Maybe it's because the United States only imports foreign holidays that involve a lot of drinking. Maybe it's because there's now a direct flight between Denver and Munich, Germany. Or maybe it's because craft-beer drinkers are tired of relying on pumpkin brews for their seasonal fall treats. Whatever the reason, local craft breweries have upped their game when it comes to Oktoberfest-style lagers, known as Märzen beers.
Starting this weekend and running through early October, dozens of breweries in Colorado will host Oktoberfest parties, and many more will tap their own version of a Märzen lager. In fact, with a little research and some calendar planning, a crafty craft lover could try a new one at a new location every day for a good six weeks — without a single repeat and without every having to change out of their lederhosen or dirndl.
That's a big change from just two or three years ago, when locally made Oktoberfest beers were relatively hard to find amid the wash of pumpkin beers hitting taps and shelves.
"Oktoberfest was one of our first seasonal styles, and the festival was our first event," says Russell Fruits, vice president of Grimm Brothers Brewhouse, which opened in Loveland in 2010 with a focus on German-style beers. "In the last eight years, we've seen every community and brewery want to pull off an Oktoberfest."
"It's a great style of beer that crosses all demographics," says Kevin DeLange, the co-owner of Aurora's Dry Dock Brewing, which began canning its Märzen beer, called Docktoberfest, in 2016. "From people just getting into craft beer to the most pretentious beer snobs, that style, done well, has appeal to everyone. It also has credibility for beer aficionados who understand how difficult it is to make."
That last point is part of what makes this trend notable. In nineteenth-century Germany, before refrigeration, Märzen beers were brewed in March (thus the name), stored in caves over the summer and served in the fall at the traditional sixteen-day Bavarian celebration of Oktoberfest that began in 1810. Like most other German beer styles — from helles to bock, dunkel to pilsner — Märzens are lagers, meaning they are fermented differently than ales using different kinds of yeast, different temperatures and different techniques.
And like other lagers, Märzens take up to six weeks to make. Ales, on the other hand, can go from the kettle to the tap in a third of the time, making them more economically sensible for breweries that may not want to dedicate space and time to a lager when they could be brewing and selling three times as much ale.
"Every year, we debate whether or not to do it," DeLange says. This year, Dry Dock squeezed in 300 barrels of Docktoberfest, "tying up capacity all summer long. In the six weeks it takes to brew one batch, we could have made three ambers. It's a big commitment for us, but it is one of our favorite styles, and we are proud of it."
Delange points out that Dry Dock had been making a smaller amount of Docktoberfest for years before the company began canning. "We would go through ten barrels in a day," he says. "We would sell everything we made."
Bart Watson, economist for the Brewers Association in Boulder, says it's hard to gather sales data for Oktoberfest beers because they get lumped in with other fall seasonals, like pumpkin beers. "I’d agree that we’ve seen an upswing in popularity in recent years, with some of that being a re-balancing with pumpkin beers, but it’s hard to quantify. Some of that is a general upswing in craft lagers as brewers have more capacity available and as more craft brewers make more headway in the lager market."
Anecdotal evidence backs that up. Great Divide changed the name of its Hoss Rye lager to the more market-savvy Hoss Oktoberfest Lager last year because the beer was based on the Märzen style and moved to a fall seasonal. River North Brewery, known for its Belgian styles, plans to try an Oktoberfest lager for the first time this year — and to hold an Oktoberfest party. Fiction Beer Company will also try its hand at the style.
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And these beers (see a rundown of some of them below) are hitting the market earlier and earlier. Like pumpkin beers, they are acutely tied to a season: No one is going to buy either style in November, Delange says. As a result, it's important to get them into the market early, in August, a sales technique — called seasonal creep — that angers people who are still focused on summer. "We know it's early, but we have to do it," he adds. "You can't have it on the shelves in November, because consumers move on to winter seasonals."
Looking to try some Oktoberfest lagers? Odell, Great Divide, Prost, Dry Dock, Grimm Brothers, Boulder Beer and Left Hand Brewing all package their own versions of the style.
There are also dozens of other Märzens on tap at breweries across the state, including: Grist, Uturn BBQ, Station 26, Comrade, Bierstadt Lagerhaus, Ratio Beerworks, Halfpenny, Locavore, Lost Highway, River North, Peak to Peak Tap & Brew, Lone Tree Brewing, Fiction, Seedstock, 4 Noses, Wibby, Verboten and Upslope.
Colorado lost two of its best examples of the style in the past year. Fort Collins Brewery, which won gold for the style at the Great American Beer Festival in 2016, was sold and its beers discontinued in June, while Avery Brewing inexplicably stopped making its imperial Oktoberfest beer, the Kaiser, which was a true standout.