Each year as Summer turns to Fall during the last two weeks of September through the first weekend of October on the Theresienwiese in Munich since 1810, Oktoberfest has taken place. It wasn’t until 1872 that Spaten brewery named a beer Oktoberfeistbier for the even. This first Oktoberfeistbier was probably a high abv bock brewed in 1872 by Spaten brewery and stayed popular at the event until World War I. Since then the strength of the beer has lessened and the color has lightened to its current version. This version has been codified in German law since 1990. There are also only six Munich breweries legally allowed to brew a beer called Oktoberfeistbier: Augustiner, Hacker-Pschorr, Hofbrauhaus, Lowenbrau, Paulener, and Spaten. (Thanks to The Oxford Companion To Beer for all that.)
German Oktoberfeistbiers are lighter in color and mouthfeel then their American cousins. That is what makes this year’s Sierra Nevada Oktoberfest brewed in collaboration with Mahrs Brau in Bamberg.
When you pour it into the glass it is immediately apparent that this is not the same as other American versions of oktoberfeistbier. It is a much lighter deep golden color instead of the usual amber color that American versions tend toward. The lagering also makes this beer crystal clear with a nice carbonation that creates a thin but persistent head. The aroma is nice and biscuity sweet balanced with a good amount of German hops.
The mouthfeel is light, again in comparison to an American version, and it has a slight slickness on the tongue. Like all beers in the marzen, Vienna lager, oktoberfeistbier family this is a wonderfully malty and sweet beer on the front of end of its taste with a good spicy hop bitterness on the back end to keep it balanced. However, it still manages to have a light mouthfeel and taste. Combined with its relatively low abv, the 2016 Sierra Nevada Oktoberfest makes a good easy drinker.
That is what makes this beer interesting. It combines two things that are often on opposite sides of beer taste and flavor: maltiness and lightness. Most malty beers are at least a medium mouthfeel. Most beer with a lighter mouthfeel tend more towards crispness. It is a hard balance to pull off successfully.
German oktoberfeistbiers are also interesting as a look at style development. As most styles evolve over time they evolve up (mass produced American pilsners being a notable exception) meaning they get darker, get higher in ABV, get hoppier. In this case, the Oktoberfeistbier style has evolved down over time. The first version was a higher abv, darker bock. The version that was codified into German law in 1990 is lighter and lower in abv then it has been at any point in its history and is certainly lighter than its American cousins.
Compare that with the IPA in England where English brewers have slowly adopted a more American style approach to IPAs, i.e. hoppiness. While there as still many brewers making traditional English style IPAs both in England and the US, the trend for the style is usually darker and almost always danker. Leave it to the Germans to not only hue towards tradition, but to then codify that tradition in its laws.