The Best of Octoberfest
Six local versions of Spaten's Octoberfest, the classic beer that celebrates the autumn harvest season.
Since 1810 Germans have celebrated the autumn harvest in Munich with an annual 16-day festival of beer and food that runs from the middle of September into the first weekend of October. This festival is known around the world as Oktoberfest and is the world’s largest annual fun fair. It has also spawned a unique style of Bavarian beer by the same name. Wisconsin has a proud German heritage and every year from Lacrosse to Milwaukee, Wisconsinites pay tribute to ‘das Vaterland’ with annual Oktoberfest celebrations of our own.
In addition, many of Wisconsin’s microbreweries have their own version of the famed Oktoberfest lager, typically sold only in the fall season. Now the Bavarians are very particular about their Oktoberfest beers. So serious that only nine beers of the Märzen style are served at Munich’s annual celebration. One of those beers is Spaten’s Oktoberfestbier. This particular Bavarian brew will be our standard in judging Wisconsin’s versions.
Origin: Munich, Germany
Alcohol By Volume: 5.9%
Thoughts: Sporting a creamy white head, rich golden hue, and a prominent malt aroma, this beer represents Germany. At the traditional room temperature, the beer drinks smooth and features a tantalizing flavor made up of Munich, pale, and caramel malts. Together the two malts give the beer a sweet, grainy flavor that balances the bittering hops quite well.
Brewery: Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Company
Origin: Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin
Thoughts: With a creamy white head, deep red-gold color, and malty aroma, Leine’s Oktoberfest might easily be mistaken for Spaten. The flavor is where the similarities end. Leinenkugel’s features bittersweet malty flavor like its German cousin but with a bit more bitterness. The increased bitterness comes from four hops being used in the recipe, rather than just the two staples, Hellertau and Tettnang. Regardless, the extra bitterness doesn’t bring much to the table aside from an extra sensation on your palate. Otherwise, Leinenkugel’s Oktoberfest is almost identical to Spaten’s, for it has a rich reddish-gold color, an inviting grainy aroma, and the right balance between sweet and bitter.
Brewery: New Glarus Brewing Company
Origin: New Glarus, Wisconsin
Thoughts: Deep gold in hue, creamy white head, but a weak, grainy aroma, Staghorn has a little trouble out of the gate from bottle to glass. But what it lacks in aroma is countered by a sweet, malty, and perfectly hopped Märzen flavor with a velvety mouth feel. Despite having the highest ABV on the list, Staghorn is easy on the bitterness and quite flavorful. Finishing smooth, it is highly drinkable and arguably one of the best Oktoberfest style beers in Wisconsin.
Brewery: Steven’s Point Brewery
Origin: Steven’s Point, Wisconsin
Thoughts: Featuring a creamy white head and rich reddish-gold color, this beer is spot on visually. Unlike Spaten, however, Point lacks a prominent grainy aroma. Flavor-wise, it does a better job in terms of drinkability, for the beer is just as smooth as its German relative, but features a much sweeter flavor and more hop character. In addition, the beer is a bit bitterer, possibly owing to additional hops being used in the brewing process. However, when tasted side by side, it is clear that differing or additional hops were used in the two beers. Regardless, Point’s Oktoberfest matches up to Spaten almost perfectly and your choice may depend on how much sweetness is preferred in your Märzen.
Brewery: Lakefront Brewery
Origin: Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Thoughts: With a creamy white head, deep red-gold color, and malty aroma, Lakefront’s Oktoberfest is the perfect example of true to origins Märzen. The flavor is bittersweet, light on the hops and prominent in malty flavor; not too sweet, not too bitter. Though brewed in Milwaukee, meaning it will never see Oktoberfest in Munich, Lakefront’s brew is almost identical to the famed German brew and is easily one of the best in the state.
Brewery: Milwaukee Brewing Company
Origin: Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Thoughts: Like many of its Wisconsin cousins, MKE’s Oktoberfest features a creamy, though not very long lasting, white head, deep reddish-gold hue, and a sweet and malty aroma. As the name implies, this particular Märzen is high on the hops, making for a bitter beer that is sure to please the IPA crowd, while not alienating Oktoberfest purists by being overly hoppy. The flavor is mildly malty and bittersweet, and finishes crisp and dry. But the malty flavor expected of a Märzen is unfortunately overshadowed by the hops.
Brewery: Sprecher Brewing Company
Origin: Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Color: Deep Red
Thoughts: Featuring a creamy white head, deep red hue, and mild grainy aroma, Sprecher is one of the rogues in the bunch. While the deep red color might seem like an outlier terms of adhering to the tradition, since most Bavarian märzens are golden, the style has been known to range from a pale yellow to deep red and even brown, giving brewers room to experiment with their Oktoberfest brew. The color simply indicates that one type of malt was used in a larger ratio than another. In this case, caramel was the dominant malt. Therefore, Sprecher’s take on the Märzen style is true to its German origins, however, it doesn’t compare to Spaten, for the color is much darker and the aroma is significantly milder. In terms of flavor, however, Sprecher is spot on, if not superior, for when tasted side by side, each beer exhibits a mild, bittersweet flavor with a hoppy aftertaste. But due to differing hops, Sprecher has a slightly sour, hoppy aftertaste, while Spaten features a clean, neutral finish.
After comparing these six Wisconsin Oktoberfest lagers to the official Munich Oktoberfest beer by Spaten, one thing can be concluded: Wisconsin’s German heritage runs deep. Each one of the beers on this list was almost identical to Spaten or very close. Some were sweeter and others were bitterer than the Munich legend, but all were fine tributes to the famous German harvest season beer.