Save the Best for Oktoberfest!

As President John F. Kennedy once famously declared, “Es ist Oktoberfest Zeit!” — it’s Oktoberfest time! (Well, actually, he said this right after uttering his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech. It’s a well-known fact, just not well-documented in the history books.)

With or without a presidential endorsement, it is in fact Oktoberfest time once again, a favorite season of mine and many of the craft beer lovers I know. Somewhere between the middle of September and the end of October breweries all over this country and in Europe turn out variations on an old theme. Long before refrigeration, brewers in Germany would make one last big vat of beer before the summer’s heat made beer-making impossible. They brewed this last-ditch batch in March and lagered, or stored, it underground in ice cellars or caves, sipping it until it was gone and brewing could begin anew, usually by late September or early October. Eventually, the consumption of this sweet, coppery “Marzen” at the beginning of fall evolved into a major celebration.

So, in the spirit of Bavaria’s Crown Prince Ludwig, who gave rise to the modern, mammoth two-week festival in Munich by rolling out kegs of Marzen and inviting 40,000 townspeople to celebrate his 1810 wedding to Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildbughausen, I invited my fraulein to help me sample some of this year’s offerings and see how they fared with some traditional German-like cuisine. First, we grilled two kinds of bratwurst: pre-cooked packages of Boar’s Head Bratwurst, which had a mix of pork, veal and spices, and Johnsonville Beef Bratwurst. We also diced and pan-roasted some fresh fall vegetables bought at the local farmer’s market, including sweet potatoes, onions, and beets, using olive oil and kosher coarse salt. And we sliced and toasted a loaf of rosemary-flavored bread and served it with melted butter. Not exactly a Weimar Republic-quality repast, but it worked well in a pinch, was easy to prepare after work, and tasted great together.

I chose 8 bottles of beer, including a few traditional Bavarian brews in the mix, along with a few non-standards, and several from this side of the pond modeled after their European ancestors. First up was Harpoon’s Oktoberfest, which has been a perennial favorite of mine. And this year was no exception. A Marzen’s traditional telltale sweetness results from a heavy dose of malt, which also contributes to the beer’s signature red-orange color. This Boston-based brewery uses a mix of 3 malts to achieve a taste and color that would make Ludwig and his bride smile, and it had the same effect on us. We liked it best with the porkier brats and the sweet potatoes. The beets and beef brats (which were admittedly over-grilled) somewhat overpowered the beer’s inviting, subtle hop aroma and flavor.

Next we sipped a Weihenstephaner Festbier, a relatively new golden-style Oktoberfest beer from what is reported to be the oldest brewery, founded in 1040. It had a nice, round flavor but lacked the alluring toasted-malt sweetness of its older sibling; frankly, it looked and tasted more or less like a pilsner. The beer’s grassy, floral bouquet paired well with the pork-based sausage, but the veggies and beef turned it into something akin to bubblegum. In combo with the rosemary bread, it was worse. My guess is that it would be served best with a soft pretzel and some sweet mustard.

The ruddy, mildly sweet Oktoberfest from Brooklyn Brewery looked and drank like a classic. The hints of toffee and roasted malt flavors were nicely balanced by a crisp hops taste that was drier and slightly more bitter than Harpoon’s. Because of the extra heft in the palate, the beer paired well with all the grilled veggies and both brats, and even held its own with the dollop of ketchup that my 6-year-old daughter had squirted on her plateful.

Another Teutonic novelty that we tried was the Erdinger Oktoberfest Weizen. This beer looked and smelled like the love-child of a Marzen and a wheat beer (perhaps illustrated by the eerily-merry couple frolicking on the label); luckily, though, there is nothing controversial about the combination. In fact, the wheat base gave this dark-colored beer a spicy, frothy zing that brought out the seasonings in the beef brat and complimented the salty, earthy quality of the beets. Yet it was sweet and well-behaved enough that I would consider drinking it all by itself.

I chose a Penn Oktoberfest Bier, as well, but it was completely flat and undrinkable. Too bad, because it came highly recommended by my beer expert at the Wine Source. Another pick that, though it was in perfect condition, also came off flat was the Otter Creek Autumn Ale. I knew it wasn’t a traditional Oktoberfest beer but figured with its fall-themed label and description it would be sympathetic to the food. On the contrary, it had a dominant citrus flavor reminiscent of a summer ale and paired well only with the grilled sweet potatoes. Perhaps it could be marketed to vegetarians.

Our final 2 tastings were perhaps the best. The Oktoberfest from Mendocino Brewing Company, though more bitter and less sweet than an old-style Marzen, had a bold aroma, produced by the addition of Tettnang and Hallertau hops, 2 traditional ingredients that gave the beer its characteristic bold quality. Thus, it paired well with everything, especially the caramelized flavors of grilling (even my zealous charring wasn’t too strong), and enhanced the subtleties, like the garlic in the pork brats and the buttery rosemary bread. I could almost hear the oompah band warming up.

Equally versatile was the Oktoberfest Ur-Marzen from Spaten-Franziskaner-Brau. This medium-bodied, slightly sweet, coppery beer is generally considered the Crown Prince of this Bavaria-based beverage, for good reasons: its recipe dates back to the origins of the style (the prefix “ur” means “original”) and its flavor and color epitomize the understated personality of its country of origin. The soft hops aroma and light bitterness provide a nice balance to the layered, mouthwatering malty, bready flavors. So it’s the perfect accompaniment to Bavarian cuisine, and because it behaves well on its own in other, alien environments — for instance, I like it with pizza or fish and chips — it makes the perfect ambassador for one of the world’s oldest and most famous beery celebrations.

So, there you have it, 8 beery tempting ways to celebrate Octoberfest. As President Kennedy undoubtedly said, when he reached the nearest Hofbrau in Berlin, “Prost!”


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