The BA guidelines called for an amber or bronze-colored lager with a firm, lightly roasted malt body. Take a sip of some of the best American versions - Samuel Adams Oktoberfest or Victory Festbier - and that's what you get.
But anyone who has been to Munich, Germany's, Oktoberfest in recent years could tell you that the beer they're serving in those giant tents is pale, almost blond.
The German judges spoke up and, in a move that was unnoticed outside of brewing circles, the BA rewrote the guidelines for Oktoberfestbier. Starting at last year's Great American Beer Festival in Denver, which also follows the BA style guidelines, the prototypical Munich festival beer would be (gasp!) golden.
To understand the significance of the change, you have to appreciate the style's storied history.
For the first 60 years of the annual Oktoberfest celebration, Bavaria drank dark brown beer, just as it had for centuries. The color was the product of deeply roasted malt.
By the mid-19th century, though, as new roasting methods were developed, European brewers were perfecting lighter-colored lagers. In Bohemia and elsewhere, golden pilsner was gaining popularity. In Vienna, brewing pioneer Anton Dreher had developed a classic, red-hued lager.
In 1872, Josef Sedlmayr brought the new style to Munich's festival.
Sedlmayr was the son of one of the world's great brewing legends, Gabriel I, the former brewmaster of the Bavarian royal court and head of the Spaten brewery. (It is the elder Sedlmayr's initials, GS, that are emblazoned on the brewery's bottles to this day.)
In March that year, Josef Sedlmayr adapted Dreher's Vienna lager recipe and cellared a batch over the summer, to be tapped at that autumn's Oktoberfest. The beer, known as Märzenbier (German for March beer), was such a huge hit that, by the end of the century, all of Munich's breweries would be producing a similar version for the festival.
Amber, almost red, the classic Oktoberfestbier earned worldwide fame as a delicious, satisfying lager that came out just once a year, as the leaves began to change their color. Starting with a glass poured from the honorary first keg of Spaten, liter upon liter would be hoisted at the raucous, 16-day celebration in Munich.
Then the Munich festival beer began to change.
No one's sure when it started, but by the 1980s, the Oktoberfestbier they poured in Munich had begun to lighten up. Ron Barchet, the co-founder of Victory Brewing who trained in Germany, remembers traipsing through Munich in search of the reddish lager 20 or more years ago and coming up empty.
"They were serving this lighter-bodied, lighter-colored beer," Barchet said. "It's not at all what we as Americans would consider Märzen."
The big Munich breweries still export their familiar dark version, including the original Spaten Ur-Märzen. But the variety they pour at the festival is closer to a much lighter Dortmunder or Helles style, experts say.
Oktoberfestbier "has evolved into a ubiquitous light lager," Brewers Association president Charlie Papazian wrote in an online column, "light on hop character and, I think, dumbed-down to appeal to the masses."
That may be true, although as Barchet notes, "If you're drinking by the liter, I guess it's better to have a lighter-bodied beer."
In any case, the BA changed its guidelines to reflect reality. The new description calls it German-style Oktoberfest or Wiesen, a tribute to the German name for the 100-acre meadow where the Munich festival is held.
If you're curious about the flavor, head out to Victory's brewpub in Downingtown, where its Wiesen is on tap this fall.
And if you still want a taste of Germany's greatest beer, the original amber fall lager, don't worry. There are plenty varieties of the traditional Oktoberfestbier on shelves - ironically made in America, home of light beer.
Oktoberfest, Philly style
Compare American and German versions of this great style yourself at Philly Oktoberfest '08 tomorrow, starting at 1 p.m. (with a noon VIP session) at the 23rd Street Armory, 22 S. 23rd St., Center City.
Admission gets you unlimited samples of more than 50 different fall varieties on tap. Tix are $45 ($75 VIP) and are available at the gate or online at www.phillybeerfests.com.
The event benefits breast cancer research and Philly Beer Week '09. *
"Joe Sixpack" by Don Russell appears weekly in Big Fat Friday. For more on the beer scene in Philly and beyond, visit www.joesixpack.net. Send e-mail to email@example.com.