Summer lurches off the stage, as cooler nights announce the coming of fall. For beer drinkers, that also means the arrival of Oktoberfest – an annual celebration of the changing seasons, stretching across the last two weeks of September and the first weekend of October – and its amber and copper lagers whose colors track the turning of the leaves.

Portland’s lineup of veteran Oktoberfest beers is joined this year by rookie Festbier (5.9% ABV), from Bissell Brothers. It pours a rich, reddish amber, wearing its malty character on its sleeve. Owner and brewer Noah Bissell calls the grist “the star” of the beer, featuring Vienna malt, supported by some Munich and a little pilsner. Bissell says it has “the deepest malt character of any lager we’ve done.” Its maltiness is amplified by a single decoction – a traditional process in which a part of the mash is removed, boiled and returned to the main mash. The boiling helps destroy cell walls in the grains, making starches within more accessible, and resulting in a beer that can be richer, toastier and more textured. The beer then spends some time in a foeder, which softens its edges. Hallertau hops provide a pleasant floral finish.

Bissell Brothers has added an Oktoberfest beer, Festbier, to its seasonal lineup this year. Photo courtesy of Bissell Brothers Brewing

Bissell’s interpretation of a Festbier points us to the variety one finds within the beerscape of Oktoberfest lagers, in both historical and geographical scopes. The first Oktoberfest was hosted in Munich in 1810, and from its inception until roughly 1870, the Bavarian Dunkel style dominated the festival. It was succeeded by bock-strength beers of around 8%, similar to Vienna lagers, until the onset of World War I. Visitors to today’s festival in Munich, which draws about six million drinkers per year (though canceled because of the pandemic this year and last), can expect a golden-colored, slightly sweet, medium-bodied and low-bitterness festbier ranging from 5.8% to 6.3% ABV. That is, unless you’re drinking Spaten. The Munich brewery introduced the märzen style to Oktoberfest in 1841. By 1872, it was brewing a märzen that it called Oktoberfestbier – and the brewery’s recipe today remains largely the same.

Most Maine brewers, like most American brewers, have settled on malty märzens as the distinctive Oktoberfest style. They include Rising Tide’s Oktoberfest, Banded Brewing’s Oktoberfest, Foundation’s Gretel and Austin Street’s Oktoberfest. Bunker Brewing’s Bunktoberfest is arguably the captain of Maine’s märzen mannschaft. It’s a relative old-timer at nearly a decade old, first brewed at Bunker’s original location in East Bayside. Owner and brewer Chresten Sorensen says, “The initial inspiration for the deeper, maltier style was influenced by the change of season in Maine when fire season hits and the sea breeze comes on — you tend to want something with a little more alcohol and flavor than all the crispy lagers we drink all summer.” The recipe has been consistent since those first batches, outside of some fine-tuning when Bunker moved into a new brewhouse in Libbytown. And Bunker’s house lager yeast, according to Sorensen, “is a workhorse” that keeps the finish clean. The result is toasty, silky and refreshing – a beer poised at the threshold between sweet and dry, much like how Oktoberfest itself straddles the seasons.

But why are we drinking beers in September and October whose name, translated from the German, means “March Beer”? The märzen was originally born with a decree issued by Duke Albrecht V, a Bavarian ruler, in 1553. The duke banned brewing between April 23 and September 29 – the warm season – when ambient bacteria often infected and spoiled beers. And so, brewers were forced to hustle in March to make enough beer to tide drinkers over until the end of September. They were brewed strong and, as they were lagers, stored cool, assisting in their preservation.

And yet, until 1841, “märzen” could refer to any beer aligned with this seasonal schedule. It wouldn’t be until then that Spaten’s variation became fixed as the deeply amber, full-bodied, moderately bitter lager that we associate with the name today. Not so coincidentally, this is also the year that the Vienna lager – a sort of Austrian cousin to the märzen – was hatched. In fact, the brewers who created each style were close friends and cooperated in their beers’ development, which was grounded in new kilning methods in Britain that enabled a wider range of malts for brewers to work with – including the Munich malt that is the foundation of märzens and the Vienna malt that undergirds the Vienna lager. And in Bissell’s new Festbier, we see the two malts paired, like Oktoberfest’s iconic dirndl and lederhosen.

The seasonal return of old stalwarts might provide some familiar comfort after a disorienting and exhausting 18 months. And yet, the return of actual Oktoberfests after a year’s absence, locally at least, might supply some ballast for seeing out summer and bracing for winter. Novare Res will be pouring festbiers and märzens in traditional one-liter mugs over the next couple of weeks. And while Portland drinkers can visit Bissell’s Thompson’s Point location today for liters of Festbier and cans to go, the more ambitious can visit Bissell Three Rivers in Milo on Oct. 18 for a full-throated Oktoberfest experience, replete with German-style foods, games and music.

The arrival of Oktoberfest beers marks the threshold between the warm summer (Auf Wiedersehen) and the looming long winter. Enjoy them in their short season. We needn’t be concerned with spoiled beer, as Duke Albrecht the Fifth; however, before long, we’ll be yearning for March.

Ben Lisle is an assistant professor of American Studies at Colby College. He lives among the breweries in Portland’s East Bayside, where he writes about cultural history, urban geography, and craft beer culture. Reach him on Twitter at @bdlisle.


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