Top Oktoberfest Beer and Cigar Pairings
By Jonathan Detore
One of the most culturally vibrant festivals in the entire world is that of Oktoberfest, originating with the wedding of the King of Bavaria, Kaiser Ludwig I, to Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen on October 12, 1810. All citizens of Munich were invited to attend the festivities held on the fields in front of the city gates, named Theresienwiese after the Princess bride, where beer and food flowed while horse races and other activities lived for days on end. When it was all said and done and everyone finally went back to their daily lives after what was most likely the world’s largest bender at the time, the citizenry of Munich, in cooperation with the crown of Bavaria, decided to make it an annual event. Ever since, Oktoberfest has been held nearly every year, only interrupted by war and other social conflicts, all while picking up various traditions along the way such as wearing traditional lederhosen and dirndls, the annual parade and keg tap, playing traditional folk music, and a whole lot more. But the most important tradition of all is the beer!
The requirements to serve beer at Oktoberfest are simple: the beer must be made in Munich, it must follow the German Beer Purity Law otherwise known as the Reinheitsgebot, and it must be a Märzen style beer, but other styles are now acceptable to give consumers a wider range of options. For those who don’t know what a Märzen beer is, it’s a Bavarian brew that was created out of necessity of the Bavarian Brewing Ordinance of 1553, which declared beer can only be brewed between September 29th and April 23rd. Of course most beers at the time would expire during the no-brew period due to lackluster preservation methods, so a recipe was created that would help beer last longer through a long fermentation process, and thus Märzen beer was born. Märzen beer, or “March Beer,” was traditionally brewed in March and stored in cellars to slowly ferment until late summer, though it could be tapped earlier if needed. During this period of fermentation all other beers would either be drank or expire. When the reserves of beer neared the end, this Märzen beer would be tapped and served, with a good portion being reserved specifically for Oktoberfest. The Märzen lager varies in color and strength, ranging from a pale Helles Märzen to a dark brown Dunkles Märzen, but typically follows similar flavor notes to varying degrees.
Only 6 breweries meet all these criteria to have their beers served at Oktoberfest, each of which date back centuries and are fully engrained in the culture of the city of Munich itself, so much so that each of these breweries original beer recipes are held in a 17th century wooden chest in a humidity and temperature controlled room. Every year in May the chest is brought out where it’s then marched to the local church to be blessed in order to ensure a good brew. Yet even though these recipes are revered, each makes a special Märzen Oktoberfestbier for the 16-18 day event, most of which you can find at your local beer store around late August. Considering these beers are almost exclusively showcased for Oktoberfest, I will only focus on these Oktoberfestbiers from each of the 6 historic breweries, and give you as short of a history as I can on each one. For the cigar pairings, I have picked out offerings that I have personally tried with each of these beers that I found to be excellent matches, and I’m sure you will too.
Hofbräu Oktoberfestbier and Quesada Oktoberfest 2016
Staatliches Hofbräuhaus in München started in 1589 by then Duke of Bavaria Wilhelm V as the official brewery of the royal residence, and still calls its original location home. The Hofbräu Oktoberfest is a darker yet crisp brew with a fair amount of malty sweetness and a stellar bitter undertone that’s not overpowering. To go with this heavenly brew is the obvious Quesada Oktoberfest 2016. Started in 2011, each year Quesada and company have blended the Oktoberfest to pair perfectly with Oktoberfestbiers out of Munich for the festival, and boy do they ever hit the mark. Each medium-bodied Dominican puro puts out a robust flavor of cedar, earthiness, and some sweetness that marries together to create a sensation that perfectly matches up with this, or any, Oktoberfestbier. The burn is slow and cool to match the beer’s crispness, thus adding even more enjoyment to your overall experience. For those looking for something a bit bolder, Quesada also makes special edition Nicaraguan Oktoberfest puros as part of their annual release that is meant to be enjoyed with heavier Märzens, Dunkles, and Bock beers.
Hacker-Pschorr Oktoberfest-Märzen and Aging Room Maduro
Hacker Brewery was founded way back in 1417, but after centuries of success was bought by Joseph Pschorr in the late 1700s from his father-in-law, the owner of Hacker Brewery. A couple years later, Kaiser Ludwig I commissioned Joseph to a brew special beer under the Hacker-Pschorr name specifically for the infamous wedding that would create Oktoberfest, and thus an early version of the Hacker-Pschorr Oktoberfestbier was born. From there, Joseph bequeathed equal parts to the brewery to his two sons, and the company split again into Hacker and Pschorr, but still worked in tandem with one another. Due to social and economic reasons that threatened both breweries independently, the heirs of each brewery merged the two back together in 1972 where it remains as one of the best breweries in Munich.
The Hacker-Pschorr Oktoberfestbier is as malty as you would expect from a Märzen style beer, with the added benefit of some extra sweetness from notes of hay and fruit flavors. I can say without question one of my favorite cigars to pair with this stellar beer is the Aging Room Maduro. With a rich earthiness and dried fruit flavors throughout, this one-of-a-kind smoke matches the Hacker-Pschorr Oktoberfestbier in all the right spots for a continuous swirl of sweet and savory flavors.
Spaten Oktoberfestbier Ur-Märzen and Perdomo Craft Series Amber
From Spaten-Franziskaner-Bräu, founded in 1397, comes the Spaten Oktoberfestbier Ur-Märzen. Now owned by Anheuser Busch InBev, Spaten still operates in Munich using the same traditions and recipes it has always used to create their historic beers. The Spaten Oktoberfest is a rather malty and sweet offering, with hints of brown sugar, nutmeg, and molasses, yet still maintains more of a light to medium body. In short, this is a massively flavorful all-day-drinker, perfect for relaxing at any beer hall. Of all the potential cigar pairings possible for this widely exported beer – my pick is the Perdomo Craft Series Amber, which is a home run in its own regard. Through some sort of wizardry, Nick Perdomo blended this Cuban-Seed Nicaraguan Sun Grown wrapped cigar in such a way where the notes of leather, hay, earth, and wood come together for, no joke, a sweet malty flavor. But that’s to be expected, considering this particular cigar was made to pair with pale ales, lagers, milder IPAs, and, you guessed it, Oktoberfestbiers.
Augustiner-Bräu Oktoberfestbier and La Palina Classic
Augustiner-Bräu, the oldest independent brewery in Munich, started as a way for the Augustinian Hermits who founded their monastery outside of city limits in 1294 to make money. Although records claim the first mention of the brewery to be 1328, it is well thought that the brewery traces its roots back a decade or two earlier. In my time in Munich, locals have mentioned over and over again that this is the best brewery within city limits. Upon trying it for the first time, I couldn’t find one logical argument to combat their claims. It’s claimed that Augustiner has served beer at Oktoberfest since around the 1860s, featuring one of the most popular and crowded beer tents year after year. As a side note, the first iteration of the modern trademark of the brand was created in 1887 and includes the initials J.W. with a pastoral staff in the center, giving a nod to the then owner Joseph Wagner. It is rumored that after the fall of Hitler, three dashes were added between the “J” and “W” on the pastoral staff as a big ol’ “screw you” to the Nazis. Though this is a popular fable among tourists and Nazi haters alike, but it’s very likely that this is just a coincidental design feature.
Anyone who’s had this incredible beer can tell you it’s a full-on blast of malt flavors, with plenty of bread and grassy notes that make it creamy and smooth rather than crisp. So to pair with this refreshing yet fairly linear beer, I’m going to mix it up a bit and go with the wonderfully complex La Palina Classic. This is more of a contrasting pairing than a complementary pairing, with notes of baker’s spice, nuttiness, wood, and a whole lot more, with a rich dark chocolate flavor to tie the two together on the shared sweet notes found in both. This will be an eye opening pairing to say the least. Augustiner is the hardest of the 6 beers to find in the United States, so if you do have the luck of finding a 6’er, I recommend you pick one up so you can sit back and really enjoy this pairing.
Löwenbräu Oktoberfestbier and CLE Cuarenta
Löwenbräu is another extremely old brand brewed in the heart of Munich whose name translates to “Lion’s Brew,” hence the lion symbol on the label. Löwenbräu allegedly started in 1383 but was not recognized by tax records until 1746. Americans suffered an unthinkable tragedy when in 1975 Miller Brewing bought the rights to Löwenbräu’s North American distribution, then halted all German-made Löwenbräu imports and in turn brewed their own Americanized version of the beer. If you know anything about American breweries during this time period, you should be weeping. Fortunately Labatt Brewing Company got hold of the North American distribution rights, and though they brewed the beer in Canada, Labatt reverted back to the original recipe. Löwenbräu then sold to Anheuser-Busch InBev, and continues to make most North American offerings in Canada to this day. As a side note, Anheuser-Busch InBev has previously tried to move production of Löwenbräu outside of Munich which would make them ineligible to take part in Oktoberfest. Macro breweries are why we can’t have nice things.
Luckily you CAN find imported German-made Löwenbräu Oktoberfestbier in the United States starting around the end of August, and once you try it, you won’t be able to put it down. I was lucky enough to go to Löwenbräu’s beer garden, one of the oldest in Munich, and sample a few liters where I was met with a lightly carbonated semi-sweet malt flavor, and a slightly bitter fruit aftertaste. That’s why the CLE Cuarenta is resting in the ashtray next to this old brew. Sweet toasted cedar hints from the cigar helps bring out the malt of the beer, while a light baker’s chocolate and espresso just barely give you a hint of bitterness to marry with the brew’s aftertaste. Both are smooth as silk for a pairing that will go down easy.
Paulaner Oktoberfest Bier and Undercrown Shade
Paulaner Brauerei is the baby of the bunch, started in 1634 by Minim friars of Neudeck ob der Au Cloister, and named after Francis of Paola, the founder of the order. The beer was consumed mainly by the monks in the order, but was sold around the holidays as a source of much needed revenue to keep the order open. Apparently it didn’t work because in 1799 the Neudeck Cloister closed and was bought a few years later by Franz Xaver Zacherl to continue production. In 1818 the first barrel of Paulaner Oktoberfest Bier was brewed, and since then, Paulaner has become one of the most visited tents during Oktoberfest.
Paulaner Oktoberfest Bier is one of the more bold offerings during the festival, with a heavy malt characteristic along with some baker’s spice and brown sugar flavors. The head of the beer isn’t long lasting, but the beer itself is thicker, with a slightly heavy mouthfeel which helps retain a longer lasting aftertaste of that sweet malt along with a slight hoppy note. So it goes without saying that we need to find a heavier and flavorful cigar that matches the spice and sweetness of this delicious offering, and the perfect pick in my book is the Undercrown Shade. The beer’s spice and sweet malt characteristics are matched by the Undercrown Shade’s notes of citrus and baker’s spice and sweet woody sensation. As an added benefit, the cigar’s silky smooth Connecticut wrapper along with a buttery and creamy note mesh perfectly with the beer’s heavy body.
Unfortunately, unlike the 6 million people annually who partake in Oktoberfest, I’ve never made the pilgrimage myself. Instead I had opted to head to Munich for the Munchener Frühlingsfest, which for all intents and purposes, is a smaller version of Oktoberfest – about a quarter of the size. However it was during this festival where I got to sample many of the offerings mentioned above, and many more, giving me a first-hand account on how they tasted. And although I wasn’t able to smoke a cigar inside each beer tent (out of the city’s fear of some drunk bum starting a fire), when I got home I made it a point to make cigar pairings with each of these Oktoberfest beers for the fun of it. As someone who enjoys both industries, this venture was born of leisure rather than work, making this article extremely fun to write up.
While I only listed Oktoberfest style beers, there’s plenty of other lines produced by these legendary breweries- a good portion of which are served at Oktoberfest. From Weissbier to Double Bocks and more, there’s enough beer in Bavaria just from these 6 breweries alone for me to write 10 more articles without even scratching the surface on the history of each beer, brewery, or the festival itself. So the next time you’re wandering around the beer store looking for something to pick up, try one of these stellar brews, and give one of these cigar pairings a shot. And if you ever take a trip over to Europe I highly recommend stopping in Munich. It’s unbelievably fun with a rich culture and friendly citizenry. I truly can’t say enough good things about the city itself. Until then, strap up your lederhosen, break out the Bavarian pretzels, and raise a stein to good health. Prost!