Any Oktoberfest celebration worth its malt will have plenty of German beer on tap.
Spaten. Hacker-Pschorr. Hofbrau. Anything with a lot of hard sounds and, preferably, umlauts, will do.
But while hoisting weighty steins of amber German lager might be the authentic way to celebrate the autumn beer festival that will unfold at dozens of bars and restaurants in the coming weeks, the smarter approach might be rejoicing with beer made closer to home.
Marzen beer — also known as Oktoberfest — is made by nearly two dozen Chicago-area breweries. Some are made in abundance and meant to last for weeks on bar taps and store shelves. Others were brewed in small enough quantities only to supply an Oktoberfest party.
But what the local marzens have in common — and what often makes them a better bet than an authentic German beer — is the same trait that usually makes drinking local a good bet.
"It's all about freshness," said Adam Hebert, co-owner of The Radler, a Logan Square German-inspired beer hall. "The Spaten here will never be as fresh because it has to travel. To get high quality, we've been huge advocates of getting local beers on draft for Oktoberfest."
So when The Radler turns over all 24 taps to marzen beer for its Oktoberfest party Oct. 17, there will be as many local versions as German. The local brews will come from Atlas Brewing, Revolution Brewing, Baderbrau Brewing and Flesk Brewing, plus a marzen from St. Louis' Urban Chestnut Brewing (which could be considered local alongside the German beers).
The German marzens on tap will be a relatively well-respected lot: Ayinger, Hacker-Pschorr, Warsteiner and Spaten. Though Hebert said he is a fan of them all, he'll be pushing the local brews, especially among the people who seem to default to the German brands.
"A lot of people who come in here know what they like from a German standpoint," Hebert said. "The next question is usually, 'What would you like next?' and we can point them in the direction of something locally. Six to eight times out of 10, they're like, 'Holy crap,' to the local beer. When you taste them side by side, you can't even compare it."
Marzen is a wonderful beer style that's generally available in September and October, and, as effectively as any annual release, evokes a change of season. It is appropriately hearty for fall but without being heavy. It's easy to drink but interesting. Done well, it evokes soft flavors of warm bread and dried fruit, which allows it to pair expertly with most food. But it also drinks well on its own. Marzen is as perfect as seasonal beer drinking gets.
The increasing abundance of small American breweries — up to a total of nearly 3,500 according to the Colorado-based Brewers Association — has allowed American beer drinkers to make many tasty discoveries in recent years. Though India pale ale and bourbon barrel-aged stout get most of the attention, the revival of American brewing has also revealed subtler joys — like the taste of fresh marzen. A generation ago, options were largely restricted to German imports.
Among the local leaders is Revolution Brewing, which has doubled production of its Oktoberfest each of the past three years. Josh Deth, founder of that brewery, called the beer a fairly faithful interpretation of the style, relying exclusively on German malt and hops. It's the top seller at the Revolution brewpub for a few weeks each fall, Deth said.
Though highly hopped beers are most often associated with the need for freshness, subtle degradation occurs over time with maltier beers, like marzen, too. Deth said that became clear after he tasted German-made marzen at Oktoberfest in Munich in 2013.
"They'll always taste better in Germany than after being on a warm boat," he said. "The caramel-sweet flavors can change over time and get a papery oxidation."
One of the most sought-after local marzens is made by Metropolitan Brewing, which releases just enough Afterburner that it disappears in October.
"Come Nov. 1, it's difficult to convince people to buy any more Oktoberfest," said Tracy Hurst, Metropolitan's president and co-founder.
While she agreed that drinking fresh marzen is the best approach to enjoying the season, she said the notion is simply part of a larger truth.
"No matter what beer you're drinking, she said, "you're better off drinking what's fresh."
Hoist a few
Dozens of bars and restaurants will host Oktoberfest celebrations in the coming weeks. Keep an eye out for these local marzen beers, available in bottles or cans as well as on draft, ranked in our order of preference by stein, with four steins the highest:
Afterburner/Metropolitan Brewing The king of the local marzen. Incredible depth and body. Toasty, with a long bready finish. An ideal accompaniment to a meal. (6.1 percent alcohol; 12-ounce bottles) 4 steins
Oktoberfest/Revolution Brewing Because it sold so briskly last year, Revolution scaled up Oktoberfest production this year with no drop-off in quality. Nutty but with a lightly sweet and easy-drinking finish. (5.7 percent; 12-ounce cans) 3.5 steins
Atom Smasher/Two Brothers Brewing The heartiest and booziest of the local marzens, and best had by the fire or with a meal. (7.7 percent; 12-ounce bottles) 3.5 steins
Lager Town/Half Acre Beer Co. Balanced and middle-of-the-road. A dry, yeasty and bready nose with touches of light dried fruit that increases as the beer warms. Nice body and a touch silky. (6 percent; 22-ounce bottles) 3 steins
Oktoberfest/Goose Island Beer Co. An asterisk next to this one because the beer is made at an Anheuser-Busch plant in Baldwinsville, N.Y., but Goose says the recipe was pioneered at its Chicago brewery. Regardless, this is a nicely balanced take on the style. Very easy drinking. (6.4 percent; 12-ounce bottles) 2.5 steins
Oktoberfest/Baderbrau A bit thin but perfectly fine for the tailgate. Contract brewed in Wisconsin, but Baderbrau is getting close to opening its South Loop brewery; looking forward to tasting its hands-on version of this beer in 2016. (5.1 percent; 12-ounce bottles) 2 steins
Draft-only versions include:
Atlas Brewing, Breakroom Brewery, BuckleDown Brewing, Crystal Lake Brewing, Dryhop Brewers, ExitStrategy Brewing, Flesk Brewing, Lake Effect Brewing, Pollyanna Brewing, Rock Bottom Restaurant and Brewery (Chicago), Scorched Earth Brewing and Solemn Oath Brewery. Check with breweries for availability.
Note: Three Floyds Brewing's Munsterfest has not been released, and bottles of Church Street Brewing marzen are mostly gone from the market.