Although it seems better-suited to an autumnal event, the traditional Oktoberfest beer style is, surprisingly, not actually representative of the beer actually served at Munich’s Oktoberfest! That would be Festbier, a related but definitely distinct style. What’s even more interesting is that this is a relatively recent innovation, with the richer amber lager yielding to a lighter blonde to better accommodate the by-the-litre consumption that Oktoberfest attendees in Munich were more prone to. In this case, American breweries are actually making the “traditional” beer, while the Germans are the innovators. Up is down. Black is white. Heck, did you know that Oktoberfest isn’t even in October anymore? But I digress: let’s talk about how to make this thing.
When discussing Festbier, it’s actually better to start with Helles Bock (Maibock) than with Oktoberfest. The style guidelines describe fairly similar beers, except that Festbier is lower in gravity and features a bit more hops flavor and aroma. Both are pale lagers with a clear Pilsner malt biscuit bent, along with some additional toasted malt flavors in support. While the guidelines describe it as a patently malt-forward beer, I’ve enjoyed the same Hofbrau Festbier poured on the Theresienwiese (just on this—wrong—side of the Atlantic), and I can personally vouch for its much-greater-than-expected floral hops nose and flavor, which was all the more surprising given its long journey. It comes across nearly as hoppy as German Pilsner but without the accompanying bitterness, and my recipe reflects that impression. It is also brilliantly, aggressively clean, with nary an ester or phenol or ketone to be found. You should be able to drink a stein of this and ask for another, but don’t let its color fool you: there’s still a decent amount of ethanol behind it!
I started with my Maibock recipe here, and it proved highly adaptable. I was shooting for the same basic impression, just a bit lighter in color, flavor, and gravity. Base malts constitute the bulk of the grist, with 9 pounds (4.1 kg) of Pilsner malt and 1 pound (454 g) of Munich malt. To that I add just 8 ounces (227 g) of Victory malt. The resulting malt character is nice and bready, but still pleasantly light in flavor and color, with a target gravity of right around 1.056.
The hops in this recipe are plentiful . . . and simple. You’ll need 3 ounces (85 g) of Hallertau Mittelfruh, adding half at 30 minutes and the other half at 5 minutes. The floral and slightly fruity) aroma and flavor should be distinctly noticeable against the malt background, with neither being especially dominant. These additions should yield about 20 IBUs, but if not (because you have a lower-alpha-acid batch), I wouldn’t go chasing for the additional IBUs. Anything higher than 15 IBUs should be fine. I know it seems like a lot for a German lager, but it’s hard to go overboard with noble hops, especially since this is a beer that will be subject to extended aging.
Finally, Munich Lager yeast from either Wyeast or White Labs (2308 and WLP838, respectively) will ensure a clean and malt-rounding fermentation. Both are relatively low flavor-producers, and we’re going to be fermenting low and slow to minimize any detectable fermentation character.
This beer, maybe more than some others, is made in the fermentor. Mash and boil as usual, then chill and transfer to your favorite vessel. Aerate well (this is a great time to use a direct dose of oxygen through a sintered stone, if you’ve been looking for an excuse to buy one!) and then pitch the yeast, with a target fermentation temperature of 50°F (10°C). Take your time about it—quick lagering is all well and good, but this isn’t the beer for it. After about 10 days, bump up the temperature slightly (54°F/12°C or so), and wait another few days. At the 2-week mark, warm to 65°F (18°C) and hold for 2 days. What this will do is minimize diacetyl and sulfur production and/or retention, yielding a squeaky-clean pale lager.
All that’s left after that is to cold-crash and lager, either in the package or in the fermentor. In either case, don’t go near this beer for 6 solid weeks. This is another reason to be aggressive with the hopping: it will ensure that your flowery lager survives the lagering timeline! Carbonate to about 2.25 volumes of CO2, and you’re good to go. That’s a bit low, but I think it improves the drinkability; if you disagree, go ahead and bump it up to 2.5.
Start thinking about brewing this one now to give yourself time to have it ready for your favorite Oktoberfest party. If you’re a traditionalist, go ahead and brew the Oktoberfest style as well, and let your friends decide which is better! Or start with the Festbier in the warmer afternoon sun and transition to the Amber in the cool of the evening. In any case, you’ll be glad you were thinking about and brewing this beer in the dog days of summer.