This time last year, I was feeling my oats as a fledging beer correspondent, and so I submitted my monthly column as a flagrant flip-off to Oktoberfest. "No hops, no Reinheitsgebot, no horse hockey," I so smugly thought, sipping on successive glasses of gruit while inching towards my word count. Twelve months and several ego reductions later, Oktoberfest is enjoying its 105th anniversary, and I have dedicated an entire page to the biers that bear its name. Pride goeth before the fall.
There's ample reason to focus on Deutschland's most famous festival this month. While the sours, barrel-agers and the otherwise eccentric styles continue to slake beer-nerd thirsts, traditional lagers and pilsners are pouring out of America's micro- and craft breweries at an ever-increasing rate. There's a growing strain of folks who thirst for beers like Opa used to drink — pints neither wildly adventurous nor pasteurized into pablum, but simply carrying on a tradition that stretches back for 500 years.
All the beers covered here are variations on marzen, the base style for Oktoberfest beers. If foggy memories of high school German make you wonder why a brew consumed in October is named after March, well, gold star for you: spring signaled the end of brewing season in the pre-kegerator era, so barrels of the mild lager were stowed away in cool underground vaults during the summer months. Thus matured, this malt-forward, clean-finishing style featured a slightly higher ABV (typically 5-6 percent) than what Dieter and Werther had washed down the spring before.
Brooklyn Brewing went all out to keep their Oktoberfest legit, importing Bavarian Heirloom Munich and Pilsner Malts straight outta Bamberg and hopping with two varietals of Hallertauer, one of the "noble hops" integral to Continental beer. Despite such authenticity, the pint started off rough: an initial whiff brought to mind soggy whole wheat and the blood-iron taste of a split lip. Things went uphill from there, thankfully, as the bready profile came forward as the beer warmed, introducing a little note of gingerbread. It was while reading this brew's label that I learned Oktoberfest originated in 1810, commemorating the Crown Prince of Bavaria's engagement to the princess Therese, who lent her name to the meadow where the OG festival has transpired ever since. Take that, Saturday morning breakfast cereal!
Substantial in body and bold in flavor, San Diego's Ballast Point Brewing puts a decidedly West Coast spin on an Old World style with Dead Ringer Oktoberfest. Though the label presents more like a Jerry Garcia tribute than a football season stein-filler, there's a marzen in there for sure — darker in hue than the Brooklyn, with nutmeg overtones and an inkling of star anise. Double the hops here, and Dead Ringer could lure away some Sculpin fans.
Texas doesn't thirst for its own variants. Real Ale's Oktoberfest comes straight down 281 from Blanco, deep in the heart of the Hill Country. That speedy delivery route guarantees a fresh brew, stouter than the Brooklyn and overlaid with dark cherry. Saint Arnold's venerable namesake was the bishop of Mainz, which surely lends their Oktoberfest a holy edge. Verily, the beer looks beautiful and drinks clean, recollecting the H-town optimism (never rewarded) that the temperature might dip below 85 by Halloween.
SA's own Freetail Brewing first brought out its OktoberFiesta in 2011, swapping out Bavarian yeast for Belgian to give the tradition a tweak. Scott Metzger and his crew have brought it back again this year, both in cans and on draft (a few special dry-hopped casks also dot the brewscape); the aluminum sixers feature the same Dia De Los Muertos-styled figures as their Piñata Protest collaboration and berlinerweisse. The yeast swap definitely distinguishes OtktoberFiesta from the other marzens surveyed here, ornamenting its hearty, malty foundation with the cloves and dried fruit of the Low Country's microbes.
It wouldn't do to omit any representatives from the Vaterland, of course, which brings us to Ayinger's Oktober-Marzen. Sold as a stand-alone pint bottle, it encapsulates all the natural features of autumn — earthy like raked-together piles of leaves, cold but not bitterly so, tasting faintly of woodsmoke. With any luck, you'll find some behind the bar at Beethoven's (422 Pereida St.) for the rest of the month.
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