For This Year's Oktoberfest, We're Selfishly Thinking and Acting Locally

OK, first, I’d like to provide full disclosure: This week’s post is all about one of my favorite beer styles, Oktoberfest. Therefore, everything that follows is totally biased and fully focused on the famous byproduct of the world’s largest malt-beverage-centric celebration. In fact, if in reading this you find that I have somehow steered you in another direction — providing coverage for undeclared alien beer styles, for instance — feel free to call me to the beer mat (and, yes, you may shout, “you lie!”).

Eight great Americans for Oktoberfest
Eight great Americans for Oktoberfest

An additional point of clarification: Talk of Oktoberfest often conjures up images of huge crowds of carousers, slap-happy men dancing in tight, leather shorts, and dirndl-wearing women offering their huge … er, mugs for the taking. If that’s what you thirst for, then you may not want to keep reading. However, if a mild-mannered comparison of this season’s bottled Bavarian-style beverages is sensational enough, and it makes you think along the lines of frankfurters, pretzels, and a pigfoot, then this article’s for you, bud.

The kind of beer commonly sold and served during Oktoberfest (officially held in and around Munich, Germany, from mid September to early October) is a lager — a Marzen, to be specific, named for March, the month in which the beer is traditionally brewed. The defining characteristic of this style — compared to, say, an ale — is that once the beer has been brewed it is stored, or “lagered,” in a cold place (ice-filled caves, historically) for several months. During its time in “the cooler,” the beer goes through a process known as bottom fermentation, which slows the reaction between the yeast and sugars, creating the beer’s distinctive full, round, rich flavors and color.

As I said, Oktoberfest is one of my favorite seasons for beer-picking — second only to Christmas — for several reasons. First, there are always so many choices. Oktoberfest is such a popular event that nearly every brewery rolls out its own varietal — strolling the beer aisles this time of year is like skipping through Candy Land with Queen Frostine. Also, Marzens are great all-around, very drinkable beers that go with many different foods, from grilled bratwurst and sausage to pizza and fried chicken. I usually (try to) keep one or two in my fridge. And they are fun to write about, though the hard part is trying to figure out a tasting strategy. Last year, I focused on the style itself and how well it pairs with its native cuisine (you can read that article here). This year, I decided to explore the way American craft-brewers have adapted the traditional Oktoberfest style to suit their individual whims.

Why? Well, for one thing, I think it’s important in these tough economic times to support U.S. microbreweries. Frankly, the German imports reaching these shores are bestsellers at home and have the backing of the entire European continent; the reverse just doesn’t occur. (I warned you this might get preachy.) For another thing, when it comes to beer-making, Yankee brewers tend to be bigger risk-takers, compared to their continental counterparts, and create more interesting and exciting beers, as a result. As has been the case for several hundred years, Americans are never satisfied to simply replicate a long-standing formula and would rather put their own spin on it.

So here’s my dilemma. I like innovation and creativity as much as, and maybe even more than, most people I know. Especially when it comes to beer. For instance, I recently tried and liked the new “Hell or High Watermelon” wheat beer from 21st Amendment Brewery — it improved my golf swing, in fact. Dare to be different, right?

Well, not exactly. You see, when it comes to an Oktoberfest, I am a staunch traditionalist. There are certain key qualities to a Marzen — the telltale caramel sweetness, which results from a heavy dose of malt, for instance, or the beer’s signature coppery color and subtle hop aroma — that make this style unique and are what I enjoy about it. Add too much of one ingredient, or take out too much of another, and though you may create a great beer, it won’t be a Marzen.

So I’m wary when one of my countrymen proclaims to have reinterpreted the Oktoberfest style. Luckily, some brewers recognize when an unorthodox creation has become more deviant than divergence — consider (and beware), for instance, the growing number of “autumn ales” that crop up this time of year. The following eight beers, however, deliciously illustrate the possibilities to be had when you artfully combine Old World charm and Yankee ingenuity. For the most part, these beers adhere to the tradition while maintaining some subtle (and not so subtle) differences. Enjoy!

Saranac Octoberfest, The Matt Brewing Company, Utica, N.Y. The Americanized spelling of the beer style on the label is the first clue that this “flavorful lager” is no Bavarian import. And there’s nothing subtle about the use of hops here (though two traditional Teutonics, Saaz and Tettang, were used), which felt fairly dry on the tongue. Yet it had a rich, ruby color and the right amount of caramel overtones to balance out the flavors and make me go, “oompah!”

Oktoberfest, Blue Point Brewing Company, Long Island, N.Y. Here’s another Yank that’s slightly more bitter and less sweet than an old-style Marzen. And the bold hoppy, tangy aroma and light-golden color made it seem more like a pilsner. Still, this medium-bodied, slightly sweet beer was full of flavor (I noticed a hint of honey) and provided a nice crisp finish that left me wanting another. Who could ask for anything more?

Dogtoberfest, Flying Dog Brewery, Frederick, Md. Frankly, this brew surprised me. Flying Dog’s beers are normally a bit exaggerated and mutt-like, so I was expecting a sure-fire non-Marzen. This puppy, though, proved to be one of the nearest to a natural-born Bavarian I’ve tasted on this side of the Atlantic. The soft hops aroma and light bitternessĀ provide a nice contrast to the layered, mouthwateringly malty, bready flavors. Slightly edgier than, say, a Spaten (my high watermark) but very drinkable.

Festbier, Victory Brewing Company, Downington, Pa. If making Oktoberfest beer was a game of horseshoes, then this brew would win closest to the stake (and almost a ringer). With its ruddy complexion, smooth, sweet flavors, and understated grainy odors, this festbier (another name for an Oktoberfest) looked and drank like a classic. The hints of toffee and roasted malts were more pronounced than in the others, including the Dogtoberfest, and it had a rounder, fuller, more appealing finish. For a favorite fall beverage, I’m ready to declare victory.

Oktoberfest, Lancaster Brewing Company, Wilkes-Barre, Pa. Like the Festbier, this brew felt like the embodiment of a traditional spirit (it must have something to do with their shared Pennsylvania Dutch upbringing). Right from the first pour, the toasted-malt sweetness was pungent and alluring, as were the tawny color and biscuity scent. The accustomed blue-checked label only adds to the mood. Although it boasts a stronger-than-normal kick (6.5% alcohol), it’s not enough to get in the way of enjoyment.

Festie, Starr Hill Brewery, Charlottesville, Va. This beer poured out in a reddish-orange color and was plenty sweet, but there was little else about it to prompt thoughts about its country of origin. The dominant flavors and fragrance were overwhelmingly citrusy — hints of orange, lemon, apples, and after a few sips, even sour cherry. The sassy name should’ve been a tip-off that, though enjoyable, this brew billowed more like a Rodenbach than a Richthofen.

Freaktoberfest, Shmaltz Brewing Company, Saratoga Springs, N.Y. Here’s truth in advertising: as the label says, “This is not an Oktoberfest.” And yet, despite its “freaky” blood-red color and sideshow-freak trappings — six malts and six hops in its make-up, 6.66% alcohol, etc. — this beer reveals ancestral undergarments. Drier and hoppier than a standard Oktoberfest (which it never proclaims to be), there was nonetheless plenty of rich, dark-malt sweetness. This monster’s even got a heart — proceeds help support Brooklyn’s Coney Island neighborhood.

Prosit!, Clipper City Brewing Company, Baltimore, Md. Also assertively non-conventional — it’s labeled as an “Imperial Octoberfest Lager” — this new member of the Heavy Seas line earns the exclamation point in its cognomen. Made with three types of hops and five types of malts, including a “secret malt,” the result is a very sweet, very pungent, and (ahoy!) fairly customary Viennese. It’s really just a bolder and more potent (9% alcohol) version of the brewery’s classically trained MarzHon, which is one of my favorites. Bier ist Gut, hon!

So, there you have it, a list of eight great American choices for localizing your Oktoberfest festivities — the ocho for October, clever eh? I should also mention that several others I tasted this year (a result of a wunderbar infusion from my brother-in-law) — including Marzens by Brooklyn Brewery, Harpoon Brewery, and Mendocino Brewing Company — were beers I covered last year and decided to omit to avoid repeating myself under stress (I’ll leave that to King Crimson). Needless to say, all three offer their own unique take on the Teutonic tradition and each could easily stand in for one of the above, if need be. As they say, “O’zapft is!”

As always, let us know what you think. When it comes to Oktoberfest, do you prefer domestic novelties or classic imports? If so, which ones do you like? Are there others on the market that we did not cover? Let us know by leaving a comment below.

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