Brewing a German-Style Oktoberfest/Wiesn
Festbier, a German lager traditionally brewed for Oktoberfest, is the perfect beer to enjoy at fall gatherings (or while donning a lederhosen, no judgement!). While traditionally a fall beer, its something you might want to plan to brew during the summer, since it’s a lager that can take some time and conditioning. This golden brew boasts a malty sweetness, balanced with a subtle hop bitterness, and a clean, crisp finish.
Understanding the Festbier Style
Festbier, known as the current Oktoberfest beer on the Wiesn (Oktoberfest), is a style that has evolved over the years. In the past, Oktoberfest beers were slightly darker and heavier (more amber), but as tastes shifted toward lighter, more drinkable options, the modern Festbier emerged.
It typically has an alcohol content of 5.8-6.3% ABV, lower than its amber cousin, the Märzen. Festbier’s malt-forward profile is balanced with a mild hop bitterness, and it is characterized by its golden color, brilliant clarity, and a dense, creamy white head.
The AHA brewer style guidelines state “the beer should be bready or biscuity, and the malt aroma and flavor should be present. Sweet maltiness is medium-low to medium and leads to a muted clean hop bitterness. Malt ﬂavors should be of light toast rather than strong caramel. Low level caramel character is acceptable”.
Commercial examples are Buergerliches Ur-Saalfelder, Hacker-Pschorr Original Oktoberfest, Paulaner Oktoberfest, Weltenburg Kloster Anno 1050.
Brewing Tips for Festbier
Selecting the right malts is crucial for achieving the desired flavor profile of a Festbier. Base your grain bill around Pilsner malt, which will provide a clean, crisp backbone. Complement the Pilsner malt with Munich and/or Vienna malts to add a subtle bready, toasty character. I also use a bit of Biscuit for extra breadiness. I add a touch of dextrine malt for extra foam, but I’m starting to question if it’s needed. I’ll have to experiment more on this and report back.
Traditional Festbier recipes rely on German noble hops, such as Hallertau, Tettnang, Saaz, or Spalt, for their delicate bitterness and subtle floral or spicy aromas. These hops will help balance the malt sweetness without overpowering the overall flavor profile. I use Saaz LupoMAX hops because with the higher alpha acids, I can add 60 g (2 oz) total of hops. I add a bit more since I’m at altitude, so if you’re using the recipe, make sure the IBUs are somewhere around 21. Magnum could also be a good choice for the same reasons (high AA, low leaf matter). You might also consider using the flavor hops as first wort additions instead of waiting for the boil.
Festbier’s maltiness can be enhanced by employing a step mash, which involves holding the grains at different temperature rests during the mashing process. A step mash can improve malt flavor and increase fermentability, leading to a smoother, more rounded beer. I use a typical Hochkurz mash on the Grainfather, because it’s very simple to program the times in.
Lager yeasts, such as Bavarian lager yeast, perform best at lower temperatures (around 50°F/10°C). Maintaining consistent and cool fermentation temperatures is key to achieving the clean, crisp lager character that defines a Festbier. I’ve had good results with Ferments W-34/70. I like the dry yeasts for these beers, because I’m not looking for a lot of flavor in the fermentation and dry yeast is so easy to use.
Fests benefit from an extended fermentation and conditioning period. After primary fermentation, perform a diacetyl rest at 60-65°F (15-18°C) for a few days, and then lager your beer at near-freezing temperatures for at least 4-6 weeks. This extended conditioning period will produce a smoother, cleaner-tasting beer.
Pressure Fermenting Festbier
For those who have access to a pressure fermentation setup, this method can offer several advantages when brewing a Festbier. Pressure fermenting can speed up the fermentation process, suppress ester formation, and reduce the risk of oxidation. Here are some tips for successful pressure fermentation of Festbier:
1. Equipment: To pressure ferment, you will need a fermenter that can handle pressure, such as a stainless-steel unitank or a specialized plastic fermenter designed for pressure fermentation. Additionally, you will need a spunding valve to regulate the pressure within the fermenter.
2. Determine Your Desired Pressure: While pressure fermentation can be done at various pressure levels, 10-15 psi is a typical range for lagers. This pressure level allows for a faster fermentation while still maintaining the clean, crisp profile that Festbier requires. It’s also well under the pressure yeast experiences in commercial breweries, so there’s little chance of it stressing the yeast. We’re targeting a CO2 volume of 2.4 to 2.6.
3. Monitor Temperature and Pressure: During pressure fermentation, it is crucial to keep a close eye on both temperature and pressure. Use a temperature controller to maintain a steady fermentation temperature, and a pressure gauge to ensure that the pressure remains within the desired range. Make adjustments to the spunding valve as necessary to regulate pressure.
While pressure fermentation can provide natural carbonation, it may not always result in the exact carbonation level you desire. If necessary, you can still use a CO2 tank to fine-tune carbonation levels after fermentation. Release the pressure in the fermenter using the spunding valve, transfer the beer to a keg, and adjust the carbonation using a CO2 tank and regulator. You can also adjust the pressure once you keg the beer.
4. Consider a Closed Transfer: One of the benefits of pressure fermentation is the ability to perform closed transfers, which can help minimize oxygen exposure and reduce the risk of oxidation. When transferring your Festbier to a keg or other serving vessel, use a closed system that connects the fermenter directly to the receiving vessel, ideally using CO2 to push the beer through the lines.
5. Carbonate During Fermentation: An advantage of pressure fermenting is the ability to carbonate your beer naturally during fermentation. The CO2 produced during fermentation is captured within the sealed fermenter, dissolving into the beer and providing natural carbonation. This method can result in a finer, more delicate carbonation compared to force carbonation with a CO2 tank.
Brewing a Festbier can be a rewarding and enjoyable process, resulting in a delicious, malt-forward lager perfect for any celebration. Understanding the characteristics of the Festbier style, following brewing tips specific to this lager, and if you’re able to, experimenting with pressure fermentation techniques, you can create a memorable brew that will impress your friends and family. Prost!
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Credits and Links
I am a avid homebrewer and winemaker. I’ve been making my own beer and wine for many years. I started making beer when I was in college (mostly because the drinking age in the United States is 21). My first few beers were horrible. The beers are much better now, and I often supply my neighborhood with free beer! It is a great hobby! If you’re into computer programming, you might want to check out my programming site, DeegeU.com.