It's the most wonderful time of the year. For beer.
While the Germans they do some things extraordinarily well. Among them is the annual celebration each fall called Oktoberfest, in which they dance, sing, eat tons of sausages, and most importantly, drink stein after stein of flavorful, malty lagers known as Marzen beer.
Marzen, which has its origins in Bavaria, was traditionally brewed in the spring (Marzen, after all, is German for March), aged in cellars and brought out in late summer, just in time for annual beer festivals.
The highly drinkable, full-bodied lagers range in color from pale gold to deep amber and are characterized by a pronounced bready sweetness and subtle bitterness. The best invoke crisp late-summer, early-fall afternoons, and offer the perfect antidote to a summer spent imbibing watered-down domestic lagers and hop-heavy pale ales and IPAs.
The tradition lives on in Germany, where old guard brewers like Ayinger, Spaten, Hacker-Pschorr and Hofbrau churn out fest beers each fall, all of which have long been available on this side of the Atlantic. Most of it, though, is consumed at German beer festivals, the largest of which, Munich's Oktoberfest, consistently draws more than 5 million visitors over two weeks in late September and early October.
While we've never been lucky enough to make the Oktoberfest pilgrimage and quaff the fresh beer at its source, the good news is that the tradition has increasingly spread stateside.
Choose a weekend between now and Halloween and you'll be hard-pressed to find a day when a handful of local bars, restaurants or breweries aren't holding Oktoberfest celebrations across the city. The better news: Many of these gatherings are pouring local beer as a growing number of local and national craft brewers are testing their hands at the distinct style, most with admirable results.
This year, we found nearly two dozen U.S.-produced Marzens at local liquor stores and grocers. We tested them against two controls: Oktoberfest beers from Spaten and Ayinger, both brewed in Munich, or Munchen if you want to stay within the German theme.
Here's a list of our favorites, along with others we tasted and liked.
THE BEST (in order)
Metropolitan Brewing Afterburner (Chicago)
There's something going on here that's more complex and interesting than any of the others. Chicago's best lager-maker's Marzen is deep amber in color and has hints of tobacco, leather and chocolate on the nose. It's full-bodied but light enough to drink in quantity and tastes a bit like lightly toasted, fresh-baked bread. Despite the complexity, it's smooth and finishes long and with a hint of balanced bitterness. Because the brewery produces this in limited quantities each fall, the unofficial rule of thumb here is: If you see it, you buy it. (6.1 percent alcohol by volume, 12-oz. bottles)
Great Lakes Brewing Oktoberfest (Cleveland, Ohio)
Pulled directly from the tasting notes: This Marzen makes me happy. The nose explodes with dried apple, mingled with toffee and fall spices, bringing out subtle woodsy flavors backed by a sweet bready backbone. Great Lakes amped up the ABV on this monster to 6.5%, which is immediately noticeable with the first few drinks. Its creamy, syrupy body is reminiscent of a double IPA, but instead of a smack of hops and bitterness, you're treated to robust malty flavors that warm the cockles. (6.5% ABV, 12-oz. bottles)
Sierra Nevada Oktoberfest (Chico, Calif.)
Among American breweries making Marzens this year, Sierra Nevada's is perhaps the most true-to-style. Brewed in collaboration with Brauhaus Riegele of Augsburg, Germany, this Oktoberfest is lively and refreshing. Brilliantly clear golden in color with a hint of aromatic hops on the nose, the beer is incredibly well balanced and tastes a bit like a traditional German helles lager with just a touch of added sweetness and a fuller body. Finishes crisp. Yum. (6.0% ABV, 12-oz. bottles)
Two Brothers Brewing Atom-Smasher (Warrenville)
This boozy, barrel aged offering from Two Brothers is probably best suited for cold-weather drinking. Oak aging is apparent on the nose, which lends a leathery, nutty scent that soon makes way for overripe apples and perhaps a touch of stone fruit. But what shines through the most in this beer is alcohol. Clocking in at a dangerous 7.7%, Atom-Smasher is a robust, medium-bodied Marzen with heavily caramelized malt and just a touch of bitterness. (7.7% ABV, 12-oz. bottles.)
Capital Brewery Oktoberfest (Madison, Wisc.)
Capital's Oktoberfest came out of nowhere as the surprise unofficial office tasting favorite. Pours a clear pale orange/copper with an aroma of toasted bread, ripe apples and has a sweet, caramel malt flavor offset by mildly spicy noble hops. Supremely balanced and smooth, this is an easy drinking, middle-of-the-road offering that serves to please most palates. (5.5% ABV, 12-oz. bottles)
Revolution Oktoberfest (Chicago)
If this were a blind tasting, my guess is that the majority of tasters familiar with Revolution's portfolio would be able to identify the brewery right away. Thinner and lighter in color than many of its Marzen competitors, Revolution's offering is still nutty and sweet, but bright, grassy hops take over toward the end. True to its intent, this is the kind of brew you could drink all afternoon. (5.7% ABV, 12-oz. cans)
THE REST (in alphabetical order)
Baderbrau Oktoberfest (Chicago/Stevens Point, Wisc.)
Put this next to Berghoff's Marzen and you'll have a bit of a challenge telling the two apart. It's a bit more nutty and woodsy, but sugar carries the flavor. Nicely carbonated and medium-bodied, it's still pretty quaffable, but we couldn't shake the feeling that we were drinking a malted-up Budweiser. (5.1% ABV, 12-oz. bottles)
Berghoff Oktoberfest (Chicago/Stevens Point, Wisc.)
Another light-bodied Marzen here, lacking much complexity or character. Most-forward taste is syrupy sugar with some mild herbal, fruity notes and a touch of metallic. (5.6% ABV, 12-oz. bottles)
Goose Island Oktoberfest (Chicago/Baldwinsville, N.Y.)
Robust caramel malts rule the day for Goose's 2015 Oktoberfest, offering hints of dried apricot and fall spices. Heavier and boozier than most, it's got a pleasant bitterness to balance all that sweet, and it finishes rather dry. Perfect for pairing with spicy food. (6.4% ABV, 12-oz. bottles)
Leinenkugel's Oktoberfest (Milwaukee, Wisc.)
Let's start with the positives: Leine's version opens with a pleasant aroma filled with honey, light caramel and a hint of nuttiness and black pepper. It goes down easy and finishes dry. But we found the beer a bit thin and watery with some slightly off-putting metallic notes. (5.1% ABV, 12-oz. bottles)
New Glarus Brewing Staghorn (New Glarus, Wisc.)
OK, it's cheating a bit to include New Glarus because it's distributed only in Wisconsin, but we know plenty of folks who make cross-border beer runs. Like most of this brewery's beers, the Staghorn stands out for its flat-out drinkability. The most mild-tasting Marzen of the bunch. (6.25% ABV, 12-oz. bottles)