Americans may love our beer, but we don’t celebrate it with anywhere near the passion that Germans do. Germany hosts dozens of cultural festivals each year. Beer has a central role many of the festivities, but Oktoberfest is by far the biggest and best-known around the globe. The world-famous festival has been held since 1810, not including the 24 times it’s been cancelled due to war or disease. Locals call it Weisn in a reference to the grounds on which it’s held.
Every year, more than six million revelers at Oktoberfest honor Bavarian culture with singing, dancing, eating and, of course, beer drinking. While the festival only serves beers adhering the German Beer Purity Law Reinheitsgebot and brewed within the city limits of Munich, the rest of us can take this chance to toast to their accomplishments in hops, malt, wheat and yeast with these popular styles of German beer.
Traditional Bocks are amber-colored, malty lagers that clock-in at around 6.0-7.0 percent ABV, but there are variations on the traditional profile. Maibocks tend to be lighter in color and can creep up toward 7.5 percent. Mai means “May” in German, signaling that this is a seasonal beer meant to be enjoyed at springtime festivals. Doppel translates to “double,” so a Doppelbock is to a Bock just like a IIPA is to an IPA: darker, richer and more alcoholic, regularly reaching 8.0 percent ABV.
Light in color and body, Kölsch beers have enjoyed a bit of an American renaissance recently, with stateside breweries like Sierra Nevada and Terrapin releasing their own takes on the style. Traditional German Kölsch can be traced back to Köln (Cologne) where, in 1603, the city mandated that only top-fermented beers be brewed, turning their noses up at the trendy, bottom-fermented lager style of brewing catching on all over the rest of the country. Over four centuries later, the reward is a highly drinkable style of beer with a typically lower ABV of 3.5-5 percent and a delicate, smooth taste.
The titular style of the festival, Oktoberfest is credited to the southeastern German state of Bavaria, where the festival is held. Also known as Märzen (meaning March), these lagers are brewed in the spring and kept cold in storage throughout the summer, as they were when it was too hot to safely brew beer before refrigeration. They were cracked open as the brewing season picked up once again in the fall, and are most often copper-colored and full-bodied with a toasted flavor that’s balanced by an ABV of 5.0-6.5 percent.
There are a lot of Pilsners, but nearly all fall into one of three categories: American, Czech and German. First brewed in 1842, German Pilsners—often abbreviated to “Pils,” some believe out of respect for the OG Czech Pilsner—are a little more mineral than their Czech and American cousins. As a result, they are are lighter in color and body due to the harder German water and domestic hops. These straw-blond brews also go down easy, with an alcohol content usually in the range of 4.4-5.3 percent ABV.
Weiss means “wheat,” so you can probably guess what’s in store when you order a Weissbier. One of the more common styles of German brews, these ales also vary in color and taste and can boast an ABV of anywhere from 4.3-5.6 percent depending on their sub-style. Hefe translates to “yeast” so a Hefeweiss will be lighter and cloudy in appearance and a bit bread-y in flavor; a Dunkelweiss is a heavier, darker wheat beer (dunkel means dark, and you may be noticing a naming trend) and a Weissbock is a stronger wheat beer, taking after a Bock lager.