnt toast aroma. Citra and spicy hops were low that didn’t compliment the heavy malt of this beer. The brew had a medium mouthfeel with higher then normal carbonation. The finish was dry with a hint of orange. While I like most of Upland’s lineup, this beer was too carbonated and high in alcohol that I prefer in my oktoberfest beers.
Steven’s Rank: 5th
And the results are in……. Unlike a few of our past tastings, a pretty clear pecking order began to take shape based on the ranking from our individual panelists. To determine the overall results, we used a model where the lowest number of points would win (a 1st place vote = 1 point, a 2nd place vote = 2 points, etc). After tallying up the scores, our collective rankings determined the final order:
|Fifth Place: Upland Oktoberfest (18 points)|
|Fourth Place: Left Hand Oktoberfest (14 points)|
|Third Place: Paulaner Oktoberfest Bier (12 points)|
|Second Place: Sun King Oktoberfest (9 points)|
|First Place: Ayinger Oktober Fest-Marzen (7 points)|
While we could generally say the Germans schooled their American counterparts in our results, credit Sun King for delivering a pretty authentic version that scored consistently high with our panel. But Ayinger was our clear winner with three 1st place votes, which is consistent with high rankings on sites like Beer Advocate and Rate Beer. The reviews ended up a bit more mixed on Paulaner, and seemed highly influenced by how much an individual enjoys more pronounced noble hop flavor. Left Hand and Upland seemed to take different recipe approaches with Upland staying close to a traditional flavor profile; while Left Hand was going for a bigger, slightly “Americanized” version similar to a few other local examples I’ve tried recently. When evaluating cost, our rankings suggest you get what you pay for as Ayinger and Sun King were the most expensive per ounce. Ayinger is only offered in single 500ml (16.9 ounce) bottles. At around $4 a bottle, that’s great when you’d like to try just one, and not so great when you’re trying to stock up for a party. Sun King was close behind at about $13 for a 4-pack of 16 ounce cans. I might personally make an argument for Paulaner as the value pick here at $11 for a 6-pack, but Amanda and Jason would probably disagree based on their rankings. Overall, I think it’s safe to say we recommend giving the Ayinger a try, especially if you’re in the market for just a few bottles. Big thanks to Amanda, Jason, and Steven for serving on the panel and a bigger thanks to you for reading this far. Enjoy a few Oktoberfests at home and/or hit up an upcoming event like Upland Oktoberfest, Herron-Morton Place Oktoberfest, or Brew Bracket Oktoberfest on the 28th. Prosit! – Nathan BREW BRACKET OKTOBERFEST TICKET GIVEAWAY: We are giving away two passes to the upcoming Brew Bracket Oktoberfest on September 28th from 6-9pm at Tomlinson Tap Room in City Market! To enter, leave a comment on this post letting us know what you think of our panel’s rankings, or just leave a comment to brag about your personal favorite Oktoberfest. We’ll do a random drawing of everyone who enters, so feel free to offer dissenting opinions. Comments must be received by Monday, September 23rd to be eligible. And remember, if you don’t win, tickets are available here for only $35 to what should be a fantastic event.