The rules don’t stop there. For a libation meant to be consumed in large quantities, in a spirit of bonhomie — or, since we’re talking German, gemütlichkeit, meaning a feeling of warmness and cheerful belonging — the Oktoberfest style is trussed up in some strictly enforced definitions.
The O-word is a registered trademark, in fact. It may legally be used only by six Munich breweries: Hacker-Pschorr, Paulaner, Löwenbräu, Spaten, Hofbräu, and Augustiner. And only those six are allowed to set up tents at Oktoberfest, where a full third of their annual output, nearly two million gallons, is consumed in just 16 days.
“You can sue companies for using the name,” says Dornbusch, noting that the Big Six have been known to “squander resources [suing] poor little breweries who dare release an Oktoberfest beer.” (Some breweries get around the prohibition with a bit of lexical legerdemain; note the well-placed space and hyphen in “Ayinger Oktober Fest-Märzen.”)
But you’re not in Munich. The rules don’t apply here. So you can try the proper Oktoberfest beers — all can be found easily stateside except Augustiner, which doesn’t export — as well as American approximations of the classic Märzen/Oktoberfest style.
Not strictly an Oktoberfest beer, Dornbusch started us off with this ordinary Munich helles — a pale, slightly maltier version of a pilsner — as a sort of base line. It’s a fine beer, but nothing extraordinary: there’s a little aroma, cleanness up front, a vibrant maltiness in the middle, and a lingering aromatic finish imparted by Saaz hops. (PS: it’s pronounced lerven-broy.)
Hacker-Pschorr Original Oktoberfest
This one’s much darker than the Löwenbräu, a deep, regal amber. There’s slightly more malt in the nose, with a touch of hop astringency toward the back. It’s very drinkable. Dornbusch’s verdict: “a concession to modern taste. More of a mass-market commercial Oktoberfest.”
Paulaner Oktoberfest Märzen
The bouquet here is similar to that of Hacker-Pschorr’s but is somewhat more complex. (Interestingly, since their merger, H-P and Paulaner are owned by the same company and are made in the same brew house.) The flavor has more substance, too, with a more pronounced caramelly malt and a vaguely citrus kick of hops at the finish.
Spaten Oktoberfest Ur-Märzen
This is the first official Oktoberfest beer, rolled out in 1872 and still beloved. It’s medium bodied, with a clean nose, a little less malty than some others, with a pleasant hop note toward the back. “Good quaffing beer,” says Dornbusch. “Probably the most drinkable. Give you a liter and you can guzzle it.”
Hofbräu Oktoberfest Dornbusch
Wasn’t able to track this one down, but I found some on draught at the venerable Jacob Wirth in the Theater District. Pouring golden and refulgent in its dimpled glass mug, this one is considerably lighter than its brethren. A good deal hoppier, too.
Ayinger Oktober Fest-Märzen
Not one of the official six, but a fine beer nonetheless. It’s got a gorgeous copper color, with some serious toffee-like malt notes. (But no roasted, toasty flavors, which, Dornbusch reminds us, are a no-no in Bavarian brewing.) Its restrained sweetness makes it an ideal food pairing: match it with a rich beef stew on a chilly October night.