I know, I know—it’s May and September seems a long way off, but believe it or not we’re already behind schedule producing this fall’s Oktoberfest! Historically, this amber German lager (though the family of Viennese co-inventor Anton Dreher would probably want me to say “Austro-German lager”) was brewed starting in March because beers brewed in warmer weather tended to be less desirable. When these beers were broken out of the caves where they’d spent the hot summer months and drunk in the fall, they were clean, bright, and exhibited a well-rounded malt flavor.
While we now know why the warm-weather versions failed and can make adjustments (thank you, temp controller and lager yeast), there’s still value in following the aging regimen of our German (Austrian!) forebears. A few simple tips and a deceptively simple recipe are all you need to produce beer worthy of Crown Prince Ludwig and his bride. You’ll be hosting your own Oktoberfest commemoration before you know it…if you’re willing to wait for it.
Oktoberfest beers exhibit one character above all else: malt. Hops play a supporting role and should never poke their heads around the stage curtain. Oktoberfest is a low- to-medium strength lager at 5–6 percent ABV, usually amber in color (though paler and darker versions exist) with a complex array of malt flavors on display.
Having said that, there are two important caveats: one, it should not be “caramel-y”—this is not an excuse to let your diacetyl run wild—and two, despite its malty nature, it should not be sweet. This beer is designed to be consumed in substantial quantities, and that will never be possible if it doesn’t finish nice and dry! American examples tend toward the more-toasty, which makes them perfect for those cool fall evenings. Hopping is for balance only, and bitterness should be moderate with no (or very little) hops flavor and aroma. And given their extended aging, lagers should be beautiful, brilliantly clear, jewel-tone beers. How do we get there?
“Complex” doesn’t have to mean “complicated,” and you can achieve malt complexity in this beer without a grist bill as long as your alpenhorn. Oktoberfest was the first lager I ever made, and I was sure that I’d gone too simple with it. I was wrong. All you need are two base malts and one specialty malt. Your base malts will be Munich and…not Pilsner. I mean, you can use Pils (most do), but I frankly find that it lends a sweetness to the flavor that you’re always working against. Instead, I use a 50/50 blend of Munich and Maris Otter. And for the specialty malt, about 8 percent of the total grist is a good British Medium Crystal (45–50L). The Maris Otter adds a great complementary bready/biscuit note to the beer and meshes with the higher-kilned Munich malt beautifully. The “middle crystal” adds a slightly deeper brown sugar aroma without adding noticeable sweetness.
If you go the Pils malt route, you might find that it’s necessary to drop in plenty of lighter character malts and crystals (Victory, Crystal 10, Crystal 40, Crystal 60) to build complexity. However, those end up adding to the sweetness problem inherent in the Pilsner malt, which then needs more bitterness to counteract. For me, simpler is always better.
Hops? Nothing to it—25 IBUs of any hops added at the start of the boil. If you want to be authentic, feel free to use a German variety, but not much (if any) of the flavor will persist. I use Nugget, for what it’s worth.
Yeast selection does matter, though. I find that the Wyeast 2206 Bavarian Lager strain preserves the full malty flavor, while also attenuating fully—so long as you take care to manage your fermentation effectively! White Labs WLP820 Oktoberfest Lager Yeast should give you comparable results. Which brings us to…
Producing good lager is challenging—say whatever you want about the folks at the macro breweries, many of them know how to drive a clean fermentation in those low-taste lagers. You’ll obviously want to start with a healthy pitch rate and over time you can work out just how far back you can cut it, but for the first few attempts, err on the side of “more yeast.”
Beyond that, producing a good Oktoberfest is all fermentation control. Start cool at about 50°F (10°C), and hold there for the first forty-eight hours. For every day thereafter, increase your temperature by 1°F (about 0.5°C) for ten days. After it’s been in the fermentor for twelve days, it should be at a steady 60°F (15.5°C). Activity in the airlock should be low (but not absent). At that point, I let that sucker free rise to the warmest temperature I can find in my brewery. Why? To ensure that my yeast goes back and does a healthy diacetyl cleanup and scrounges up all remaining fermentable sugars. I give the beer an additional nine days (now we’re at three weeks in the fermentor), then cold-crash to near-freezing to begin the clearing process. What remains should be a fully attenuated, malt-complex, fairly bitter, drinkable dry beer. All it needs now is carbonation and time.
Whether you bottle condition or keg, there’s no need to leave this beer in the fermentor while it conditions. Package as you usually would (if you’re bottle conditioning, raise the temperature after bottling back to room temperature to encourage appropriate bottle fermentation), then place it in a dark, cold corner for at least six weeks.
I find that Oktoberfest hits its stride at about twelve weeks, and if you’ve produced a nice, clean (non-contaminated) beer, you can count on the flavor being stable for more than six months. Since hops play a supporting role, the malty nature only becomes more complex and pronounced as it ages. As you approach a year (why do you still have any left?), you’ll start to notice a more toffee-like flavor, rather than bready/toasty, and at that point it’s time to brew a fresh batch!
This is a great style and a great “first lager” if you’ve never done one before. I now brew it every June, and Jungfrau Oktoberfest is a popular option at our late-summer and early-fall parties. As for the British malts…well, I won’t tell if you don’t! Good luck, manage that fermentation, and Prost!
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