Lagering at home can be intimidating, time consuming, and really, what’s the point when you can buy so many craft lagers on the market today? The point is: You can throw your very own Oktoberfest!
Once again, organizers in Germany decided in May to forgo this year’s Oktoberfest festivities in favor of protecting public health. Yes, you could pick up some German lagers from the store or try the one your local brewery makes. But remember the rules of Oktoberfest: The only beers that can be served at the official event are made by breweries within the city limits of Munich. So, if you’re throwing an Oktoberfest at home, it follows that the only beer served must be brewed within the limits of your own home.
If you brew one now, in September, your beer might even be ready during the official Oktoberfest celebration period in Munich, which traditionally ends on the first Sunday in October. It will certainly be ready while Oktoberfest celebrations are still happening in the U.S. The final stage of lager brewing — holding the beer at a consistent temperature to allow it to mellow, also called lagering — is important and can last for several weeks on a professional scale. But the timeline can be condensed and still produce an excellent beer that you can enjoy as festivities continue on well into October.
Now that the regulations and reasons are ironed out, let’s get to exactly how to make the best Oktoberfest-style lagers at home.
Modern Oktoberfest or Traditional Oktoberfest?
Notice I didn’t say how to brew your best Märzen at home. That’s because when it comes to Oktoberfest, amber-hued, rich, full-bodied Märzen hasn’t been the name of the game since the 1990s. This millenium at Oktoberfest, a lighter- golden more sessionable beer, often referred to as festbier, fills the liter-sized steins at the annual outdoor event.
Both styles showcase the flavors of German malt, in many ways mirroring the flavors of the massive soft pretzels served throughout the tents in Munich. But while festbiers stay light and bready, their darker counterpart Märzen showcases notes of toast, even touches of caramel, like the darker outer shell of the soft pretzel.
The flavors match so well that Steve Breezley, brewmaster at Ska Brewing in Durango, Colo., says part of brewing a great Oktoberfest is to “have a good pretzel ready to enjoy with your finished beer!”
Festbiers have more character from German hops. Even with the malt-forward profile, these beers have a bitter, clean finish as opposed to the Märzen that will have precisely enough hops to prevent the overall impression from being too full and sweet.
“The expectation in the U.S. is contrary to what the style actually is [in Germany] because of early craft examples of the style,” says Jack Hendler, co-owner and brewer at Jack’s Abby Brewing in Framingham, Mass. Jack’s Abby’s Oktoberfest, called Copper Legend, is his attempt “to bridge the modern interpretation, which is a very golden beer, and the more historical version, which is a darker, maltier, more traditional Märzen.”
The choice is yours: Will your Oktoberfest be a golden hoppy lager, or a malty German classic? Or could you perhaps create some fusion of the two? Whatever you decide, three pro brewers have advice for making your at-home festbier a success.
Brewing an Oktoberfest Lager
No matter the particular style, the most important ingredient to your Oktoberfest will be fresh German malt. Both styles (festbier and Märzen) use a lot of German Pilsner malt accented by specialty malts; either Vienna, Munich, or some combination of the two.
Malt has good shelf stability and can be stored over long periods of time (in an airtight container). But with a malt-focused style like Oktoberfest, the freshest flavor will really come through in the final beer. So, for this one, consider skipping your malt in storage and instead make it a point to get some fresh grains.
“Any good Munich malt, or combination of Munich and Vienna, is really all it takes to deliver full, developed malt flavors,” Jack Van Paepeghem, quality manager at Von Trapp Brewing, says. Von Trapp’s Oktoberfest is a take on the traditional Märzen style. He adds, “Most homebrew shops or online carriers have German malts in stock.”
Festbier recipes use German Pilsner and a touch of Vienna and/or Munich malt amounting to about 15 percent of the entire grain bill in the recipe. Many Märzen recipes will use specialty malt, whether Munich, Vienna, a light variety of caramel malt (something in the 20-40L range) for 50 to 70 percent of the grain bill, with the rest of the grist consisting of a German 2-row or German Pilsner malt. But, some recipes use up to 100 percent Vienna or Munich malt to get the signature wholesome bread and toast notes of classic Märzens.
Whichever grains you choose in your recipes, Van Paepeghem and Breezley agree that Weyermann, a malting company based in Bamberg, Germany, is the gold standard for sourcing flavorful German malts.
Breezley specifically uses the Munich I, Munich II, and Caramunich III malts from Weyermann in Ska Brewing’s Märzen-style Oktoberfest, which won a gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) in 2018.
Next up in the Oktoberfest process is selecting the hops to use. Hallertau, Tettnang, and Hersbrucker are classic choices, though any hop with earthy, slightly spicy German Noble hop character, like Sterling or Hersbruker, will work here. Even in the hoppiest of festbiers, hoppiness takes a back seat to maltiness and drinkability in Oktoberfest styles.
There are some American brewers that put a hoppier twist on their Oktoberfest. The Von Trapp Oktoberfest uses Hallertau, Perle, and Tettnang hops, and a final technique: “We add a touch of hops at flame out to contribute some background aromatics to complement the toasty malt flavors,” Van Paepeghem says.
Making Decoction Decisions
Many of the beers served at Oktoberfest in Munich use a traditional mashing style called decoction. This method requires about a third of the mash to be removed and boiled in a separate container while the rest of the mash is held at a consistent temperature. The boiled mash is then added back to the mash tun to increase the overall mash temperature. Each time the portion of the mash is removed, boiled, and returned, it is considered a “step.”
Historically, Oktoberfest beers used triple decoction, or three steps. But because of the energy and time requirements to do this, some modern decoction mashes use only one or two steps.
There was a time when rustic malts and rudimentary technology required decoction mashing to fully release malt sugars and raise the mash temperature. Now, decoction mashing is done mostly as a nod to tradition, though many brewers insist it does impact flavor because of Maillard reactions and melanoidin creation in the boiled portion of the mash.
Hendler is one of those brewers. “Oktoberfest is one of those styles where you’re really looking for an intense malty flavor,” he says. “And decoction is a great way to do that without getting the really heavy sweetness that you would get from specialty malt.”
The maltiness he’s referring to comes from those Maillard reactions that produce flavors in the range of nutty, biscuity, toasty, and even toffy.
For the same reasons pro brewers may avoid a decoction mash, homebrewers must consider the time and energy necessary for building decoction into your recipe. Hendler calls it “an exercise in endurance.”
Once removed, the small portion of the mash that is being boiled must be stirred vigorously and constantly to avoid scorching.
“If you have some friends you can make stir that pot and give you a break, maybe decoction is a good thing to attempt,” he adds.
Another reason for decoction is the overall impact on the final beer drinkability. The goal of a well-crafted Oktobersfest is to be able to drink liter after liter of it (responsibly, of course) in the famed Munich tents without feeling full or bloated. That drinkability is impacted by the attenuation of the beer (the measure of how much sugar is converted into alcohol and carbon dioxide by the yeast).
“It’s always that fine balance of malt intensity and attenuation,” says Hendler. Generally, for a beer to taste full and malty, the final attenuation needs to be a bit lower with a sweeter beer to get those flavors, he says. “But that’s where decoction helps you. You can still get the very high attenuations, but have that perceived sweetness through melanoidin creation.”
If you don’t have the extra time, space, and energy required to perform a decoction mash at home, Weyermann makes a particular malt called Melanoidin malt that mimics these decoction-driven flavors. It is sometimes referred to as “Super Munich” because it has the enzymatic qualities of Munich malt with the addition of caramelized, rich melanoidin flavors.
How Much Lagering Does a Lager Really Need?
When it comes to lagering, Breezley says, “Lagering helps a good beer get better, but doesn’t make a bad beer good.”
He says that during lagering there is a decrease in sulfur compounds and some esters, which leads to more noticeable malt character in the final beer. And while he thinks a four-week lager conditioning would be ideal, ingredients, fermentation, and healthy yeast all have more impact on the quality of the final beer than time in the cellar.
Hendler says that the main reason professional brewers lager for longer periods (usually four weeks but sometimes six weeks or longer) is that they are trying to capture natural carbonation from fermentation in the final beer. After the initial fermentation when sulfur and other undesirable compounds are blown off, brewers will close the fermentation and allow the slow lager fermentation to create all of the carbon dioxide in the final beer.
“It won’t hurt the beer to sit and lager for a month. But probably, two weeks would be sufficient if [you’re] going to force carbonate,” Hendler says.
Most of the smoothing of flavors that lagering is known for happens in the first days or weeks of conditioning; and while extended conditioning might enhance this, it is with diminishing returns.
Now it’s time to get to brewing ahead of your own at-home Oktoberfest. Will the beer served as your main event be like the modern golden sparkling lagers? A nod to the traditional toasty amber beers of Oktoberfests past? Or somewhere in between? That’s up to you, festival organizer!