NOTE: In the 2015 BJCP Style Guidelines, Oktoberfest Biers have been reclassified into Style 4B Festbier in Category 4 Pale Malty European Lager which contains malty, pale, Pilsner malt-driven German lagers of vollbier to starkbier strength. While malty, they are still well-attenuated, clean lagers, as are most German beers.
The Oktoberfest beer style is no longer only brewed in the spring. Today, they can be brewed any time the brewer wants.
They are no longer aged for 6 months like they once were. To age a beer that long would be an expensive proposition for a brewery these days.
If the beer has the name "Oktoberfest" on the label, it is now aged for 12-16 weeks. If the beer is only called a Märzen, it only has to be aged for 6-8 weeks.
There are other amber lagers that have their own style designation and aren't grouped in the European Amber Lager category, the bocks for example.
These beers are similar but not as malty or malty-sweet as a traditional bock.
Its hallmark is its balance. Even though it is a malty beer, it still has enough hops and a dry finish so it can be drank in quantity. It's all about the drinkability.
This beer is often served in a liter glass and must not be too sweet or cloying and overall should not make you feel "full".
One of the main problems most home brewers have when brewing this style is making the beer to "big". Too big can be a lot of characteristics, like too sweet, too much alcohol, too bitter or "hoppy".
When designing your Festbier recipe, you have to always remember that this beer is balanced but emphasizes malt flavors and aromas.
Most of the malty background notes of bread and toast come from the Munich and Vienna malts in the grist. Adding caramel malt can help by adding a subtle sweetness, but be careful. Too much caramel malt will throw the beer out of style and make it too filling and rich. There should be no caramel flavors at all in this beer.
The most difficult part of brewing this beer and designing a good recipe is keeping a medium body and smooth creamy mouthfeel while still getting full attenuation to finish dry. Be sure to build a good starter with healthy yeast. This is still a clean lager so pay close attention to your temperature control.
Use a good continental Pilsner malt and noble German hops to get as close to the original as possible.
References: Information for this page was adapted from the 2008 and 2015 BJCP Style Guidelines, the page on Oktoberfestbier from The German Beer Institute, The German Beer Portal for North America, and Brewing Classic Styles, 80 Winning Recipes Anyone Can Brew, by Jamil Zainasheff and John J. Palmer.
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